When to Pull the Plug

Let's consider the example of an old VCR in the basement that draws 13 watts, all day, every day, for an entire year. Every 1 watt of power translates into just a bit less than 9 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year (1 watt x 24 hours per day x 365 days per year = 8,760 watt-hours a year = 8.76 kWh/year):

13 watts x 8.76 kWh/watt/year = 113.88 kWh/year

So at 13 watts, the VCR consumes about 114 kWh per year. Assuming an electricity cost of 11 cents per kWh (your actual cost may be higher or lower, depending on your provider), the cost to power the VCR comes to about $12.53 per year, or just over $1 per month. When you think of it in those terms, it doesn't seem like much. But consider that you may have as many as 20 or 30 other appliances using phantom power as well, and you can see how the numbers begin to add up.

According to the Energy Star Web site, the average U.S. household spends more than $100 each year to power devices that are turned off. Nationally, phantom power accounts for more than 100 billion kWh and more than $10 billion in energy costs each year. Now when you think of leaving that VCR plugged in all this time just to display a blinking "12:00" on its digital clock, you probably want to kick yourself.

One of the easiest ways to reduce phantom power consumption is to plug appliances like the basement TV and VCR into a power strip, then turn the power strip off when the devices are not in use. Some power strips even let you designate a "master" device (such as a computer), then automatically turn off power to peripheral devices (such as a printer, scanner or speakers) when the main component is not in use.

Using a power strip also eliminates the need to repeatedly unplug appliances from the wall, reducing the danger of frayed cords and wires. Most power strips use no electricity at all when they are switched off, cutting vampire power consumption to zero for any appliances plugged into them. If you're worried about cutting power to your computer and other electronics, you needn't be; just be sure to follow the recommended shutdown process when you turn them off, then enjoy the energy savings when you turn off that power strip [sources: U.S. Department of Energy].

Of course, there are some appliances that you simply can't unplug every day. A refrigerator is probably the most obvious, but clock radios and programmable coffeemakers also become pretty useless if you have to reset them every time you turn them on. DVRs need to be left on in order to record shows, and cable boxes often take a long time to reboot once they are unplugged. When you shop for items like these, compare Energy Star ratings for standby power before you buy, and get the most efficient models you can afford.

The bottom line? Unplugging your appliances probably won't leave you noticeably richer, but it's a relatively easy way to save 5 to 10 percent on your electric bill. And if you can convince your friends and neighbors to eliminate phantom power, too, the cumulative effect could be truly impressive.