By Elsa Wenzel (August 22, 2006)
During record-breaking heat waves from Los Angeles to New York this summer,
utilities companies begged consumers to dial down their energy demands. In triple-digit temperatures, little can stop the impulse to crank up the air conditioning. Yet our power grids and personal bank accounts are struggling to cope with the rising costs of natural resources, the prospect of climate change, and the need to fuel the latest power-hungry electronics. Most families spend about $1,900 on utilities each year, according to government estimates, and that number is poised to rise.
The growing popularity of hybrid cars reflects consumers' desire to cut corners on fuel (and to pollute less). However, while greener transportation is in the spotlight these days, American homes consume nearly twice as much power as all the Hummers, Priuses, and biofuel buses on the road. Limited oil supplies are tied to the availability of natural gas, so sticker shock at the gas pump translates to higher heating and cooling costs, which make up more than half of household energy expenses.
Various appliances and electronics eat up the second largest chunk of our home energy consumption. The increase in telecommuting over our past decade of digital living means that millions of home offices hum with fully equipped digital communications hubs. Computers and printers that churn out more tasks faster than last year's models require more power, more than many batteries are equipped to handle. In the family room, too, the latest flat-screen home-entertainment centers demand more juice than yesteryear's TVs and VCRs (check here to see how your model measures up).
Yet we waste an enormous amount of electricity by running dormant devices left plugged in. Some studies estimate that the amount of energy that Americans fritter away on standby power could light up, heat, and cool the homes of two-thirds of the planet. In the latest big study to track household energy use, the Australian government last year found that households squander 10 percent of their electrical bill on electronics that invisibly suck power. Standby power buttons are about to become illegal on TVs and DVD players sold in Britain; here, you can freely adopt habits and install gadgets to eliminate phantom power waste at home and spare your wallet. All it takes a little common sense, patience, and ingenuity to assess what your home is spending and where to eliminate hidden waste.
Plug it in, pay less
Smart power strips and gadget chargers can shave cents and dollars off energy bills.