Biggest Energy Vampire in your Home: Cable Box

Vampire Cable Box

By now you've probably heard about vampire energy loads (also known as standby power).  I'm sure you've seen the articles on news sites or environmental sites describing how much energy vampire loads consume.  And if everyone in the world would just unplug their vampire loads we'd save  bazillions of kWh's and prevent a gajillion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.  But for the most part I don't harp on vampire loads because in the grand scheme of your home energy consumption, vampire loads aren't near as important as focusing on your heating/cooling and lighting consumption.

However, there is one vampire load that towers above the rest, and that is your Cable Box!

I have two cable boxes in the house: a DVR high definition and non-DVR regular definition.  Using my Kill-A-Watt I determined that the DVR cable box consumes 30 Watts while plugged in and my non-DVR box consumes 10 Watts while plugged in.  The combined 40 watts that these two boxes consume is close to the equivalent of leaving 3, 14-watt CFLs turned on!

I estimate that we watch about 2 hours of TV a day (30 minutes on the non-DVR box in the morning and 1.5 hrs on the DVR box at night - this is a high estimate).  So, to figure out how much energy we waste each day by leaving our cable boxes plugged in while we aren't watching TV:

(30 Watts)*(22.5 hrs) + (10 Watts)*(23.5 hrs) = 910 Watt-hrs/day = .91 kWh/day

I pay about 10 cents/kWh, so in order to calculate how much the vampire energy the cable boxes use costs me:

(.91 kWh/day)*(10 cents/kWh)*(365 days/year) = $33.22/year

In May of 2010 I put up a blog about using an electronic timer to limit the amount of time your lights and electrical appliances stay on.  In December of 2009 we featured a blog post about controlling vampire loads (specifically a cable box) with an electronic timer.  The cost of the electronic timer is about $20, so if you have a similar situation to me and you purchased 2 timers for both cable boxes you would see about a 1.5 year payback on your electronic timer investment.

At this point, you just have to weigh the cost of turning your cable boxes off against the chance that you might cause the DVR box to not record one of your wife's favorite shows!  This is actually why I'm hesitant to put an electronic timer on our DVR box; I'm afraid I'll mess up our recordings!  This is not an issue with the non-DVR box.  It would sure be nice if you could program your cable boxes to go into a standby mode in certain hours of the night (much like you can program your thermostat).  Another option would be to get a system like the one offered by Computerized Electricity Systems that lets you monitor and control each outlet in your home!  You could just program the outlet that your cable box is plugged into to be off during the time you are sleeping or at work.

If you're serious about going after your vampire loads, then the cable box should be the first one you try to slay.

*update - Good news!  In 2014, Cable Boxes will be more efficient thanks to manufacturers and Energy Star 3.0

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Great post. We have two of those suckers in our house right now. We recently discussed ditching cable completely and going to Hulu or some other service. Now it looks like it makes even more sense to do that to get rid of the power hungry cable boxes! Also, we just posted on vampire power, its costs and 5 ways to reduce vampire power usage. Check it out at if you are interested.
And I think next up, by the way, is the cable modem, and, after that, the wireless router. There are, however, only a few cable box manufacturers and only a few cable companies and they, not we, determine what gets installed. Hence, there's no energy standard that we can see since we're not making a purchase. All in all, IF we were interested in lowering energy bills, this would come under FCC regulation for addressing over next cycle of product (and ballyhooed as part of a nationwide commitment to less energy wastefulness).
I use a timer to control my 52 Watt HD DVR. The DVR that I have from DishNetwork allows me to program the time of day that it dials in on the phone line to get the programming information. So I set it to do that at 12:30am. Then I set the timer to only turn it on from 6:30pm to 1:00am so we can record everything "60 Minutes" to "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" - our primary sources of world news! I am always sure to use the remote to turn the DVR "off" when not in actual use so that when the timer turns it off it does not crash the device. DVRs are essentially PCs - and they don't like being powered down when running any more that a PC does, unless it has been shut down gracefully.
I think part of how a cable box shuts down is a software issue. My boxes used to click when turned off. A few months ago they stopped clicking and when they are "off" I get a message on my TV saying to hit the "menu" button to power on the box. My non DVR box is hooked to a Bye Bye Standby outlet and the DVR is on a timer.
Comcast's headend systems must "talk" to your boxes in the night. If you unplug them, you box is flagged as a "non responder", and they'll contact you about it. About the only thing you can do is if you're going away on vacation, and you call Comcast and let them know you'll be unplugging your boxes while you're gone.
"It would sure be nice if you could program your cable boxes to go into a standby mode in certain hours of the night" It would be even nicer if the hardware in these boxes *automatically* went into a low power sleep mode when not being used. I'm not sure if there is a way that old style connections to a TV (RF over co-axial, yellow RCA plug, S-VHS or component RCA plugs) provide the cable box with feed back on whether the TV they are connected to is turned on. But an HDMI digital connection surely can. Hardware to watch for the infrared remote "Power-on" signal, and a timer to wake the rest of the box to record shows ought to fit inside a 2-5W range. It is unlikely that the developers of set top boxes will make these changes spontaneously.
Ultimately it's up to us to deal with these vampires. Timers are relatively cheap and do the job nicely. I also control our cable modem and routers with timers and numerous other things around the house. FYI, my preferred timer is a battery backed electronic unit (.3W) that uses less than half the power of a clock motor driven one (2W) I get it from Harbor Freight for about $10.00:
Tony, Great point! I have my 30 watt DVR attached to the TV with an HDMI cable, so surely this would be possible? The DVR can either look for the TV signal OR use logic to exit standby whenever a TV show is about to record. Surely it couldnt be that difficult? I say we start a campaign!!!
Yeah but standby mode would still be several Watts. These phantoms just won't die! :)

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