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Cable Boxes and DVRs Might be the Biggest Energy Hogs in Your Home

Those innocent-looking boxes that bring cable and satellite signals into U.S. homes and help Americans record their favorite programs are missing the boat when it comes to energy efficiency. In fact, set-top boxes are so inefficient that typical boxes have become the single largest energy drain in many U.S. homes, consuming more electricity per year than some refrigerators and central air conditioning systems, according to a study released in June.

The study, “Better Viewing, Lower Energy Bills, and Less Pollution: Improving the Efficiency of Television Set-Top Boxes,” by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), reported some staggering figures:

– A single high-definition DVR and a single high-definition cable box together consume an average of 446 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator. By comparison, a 42-inch LCD TV with an ENERGY STAR 4.1 certification uses around 180.5 kilowatt-hours a year and a typical compact fluorescent light bulb uses 17 kilowatt-hours a year.
– There are about 160 million set-top boxes in U.S. homes.
– In 2010, set-top boxes in the U.S. consumed about 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is roughly equivalent to the output of nine average coal-fired power plants.
– The electricity required to operate U.S. set-top boxes each year is equal to the entire annual residential electricity consumption of the state of Maryland, produces 16 million tons of carbon dioxide and costs households $3 billion a year.
– Fully 66 percent of the electricity used to power set-top boxes, about $1 billion a year, is wasted, used to power the devices when nobody is watching television and no programs are being recorded.

Instant Gratification, Not Saving Energy, Key to Television Service in the Unites States

The reason behind the devices’ enormous energy consumption is that hard drives, tuners, clocks and other components, such as infrared receivers that wait to pick up transmissions from remote controls, are essentially on all the time and running at full power.

The report found that the perpetually “powered on” state of set-top boxes is largely due to the way that electronics companies manufacture the devices to make them meet the ways that cable and satellite companies and Internet providers in the United States choose to offer their services, including things like downloading program guides at night so that there’s no performance lag during the day.

For example, in some European countries, set-top boxes are designed to be energy efficient. They can go into standby mode when not in use, which cuts power consumption by about half, and can go into an optional “deep sleep” mode that cuts power consumption by 95 percent.

However, because of the energy-efficiency technology, bringing these set-top boxes up to full power so that they can be used to watch television or record shows can take one or to two minutes, depending on the technology and the service provider.

It’s that time lag, and not any sort of technical problem with making U.S. set-top boxes energy efficient, that is the problem, according to U.S. manufacturers and service providers.

Americans simply don’t want to wait for their television or DVR to power up, the companies say. Although U.S. consumers are used to boot times for computers, they’re used to being able to turn on a television instantly and start using it right away. Most Americans don’t know, or don’t care, how wasteful their set-top boxes are.

Saving Energy and Saving Money are the Goals of Pending Energy-Efficiency Certifications

Regardless, energy efficiency is coming to set-top boxes just the same, and critics say manufacturers and service providers will finally be forced to do what they could have — and should have — been doing all along, which is providing responsive, energy-efficient set-top boxes with services that are more efficiently delivered.

The Environmental Protection Agency has established new ENERGY STAR standards for set-top box certification that go into effect September 1, when certified set-top boxes will drop from an average of 138 kilowatt-hours a year to 97. By the middle 0f 2013, the agency’s certification will get even tougher, requiring set-top boxes to drop their annual energy consumption to 29 kilowatt-hours. Cable companies can become ENERGY STAR partners if they install certified set-top boxes in between 25 percent and 50 percent of the homes they serve.

The biggest hurdle will be getting consumers to accept boot-up times and companies to change the way they manufacture and provide service to set-top boxes. Energy efficiency experts say technical fixes could minimize waiting times and inconvenience at little or no cost, but service providers, who haven’t come out against energy-efficient devices, don’t sound especially supportive of the move.

“The issue of having more efficient equipment is of interest to us,” Justin Venech, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable, told The New York Times. But, he added, “when we purchase the equipment, functionality and cost are the primary considerations.”


“Atop TV Sets, a Power Drain That Runs NonstopThe New York Times, June 25, 2011.

National Resources Defense Council report, “Better Viewing, Lower Energy Bills, and Less Pollution: Improving the Efficiency of Television Set-Top Boxes,” June, 2011.

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