Power-Saving Tips for Your Home Theater

Large high-definition televisions are voracious electricity consumers. Some 50-inch plasmas demand in excess of 400 watts of power when turned on. That's more than a good-size, modern refrigerator requires, though the refrigerator stays on 24/7, so it probably devours more energy overall. The other components of your home theater--the DVR, the Blu-ray Disc player, and the separate surround-sound amplifier and speakers--have their own power demands. And the various parts of your home entertainment system suck juice even when they're "off," so that they can start up more quickly and so that you can turn them on via the remote control.

To minimize your home-theater bills, you need to examine both what you buy and how you use it. The good news is that you don't have to cut back on your entertainment hours in order to save money and to reduce your carbon footprint.

Buy Green

Here are some guidelines to consider when you're shopping for an HDTV.

Remember that small is beautiful: Everyone loves to watch a wall-size picture, but a bigger screen isn't better for the environment. On average, according to a study conducted by CNet, 42-inch plasma TVs use of 271 watts of electricity, versus 341 watts for 50-inch models. That's a difference of more than 20 percent in the smaller screen's favor.

Buy the right technology: Avoid plasma and you'll save electricity. A typical 52-inch LCD TV, uses 278 watts of power--only a tad more than a typical 42-inch plasma. Rear-projection sets (I know, they're not cool) save even more energy: On average, a 56-inch DLP TV runs at 171 watts. The new LED-lit LCDs save power, too. PC World Test Center tests show that the 55-inch Samsung LN55A950, the first such television that we've gotten our mitts on, uses about 38 percent less power than most 50-inch HDTVs.

Look for the Energy Star 3 label: When the Energy Star label appears on a TV, it means that the set lives up to the EPA's standard for energy efficiency. But some companies go beyond that standard. Sony, for example, says that all of the 1080p models in its 2009 lineup surpass Energy Star 3.0 requirements by 15 percent. Sony's VE5 Eco line goes even further; the 40-inch VE5 can have a power savings topping 50 percent, and the 52-inch model can save 65 percent. Check the Energy Star Web site for a list of qualifying HDTV models.

Look for the manufacturer's "green" angle: Many manufacturers have gone to great lengths to improve the energy efficiency of their 2009 models. Besides watching for the Energy Star designation, look for other energy saving options that a manufacturer may tout. For example, models in Sony's Bravia VE5 series--the Bravia KDL-52VE5, the Bravia KDL-46VE5, and the Bravia KDL-40VE5--feature high-efficiency HCFL backlighting, which uses reduced-size cathode tubes to improve power efficiency by 40 percent over other Sony LCDs. They also feature a 0-watt standby power switch, a light sensor with dynamic backlight control to reduce the screen's brightness for use in dim environments, and a motion sensor that turns off the TV if it doesn't detect any movement for a specified period of time.

Watch the power consumption of your components: When buying components, pay attention to the relative power supply and the reported watts consumed for each device. You can find these specs for many devices, including Blu-ray players and DVRs, on the back of the unit. That's how I found out that my Sony Blu-ray player uses 25 watts and that my Dish Network DVR uses 120 watts. Manufacturers' Web sites sometimes list this information, but it can be buried in obscure places. Though amplifiers/receivers proudly advertise their wattage per channel (more is better for sound quality), you can always save power by lowering the volume.

DVRs are a special case when it comes to power savings. You can't completely shut off a DVR without losing its scheduled recording ability, but an eco-conscious DVR will consume only a trickle of power when "off" and waiting for a signal from its timer or from the remote to come back to life. The popular DVR TiVo doesn't quite reach this ideal mix: Even in its hard-to-reach standby mode, it keeps spinning the hard drive and recording whatever is on two different channels. TiVo says that the DVR consumes about 39 watts when on, and "slightly less" in standby mode.

Watch Green

Whatever you own, adopting a few good habits will help you cut down on the amount of juice you use.

Turn down the brightness: Televisions leave the factory too bright because they're optimized for use in showrooms, not in your living room. Lowering the brightness setting will save electricity, increase the set's lifespan, and produce a better-looking picture.

Look for energy savings options: Many newer TVs may have options that let you sacrifice power for performance. You'll probably end up with an image that isn't as bright (as recommended above) and a TV that takes a few more seconds to warm up when you turn it on. But it's well worth it.

Use the TV's built-in speakers: Your separate surround-sound amplifier and speakers greatly enhance a big action flick, but they add nothing to the director's commentary. So turn on the amplifier only when the big sound makes a difference.

Truly turn off your gear: Your HDTV, amplifier, cable box, DVR, and DVD or Blu-ray Disc player all suck electricity when they're switched "off." Of those, only your DVR (and maybe your cable box, if it's separate from the DVR) has a legitimate reason to remain on call in this way: Without a stream of constant power, the DVR can't turn itself to fully active mode to record on schedule. The only advantage you get from the other gadgets that burn electricity continuously is the minor convenience of being able to turn them on with a remote and have them start up faster.

Adding a second surge protector to your home-theater setup will put a stake in the heart of those vampires. Plug your TV, disc player, and amplifier into one protector, and mount that one in a convenient location. Then plug your DVR and anything else into another. When you're done watching TV, turn off the first protector.

Alternatively you can achieve the same result with a single surge protector, but it has to be a smart one. The Monster GreenPower Digital PowerCenter MDP 900 and the Belkin Conserve AV can shut off some of the plugs on their strip while leaving others live.

Use that smaller TV: If you own two televisions, use the smaller, more modest one to view size-neutral programs. Case in point: Jon Stewart doesn't look any better on a 50-inch screen. Really.

Relax and enjoy the show: After all, if you don't like what you watch, you're wasting your time as well as your electricity.