Money Sucking Vampires Emanating From Your TV: Beware of Cable, Satellite, and DVR Boxes

Posted by Noah Horowitz on June 16, 2011

This week the cable TV industry is having their big annual meeting in Chicago. The meeting includes three days worth of in-depth technical sessions and it looks like not a single one covers the energy use or environmental impact of the ubiquitous set-top box (otherwise known as a cable, satellite or DVR box) that the cable companies install in your home when you sign up for their service. This is a pity as the set-top boxes in the field today act like vampires by sucking up huge amounts of electricity all night long even though the user has turned off their box. A fact to get your blood boiling (vampire inspired pun intended) and interested in reading further: Due to outdated designs, today’s cable and satellite set-top boxes consume a whopping $2 billion per year of electricity when they are turned “off.”

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to highlight the findings of a report NRDC released a couple of days ago on the energy use of the set-top boxes including the DVRs installed by the cable, satellite and telephone companies that enable you to access pay-TV. NRDC and its consultant Ecos recently went into the field and monitored the power used by basic set-top boxes and DVRs that were connected to a wide range of service providers including Time Warner, Comcast, Dish Network, Direct TV, AT&T and Verizon.

The biggest finding from our field work was that the only way to really turn these boxes off is to unplug them -- not an attractive option. For almost all of the boxes we tested, hitting the power button simply dims the clock or display. For a typical DVR, instead of consuming 30 Watts when on, the box used 29 Watts, only the difference of one Watt. When you add it all up, this means it’s costing our nation $2 billion per year in electric bills to power devices when we are NOT using them. That’s money and energy we simply don’t have to spare these days.

Here are some of the key findings of our research:

  • More than 80% of U.S. home subscribe to some form of pay-TV. There are more than 160 million set-top boxes installed in U.S. homes, or roughly one box for every two Americans.
  • On a national level set-top boxes are consuming 27 billion kilowatt-watt hours per year. (That’s equivalent to the annual electricity use of the entire state of Maryland.)
  • It takes the equivalent of nine coal burning power plants (500 MW) to operate these devices. 

For those of you that are more visually oriented, take a look:

NRDC Set-Top Boxes In Use & Not in Use Graphic.jpg

To put set-top box energy use into perspective for the average consumer, we developed the bar chart shown below. Some of the things to note:

  • Many DVRs consume more electricity each year than the big-screen TV they are connected to.
  • A household with one DVR and one basic HD set top box uses roughly 450 kWh/yr or the equivalent annual electricity use of one new Energy Star qualified refrigerator.

NRDC Set-Top Boxes  Other Appliances.JPG

So now that we’ve identified the problem, what can we do about it? The challenge is finding a way to have the box go into a significantly lower power state when not in use AND maintain network connection, security and be able to resume functionality in short order. 

But solutions already exist. In Europe they’re making progress. For example, Sky TV now has three power levels on its DVR boxes: 

  • 22.5W On
  • 13.2W Sleep
  • 0.65W Deep Sleep

They’re programmed to auto power down at 11 p.m. to 0.65 Watts -- but for those who tape late night shows, the boxes wake-up automatically to record programs. Sky’s boxes also wake-up every 30 minutes to check for new program recording requests entered by subscribers using smart phones. 

If we switched to better boxes, we could dramatically cut our energy costs. We hope these findings help inform U.S. service providers and set-top box manufacturers and lead them to develop and deploy more efficient boxes.  

And for consumers, help is on the way. You can call your pay-TV service provider and request a set-top box that meets Energy Star Version 4.0. That means you’ll have the most efficient box on the market, keeping the vampires on your screen, not next to it.

Noah Horowitz is a senior scientist in the Natural Resources Defense Council's energy program and works on a wide range of energy efficiency issues, including voluntary programs and collaborations with industry, as well as the development of mandatory codes and standards at the state and national level.

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