National Geographic News
Picture of several electronic devices plugged into an extension cord

Many household devices continue to draw power even when they are not in use, adding unnecessarily to electricity bills.

Photograph by Marc Wuchner, Corbis

Brian Handwerk

For National Geographic

Published August 26, 2013

Does your smartphone use more energy than a refrigerator? A recent report by the Digital Power Group claimed that an average iPhone uses more juice for battery charging, data use, and wireless connectivity than a medium-sized, ENERGY STAR refrigerator.

But an iPhone's power requirements vary dramatically depending on how it's used for video, gaming, and other apps. And estimates for just how much data the average owner uses a month also vary widely, so the controversial study has drawn critics who claim that the comparison is greatly overstated. (See quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity.")

Whether your mobile phone's power use rivals your fridge or not, the chances are good that hidden energy hogs in your home are burning more power and money than that refrigerator—sometimes much more. Here are half a dozen surprisingly power-hungry devices that may be feeding your electric bill.

Set-Top Boxes

These familiar electronic arrays sit on or near many televisions to connect cable to our entertainment systems. But it's not just their clocks that run when no one is watching. These devices function much like mini-computers that communicate with remote content sources or record favorite shows while you're out. That means they require a lot of energy.

"The issue with set-top boxes is that they never power down and they are almost always consuming their full power requirements even when you think you've turned it off," said Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "If you have a DVR on your main TV, and a regular set-top box on a second TV, that could equal the energy use of a new refrigerator."

In 2010, an NRDC study found, the 160 million set-top boxes in the U.S. consumed the annual output of nine average coal-fired plants, some 27 billion kilowatt hours in all. That equals the total household electricity consumption of the entire state of Maryland. That kind of power costs money—more than $3 billion a year in electric bills—and most of that cash is spent on boxes running at full power while nobody is watching or recording their content. "We're spending about $2 billion a year in electricity bills to power set-top boxes when they are not even in use," Horowitz said. (See related story: "Who's Watching? Privacy Concerns Persist as Smart Meters Roll Out.")

Marianne DiMascio, with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy's Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP), said while more efficiency gains are needed, the industry has set some voluntary efficiency standards and made some recent improvements. "Today you can ask your provider for an ENERGY STAR-rated set-top box, and that will help," she said.

Furnace Fans

"There's a major energy eater lurking in your basement," ASAP's Marianne DiMascio said. "Many people don't even realize that they have a furnace fan, or have any idea how much energy it consumes."

Furnace fans circulate air from your furnace or heat pump, through the duct system, and into every room in your home. In homes with central air conditioning, they circulate cool air through the same system. "It's on a lot, and it's a very high energy user," DiMascio said of the double-duty device.

In fact, though they are hidden away in the basement, these fans are among many households' biggest energy users, responsible for more than 12 percent of the average American household's total electricity use, or 1,100 kWh each year—double or triple refrigerator usage—according to ASAP stats. That total is split roughly evenly between heating and cooling costs.

Energy efficient motors, like brushless permanent magnet (BPM) models, can cut this daunting number by 60 percent. These motors aren't mandated by federal standards, at least not yet, but they are available on many condensing furnaces and an increasing number of traditional models as well.

Battery Chargers

Many of the devices we use every day, from mobile phones to power tools, run on rechargeable battery power. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that some 800 million such devices are sold in the U.S. each year, and the ultimate source of their power is the electric grid.

Many charging systems use outdated technologies that waste electricity. The state of California has tackled this problem by establishing tougher in-state efficiency standards. Currently the U.S. Department of Energy is working on its own regulations to make the devices more energy-efficient. If California's standards were adopted nationwide, the savings could be enormous, DiMascio said. "If we improve standards for these battery chargers and external power supplies we could save American consumers about $1 billion annually," she said.

While other products offer homeowners a chance to realize their own savings by product choice, she argues, these devices are an example of where regulation plays the key role. "Nobody right now is going to go out and buy a computer or a cell phone according to how efficient the battery charger is. So in this case the standards are overcoming a market barrier of people not really being able to go out and buy efficient chargers for all of these devices."

(Energy-wise or an energy waster? Test yourself with our Personal Energy Meter.)

Microwave Ovens

You'd expect your microwave to eat up electricity when it's popping popcorn or heating up last night's leftovers. But the truth is, these appliances consume most of their electricity when they're simply sitting in your kitchen doing nothing. "You only use a microwave a tiny part of the time," DiMascio said. "But when it's not in use, it's consuming standby power because it's always sitting there ready to go."

An Appliance Standards Awareness Project study found that the typical microwave is only used about 70 hours a year. During the other 99 percent of the time, or 8,690 hours, it burns as much as 35 kilowatt hours in "vampire power" to illuminate the clock and keep electronic push button controls in standby mode.

"There are ways to make that standby power lower," DiMascio added, and new U.S. Department of Energy regulations announced in June may help do just that. The new standards coming into effect in 2016 will cut that wasteful consumption by 75 percent for most microwaves by upgrading efficiencies in power supplies, control boards, and cooking sensors.

Sara Mullen-Trento of the Electric Power Research Institute said smaller, cheaper electronics mean that more appliances will likely boast electronic features like those on microwaves. "You'll probably see this kind of technology incorporated to enhance their feature sets," she said. "Things like a digital display on a clothes washer. But I think with those consumer electronics playing a bigger role in consumption, we'll also see the newer efficiency standards recognize that this has an impact when you have ten of these devices in the home. In fact, some of those same feature sets may allow you to operate an appliance in a more energy-efficient way by using different settings."

Game Consoles

Powerful game consoles like the Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 have important power-saving features, but also some significant issues, said Noah Horowitz.

"They feature an on/off button, which puts the console into a standby mode with less than one watt of power usage, which is what it should be—they work great," he said. Unfortunately many users don't turn the units off, or turn off the television but leave the console powered up—a costly mistake.

"If you run the console 24/7 because you don't turn it off, it could cost you an extra hundred dollars a year," he said. Newer consoles now ship with an auto power-down feature that launches the standby mode after periods of inactivity. Older units have the feature too, Horowitz explained, but require users to visit the menu and make sure the device's power-saving mode is turned on.

Game consoles also hog power when they are used to stream movies, something makers like Sony and Microsoft are increasingly encouraging their users to do. "Streaming movies on a console like PlayStation 3 uses twice as much energy than if you stream the same movie with Netflix over a set-top box and about 30 times more energy than if you streamed the movie on Apple TV." The problem, Horowitz said, is one of power-scaling, and it's a challenge for console manufacturers.

"You'd like the console to turn off unused features. You don't need that powerful game processor when you're just streaming a movie, but right now the consoles are not designed to differentiate between those tasks."

(How much can you save by switching lighting at home? Try the Light Bulb Savings Calculator.)

Pool Pumps

Americans love to stay cool in their swimming pools and dig more than 150,000 in-ground units each year, adding to a total that's already more than 5 million. While some bemoan the heating costs for some pools, another, larger expense often goes unnoticed: the pool pump accounts for 70 percent of a typical pool's energy use and seven times that of a refrigerator.

The pump keeps pool water circulating and passes it through filters. Single-speed pumps always run at the same maximum speed, burning extra energy. But multi-speed pumps can be scaled up or down as needed for tasks like filtration and cleaning.

Using an ENERGY STAR-certified pump with multiple or variable speeds can cut energy use by over 80 percent and save hundreds of dollars a year. According to ENERGY STAR stats, these pumps will pay for themselves in five years and save owners more than $1,000 over the pump's lifetime. Some utilities are offering cash incentives to purchase them and, in California, sales of new standard single-speed pumps have been banned outright.

"An average refrigerator uses around 500 kilowatt hours a year, while the average pool pump uses 3,500 kilowatt hours a year," Marianne DiMascio said. "So we're looking to get these more efficient pumps into pools."

(See an interactive view of how countries around the world generate their power.)

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

42 comments
Lorena M.
Lorena M.

We live on Off grid solar power. Pirated energy is a problem that most on the grid users are unaware of. We tested this in our home and found 55 watt of continuous energy to supply equipment that is in the off position. We tested this with TED energy meters that are accurate within 1 watt. 481.8 Kwh per year $38.54 per year. So it does add up. What we do in our home is put things on power bars. When done we turn off the power bar. 

m s
m s

Don't get the cell phone charger thing. I recharge min in a base or using usb ports from devices already there. Also he doesn't take into account that each new generation of phone even the iphone requires a new charger which helps the sales of the accessories industry but also insists upon new technologies including those that improve the power drain when not in use.

I also think it's irresponsible to report these things as simply bad design, when really what could help out the most is to improve the power generation of homes. Making the suggestion that all states enforce the ability of people even those living in Apartments the ability to get solar/wind combo units would eliminate the problem entirely. Instead he suggests they upgrade their components which is a good start but certainly won't solve the growing power consumption cost in the long run!

Tan k
Tan k

Sensationalist journalism. I thought tabloid rags did such things. But never knew that now NatGeo has started hiring such dishonest reporters.

The study 

1. does not mention iphone anywhere

2. Does not say smartphones use more energy


This is what the study says

When you watch video, consume data etc., the energy use which includes

1. Energy for manufacture of device

2. Energy for Datacenter which hosts the website

3. Energy for the wireless network infrastructure


So the entire ecosystem to create and distribute content energy is taken into account.


But this journalist has tried to create a hype by

1. Using the world iphone - Get more eyeballs

2. Make a sensationalist statement.


This man is what is wrong with journalism today. Disgusting.

T H
T H

I respectfully disagree with at least the cell phone chargers.
While some other, older chargers may b different, u can perform a simple test. Touch it after not using but left plugged in. If it is cool to the touch it can not b using more than 1-2 watt of standby power, likely even less
It is not wise to unplug it because, imagine just a single scenario where u plug in ur phone while forgetting to plug in the charger and that causing u to make an extra 10 mile road trip (a quarter gallon of gas) because someone wasn't able to reach u (to buy the milk while ur out) or u forgot an appointment due to the phone being dead. In that single scenario u just wasted a whole year's worth of the possible savings. That doesn't even include the gray energy (used to make and maintain ur car) .
It probably was an issue, but certainly is not anymore with current cell chargers as mentioned in the article.

If ur focussing on such negligible issues ur missing the bigger problems.
One that I'd like addressed is the waste heat from refrigerators.
A fridge is nothing but a heat pump. It should have a summer and winter setting where in summer the waste heat (all of the electricity consumed by it) is fed in the duct leading to the outside of the home (like the dryer). Ditto for the oven and dishwasher (the stove usually already has a rudimentary system).
As it is today all these waste energies are released into the home and subsequently pumped outside using the A/C system. A very inefficient approach.

John Dwight
John Dwight

The point is - as a percentage of electricity in a single household, these devices are still negligible. And it is a typical abuse of psychology when advocates aggregate number across the area so large that they get horrible-sounding number. The fact is, you can save much more with devices that waste large amounts of energy, like A/C or heating. This seems like advocacy for more mindless bureaucratic intervention, which is needed exactly because these suggestions are simply not economical - they will cost you much more in your comfort than addressing more power hungry devices, insulating your home, upgrading to more efficient heating system, etc. For example you should NOT unplug your telco equipment, including set top box, and sometimes is that stated even in user agreements - telco needs equipment on to perform regular upgrades, network quality monitoring, and similar.

John Dwight
John Dwight

The point is - as a percentage of electricity in a single household, these devices are still negligible. And it is a typical abuse of psychology when advocates aggregate number across the area so large that they get horrible-sounding number. The fact is, you can save much more with devices that waste large amounts of energy, like A/C or heating. This seems like advocacy for more mindless bureaucratic intervention, which is needed exactly because these suggestions are simply not economical - they will cost you much more in your comfort than addressing more power hungry devices, insulating your home, upgrading to more efficient heating system, etc. For example you should NOT unplug your telco equipment, including set top box, and sometimes is that stated even in user agreements - telco needs equipment on to perform regular upgrades, network quality monitoring, and similar.

Ketan Rindani
Ketan Rindani

In India we have switches attached to plug-in points. So if you are not using the device, you can simply switch off the power point. The set-top box is mostly on standby though (in my house and probably in most). Our cable guy said you should always keep it on - it does not take up much energy. I will have to keep it off now, as our electricity bills are higher than they should be.

Cathrine Lowther
Cathrine Lowther

Of course, you can live without a set top box, which we do, since we don't have a television.  Nor do we have a microwave.  Or a game consul.  Or a pool.  Or, to reference another kind of energy consumption, a car.  

No, we are not poor: our combined income is well above the norm.  We just made choices, early in our marriage.  Despite these choices, or perhaps because of them, we live a fulfilling and very happy life, based on reading, conversation, community participation and face to face interaction with friends.

Amazingly,  we do not stand out in a crowd as being weird greenies or tree huggers.  People are always astonished to find what we don't have.  Perhaps there is something in there for others to think about...

Mike Biddle
Mike Biddle

Let's put part of the article in laymans terms. If you wait until 2016 they will have new expensive microwaves you can buy that will save you 30 kW per year which relates to a 3.00/year savings. You know how many years it will take to pay for the new microwave at those savings? Bet the microwave companies are hoping nobody does the math and just thinks WOW I'm saving 30 kW

Leo Kretzner
Leo Kretzner

I wish there were more practical suggestions in this article, instead of referring repeatedly to government standards.

For example, is it okay to turn off or unplug your set-top box? Does this mess up the timer or anything else, or can it be done at will with no effects on service when you turn it back on?

Leo Kretzner
Leo Kretzner

I wish there were more practical suggestions in this article, instead of referring repeatedly to government standards.

For example, is it okay to turn off or unplug your set-top box? Does this mess up the timer or anything else, or can it be done at will with no effects on service when you turn it back on?

Christina Nunez
Christina Nunez

@Michael Gobel, great additions to the list. As an apartment dweller myself, I also take your point about how hard it is to save. Last year we had a feature where we challenged people around the world to go green and save. There were tons of great ideas on how to save energy, though some that didn't apply to city apartments: http://360energydiet.com/about-the-diet/

Some of the items listed here (microwave, battery charger) have been awaiting better standards, so unfortunately for now the only way to save on them is to unplug them. Others can be replaced with more efficient models (or in the case of a game console, checking to be sure the power-save mode is on if you have one)--an expense, to be sure, but one that usually pays off in the long run, as Brian notes with pool pumps. 

Michael Gobel
Michael Gobel

Several things not seen on this list... The Desktop PC. If left on, it can use up to 300% of electric power. More power if you use a CRT (old tube) Monitor.  A server also will suck up power too, at that same rate. You also cannot forget the routers for the internet. Another one missing is the old fashioned TV set, that some still use with cable TV. CD and DVD players also take up allot of electric, when left on.


What this article doesn't show, is how we can save money. How to really "go green and save green." No suggestions on what would substitute. I tend to see this same thing in all "green" materials online. Whats-more, I never see how those who rent in apartments can go green and save, with what little that they can do, since it is not their property. These ideas help, but the article doesn't go forward enough to open the mind on what to look for in stores.

Rugeirn Drienborough
Rugeirn Drienborough

Getting your knickers in a knot over a seven-cent kilowatt-hour is the a real sign of not having any sense of priorities.

Xira Arien
Xira Arien

Another great way to save money is by going to LED lighting, it can pay for itself in 6 years and those things can work for up to 20.

I'm reminded of what happened when we moved into our current house. When we toured it the family was still living here and had all LED light bulbs, but when we moved in they had replaced them with cheap incandescents. Just goes to show, if you want to keep it moving into a new home, get it in writing.

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

Meester Taco
Meester Taco

I find my electricity bill is a lot less if I don't press the turbo button on my 386SX. I know it's tempting to go from 16Mhz to 20Mhz, but it's a guilty pleasure and you should avoid it.

I most certainly won't install the math co-processor. That's just crazy talk.

Bruce Carter
Bruce Carter

As far as set top boxes go, our wonderful government has dropped the ball.  All of that intelligence could easily be part of every television, but the cable industry has lobbied the government to keep it out, they have made every effort to make their systems incompatible with each new "cable ready" set manufactured, etc.  There is too much money to be made from renting the clunky boxes to consumers, and too much money to be made from people accidentally activating pay per view - that they don't really want.  And so the corrupt government puts the cable industry above consumers and goes along with this nonsense.  Democan or Republicrat, you get the same corruption and pandering to big business who give big contributions.

Steve Henrich
Steve Henrich

@Tan k you might be correct in logic points,... but isn't the focus of the article at least on the right side of the equation?  Getting people to look at their personal efficiencies.... cumulatively this affects all of us be cause we all live in the same society.


Steve Henrich
Steve Henrich

@T H Great ideas,... but I do wonder how much it'd cost to convert the excess heat into electricity,... my thoughts were that this is a HUGE area for gain,... also where we lack for the technologies most also!


Yogesh Sarkar
Yogesh Sarkar

@Ketan Rindani Quite strange, no issue as such with Tata Sky. I keep it off majority of the time and only turn it on, when I need to watch TV or if it is time to record a show.

Steve Henrich
Steve Henrich

@Mike Biddle yeah, Industry seems to do well enough as is,... manufacturing stuff to need replacing within 3 years anyways.  My first nuker lasted 11 years,... my second lasted less than a year and my 3rd is about 4 years presently.  Gotta factor  a little into variences)

T H
T H

@Mike Biddle 
I so agree with u!
It's just not worth it to throw away what u have to buy a more efficient microwave!
On the other hand, I miss our old one. It didn't have a clock (which nobody uses anyhow), but I had a power button. Very simple u turn it on, push the buttons to enter the time and when done turn it off. It wouldn't cost more to make them that way again and at least all the ones being brought in service would b more efficient.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Mike Biddle By "expensive new" you mean the same boxes costing the same or less (because microwave ovens have been down trending in cost for decades)

$3 saved by every household is a ton of money (literally 114,00 metric tons of 1 dollar bills).

Jon Sheldon
Jon Sheldon

@Mike Biddle Yes, it is notable how all of the author's solutions are in the form of government mandates.  It is the government's role to regulate every facet of our lives from cradle to grave.  As Ronald Reagan said "The scariest words he's ever heard are 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Leo Kretzner They cant give you that data because it depends on what box you have. My old box had a warning on it that cutting power could damage it. The last one I had took 15 minutes to start up. My newest box takes 30 seconds and is designed to totally power down.

Paul Curth
Paul Curth

@Leo Kretzner your service may take up to 20 mins to fully restore upon powering back on - depends on the cable company and their network...may be as little as 5 mins.

Michael Gobel
Michael Gobel

@Christina Nunez Well this is something I thought about for years. It just might be that I may have been the world's FIRST Earth Day Baby (4/22/1970, early in the 12  am hour). 

I constantly think how some may be able to save and go green... even by using Solar LED lights in the living room. Yes, they do make lamps as solar lamps. They have to be near a sunny window, but they re out there and work.  Got some at Big Lots a few years back.


WalMart had LED lights last summer for $7. I bought all of them and used all but 3 or 4, which are spares. 

Almost on that same topic...LED TV's save a ton!


I use an old Large liquid detergent bottle to shower with (110 load bottle). That way you are not wasting water while shampooing or soaping up. Simply drill holes for the water to shower out of the lid with. I then placed a stretch rod to hold the bottle on an S hook. With water rates going up 56% in 5 years, residents will thank me for this one. 

I also always keep a small watering can filled, in the kitchen. The littlest water running is best. Especially when it can be seen to make the government a pretty penny from taxes, etc., on these utilities.

One more thing, your coffee maker... Keurigs and BUNNS use allot of energy keeping water warm/hot. Unplug them and shut them off. (By the way, the "K-Cups" are at least 2x the price of regular filtered cups of coffee.


These are all things apartment dwellers can do to save. If someone can create a comprehensive site on these ideas that would be friendly to apartment dwellers, it would be a goldmine!

Edit time expired, and had to repost... Sorry

Michael Gobel
Michael Gobel

@Christina Nunez Well this is something I thought about for years. It just might be that I may have been the world's FIRST Earth Day Baby (4/22/1970). I constantly think how some may be able to save and go green... even by using Solar LED lights in the living room. Yes, they do make lamps as solar lamps. They have to be near a sunny window, but they re out there and work. WalMart had LED lights last summer for $7. I bought all of them and used all but 3 or 4, which are spares. I use an old Large liquid detergent bottle to shower with. That way you are not wasting water while shampooing or soaping up. Simply drill holes for the water to shower out of the lid with. I then placed a stretch rod to hold the bottle on an S hook. With water rates going up 56% in 5 years, residents will thank me for this one. I also always keep a small watering can filled, in the kitchen. One more thing, your coffee maker... Keurigs and BUNNS use allot of energy keeping water warm/hot. Unplug them and shut them off. (By the way, the "K-Cups" are at least 2x the price of regualr filtered cups of coffee.

T H
T H

@Meester Taco 
Mayb u should upgrade to a 386DX !!
It has full external 32 bit bus and not just 16 and then u get ur stuff done sooner and save a lot of energy!

J. Rose
J. Rose

@Meester Taco 

That is crazy talk! You shouldn't worry about hitting your turbo button if you can afford that 386SX! What about us unfortunate people still using a 286 with 5.25 floppy drives. I'm still saving up for a 3.5 or maybe a 200MB  hard drive if I can get a second job.

Michael Gobel
Michael Gobel

@Bruce Carter "All of that intelligence could easily be part of every television, but the cable industry has lobbied the government to keep it out"... Really? If that was the case, that intelligence would not be giving the Neilsons your ratings, without your permission. Cable pulls this stuff, without your consent. Step 1 to "intelligence," and lack of privacy. As for renting boxes, IT IS LEGAL for you to own your own cable box, or simply not have a box hookup to your TV. You also can use your own WIFI and Router LEGALLY.  With cable providers, you do not have to use their stuff, nor rent it. It's your choice. There are providers such as Channel Master, who make cable DVR's/Converters, for those who wish not to be tracked by anyone.


"Democan or Republicrat, you get the same corruption and pandering to big business who give big contributions. And tell me HOW YOU did not help. Everyone assists both parties, when shopping at stores, when filling out tax forms every year, sits quietly and passively as Governments run them over. Most people simply complain about this. So what have YOU done... or not?

T H
T H

@Swiftright Right @Mike Biddle 

What a bunch of baloney.
At the average cost of $100 for a new microwave, it would take over 30 years to just break even.
U forgot to take into consideration the 10,000 tons of 1 bills to buy all those.
Not sure what ur number is, but I come up with only 300 tons of savings (300 mil $ p.a. @ 1g per bill)

Yogesh Sarkar
Yogesh Sarkar

@Swiftright Right @Leo Kretzner that is quite odd, Tata Sky (India) DTH STB that I have, takes less than a minute to power on and resume full operations. I keep it off, unless it is time to record or watch TV.

Jon Sheldon
Jon Sheldon

@J. Rose @Meester Taco Don't worry guys, if the earth-worshipers get their way, we will all be living in caves and eating dirt.  Just as "Nature" intended, right?

Steve Henrich
Steve Henrich

@Jon Sheldon @Michael Gobel @Christina Nunez lmfao,... by not burning all that Oil that was spilled in all the WW's merchant sinkings.... can you imagine how much Oil was lost into the oceans...? bwahaha (scarchasm yeah,... but heck,... it's a poonder alright)

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