Extreme energy makeover: Home office edition

Replacing equipment and changing some habits makes a big difference to the author's energy usage -- and wallet

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It's important to note that, while I'm focusing on computing equipment here, that's just part of the total home office energy efficiency picture. My office lighting consumed 370 watts, or nearly 3 kWh during an eight-hour day, while my summer "cooling system" -- a window fan -- consumed as much as 95 watts (.57 kWh) on warm summer days. To see how I cut that down, read How to choose the light technology for the job.

As I made energy-saving changes to my office, I continued to measure the aggregate energy consumption to determine the bottom-line results. As I said, I managed to cut my energy usage by more than half. Here's how.

The low-hanging fruit

I began by replacing my CRT, which consumed about 90 watts (more than half of my peak load) when operating and 3 watts in standby mode. I chose a ViewSonic Corp. 19-in. LCD panel (available for about $200), which pulled 29 watts when in use and less than 1 watt in standby mode, shaving about $18 a year off my bill all by itself. It was also easier on my eyes -- a big benefit when you look at a screen eight hours a day.

That was my biggest single savings, but you can do even better here. While my monitor is Energy Star-certified, there's a big difference -- as much as 10 watts in some cases -- between the energy efficiency leaders and those that just make the cut. The EPA doesn't give you the complete power comparison breakdown for Energy Star monitors, but Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has calculated those numbers because it uses them to determine rebates to vendors.

You won't find those rankings on the PG&E Web site (although it's considering publishing them), but the utility does make the information available in spreadsheet form, which we've duplicated below.

 
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Tip:  If you haven't done so already, upgrade from a CRT to an Energy Star-certified LCD monitor to save $10 to $30 per year in electricity costs. Note that there are wide variations even among Energy Star monitors, as the PG&E spreadsheet shows.

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My ViewSonic LCD came with a bonus: embedded speakers. Since I play my music at low volume anyway, I decided to turn off my powered speakers, which consume at least 5 watts when in use and 3 watts when idle. But it turned out that shutting off the power button only cut their power use from 3W to 2W -- they continue to demand energy as long as they're plugged in.

This prompted me to go back and test other components, and I quickly realized that simply turning a piece of equipment off doesn't stop it from continuing to pull power. Like dripping faucets, my network storage device, speakers and Dell docking station continued to leak 5W of power even when turned off.

To eliminate that load completely, I would need to put them on a separate power strip that I could switch off. I eventually did that for most of them. Some new power strips, such as BITS Ltd.'s Smart Strip Power Strip, and uninterruptible power supplies, such as American Power Conversion Corp.'s soon-to-be-released BE750G, automatically cut power to devices connected to selected outlets when your computer goes into standby mode, which would make them a good solution to this problem.

But dealing with the network storage device -- a Western Digital NetCenter -- wasn't so simple. Western Digital Corp. has replaced the NetCenter with the My Book World Edition, but that model also has no sleep mode. The company says it is working on adding power management features in future models. Unlike the other peripherals, however, I couldn't just put the NetCenter on a power strip and turn it off without thinking through the consequences.

 
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Tip:  Some equipment continues to pull a small amount of power even when turned off. Put as much equipment as you can on a power strip, and turn it off at the end of the day. Some surge protectors have certain outlets that are designated as always on, which allow you to keep power flowing to some devices even after turning off the power strip.

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I use the device as a shared file server and to back up both my office computers and a home computer elsewhere in the house. The NetCenter also has a print server feature that I use to share the LaserJet to all the computers.

My home machine primarily uses a direct-attached ink-jet printer and accesses the LaserJet only infrequently, so I could live with turning on the NetCenter the few times a month when the home PC needed to print to the LaserJet. In the interest of eliminating those last couple of watts as well, I decided to forgo file sharing and only turn on the NetCenter once a day for about 20 minutes to complete backups, and I put it on a power strip so I could eliminate its power drain entirely at night.

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