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War On Standby: Do the figures actually stack up?

Will you stop turning the TV off at the wall

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Nobody ever has any kit turned on from 0300 to 0400

Running through some of the other kinds of appliance we see some other curious results. "Modems" in the study were "on standby" drawing 10 watts no less than 79 per cent of the time they were monitored. "Speakers" spent 32 per cent of their time on standby. Etc, etc.

It's plain that a lot of the time the software was assessing things as being on standby when they were actually on and working. Furthermore, the software also seriously contradicts the idea that one can assume (as the Energy Saving Trust figures do) that standby power (as determined by the software) is consumed by devices 20 hours a day. Looking at the figures for the "sites" and individual appliances, it's plain that the software assessed that even kit which had standby modes was switched off much of the time when not in use, as well as sometimes being put on standby.

It's plain that the Energy Saving Trust either didn't read the full report, or didn't understand it.

So we can disregard the 47-watt figure and the lower annual standby consumption estimate from the EST: it was utter bunk to start with, and then was interpreted by the EST in a way which contradicted everything the full study said!

OK, what about the high 81-watt total-standby-power-inna-house estimate, the one which produced the headlining £90 annual figure? Where did that come from?

This was produced by measuring the total electric power draw by the study houses between 0300 and 0400 and subtracting comsumption by appliances assessed as being probably "on" at that time - mainly fridges - then assuming that all the rest of the power coming in through the meter was being drawn by kit on standby. We are blithely told:

Energy use during the night exists in all types of households. It is unlikely that this consumption could be entirely due to night users but is, more probably, due to standby consumption.

This despite the fact that over a quarter of the sampled households were "multiple person households with no dependent children" - the kind in which young night-bird adults live. And indeed the full report includes many graphs confirming that even in the view of the a-bit-special software plenty of the power draw from 0300 to 0400 is not attributable to standby consumption. And we must again remember that far from being left on "standby" 20 hours a day, the special software assures us that the kit in the study was often switched completely off.

So that figure is bunk, too. As is the 600 kWh and 90 quid derived from it. To be fair the EST consultant Paula Owen, drafting the "summary" report, sort of admits as much:

Due to the nature of the monitoring, and the quantity and complexity of unpicking each appliance’s power-use pattern, we cannot at this point ascertain exactly for how long the standby consumption is present. These current figures should be seen as a best estimate until further research can be carried out.

No they shouldn't: they should be thrown in the bin. They are based on rubbish - the data set from the full report is very small to begin with and amazingly badly tabulated. TV signal boosters are recorded variously as "Aerials" and "Boosters", we find a batch of "Xboxes" of unspecified model and then some noted as "Xbox 360s", separate "Modems" and "Routers" - almost all of which were most likely combination boxes - etc etc.

And we can forget the idea that this study tells us gadget power consumption is up, too. Even Owen writes:

The surprise here is the smaller contribution of consumer electronics compared with [previous figures]. Entertainment products fall from first to third place. However, if combined with the ICT sector, which is increasingly the case with the continuing convergence of these product types, these two sectors make up 25 per cent of the total [down from 33!] ...

The breakdown of where electricity demand comes from offers some surprises. Consumer electronic devices do not seem to be increasing their ‘market share’ of electricity consumption at the rate previously estimated ... Refrigeration and lighting are still the highest consuming product groups.

Of course this study was so shoddily carried out that it doesn't really tell us anything. But if it does, it tells us that gadgets - and in particular, gadgets on standby - just aren't a big issue in terms of electricity bills or carbon emissions.

If Owen had wanted to try and extract something useful she might have chosen instead to look at things like this in the full report:

It is notable that lighting consumption during the night occurred in all types of household. It is unlikely that this consumption could be entirely due to night time uses such as getting up to use the bathroom. It was not possible in this case to identify the lights that were responsible for the night consumption.

Of course people do leave lights on at night! But actually there's a tendency for inexpensive modern lighting to use shoddy power bricks which suck a lot of juice even when the light is switched off. This was noticed by rather more serious power researchers quite a long time ago, but if the EST wanted to give some good advice they would tell us either not to buy cheap lights with power bricks or to turn them off at the wall - as opposed to the inoffensive new telly with its 0.1-watt standby draw.*

But the fact is, it's not really domestic 'leccy that's the main issue, if you worry about energy use and associated carbon emissions. Nor is it much to do with food.

Whenever an eco-activist starts going on about gadgets or electricity or food, ignore them. The big stuff is travel, making and having things (ie buildings, furniture, tools, interior decor, infrastructure etc) and heating/cooling (a large amount of this is laundry and personal hygiene).

Remember: skipping one bath or shower saves as much energy as switching off a typical gadget at the wall for a year.

And also remember: If you see a news report on energy which cites the Energy Saving Trust or the consultants and contractors who prepared the reports - it's pretty safe to ignore it. ®

Bootnote

*The paragraph quoted above refers to ceiling lights powered from 5A lighting circuits, not ones plugged into the wall: but these often use transformers too - for instance for low-voltage ceiling spotlights. In such cases, of course, it is often not feasible to cut power to the transformer without knocking off a breaker or pulling out the light fitting. It's odd that the very people so keen to unplug the telly are often big fans of such spotlights, and would never believe that they waste far more juice even when switched "off" than the TV does on standby.

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