The dresser in Kelsie Marick’s dorm room is crowded with gadgets.
It holds two electric hair straighteners, a blow dryer, a flat-screen TV and an iPod dock. Marick, a Gonzaga University freshman, and her roommate live in Madonna Hall. Built in the 1950s, when college students’ energy needs were relatively modest, the room has only three outlets.
The young women rely on power strips to stay electrically connected. Between them, the roommates have two laptops, a printer, two refrigerators, one microwave and a phone charger.
Last month, Marick took part in Avista’s “Power Down” contest. It was aimed at helping college students understand energy-efficiency in a plugged-in world.
“Most of them aren’t paying for their energy use right now, but they will be shortly,” said Mary Tyrie, Avista’s marketing manager. “We want to help them understand that the more energy they use, the more they’ll be paying.”
The contest also targeted college students for another reason: Young adults are heavily plugged into electronics, which make up the fastest-growing part of utilities’ energy loads.
Today’s college dorm rooms mirror trends in American households, said Debbie Simock, an Avista spokeswoman.
“The average home in years past had about 10 electrical devices,” she said. “Now, it’s up to about 35 devices.”
Computers, cable boxes and chargers can quickly add up on energy bills, Simock said. Simply leaving a computer, monitor and printer system on 24/7 adds about $12 to a monthly utility bill, she said.
Electronics are also parasitic users of energy – they suck up watts even when they’re turned off but still plugged in.
Nearly 70 students from Gonzaga and Washington State University participated in the contest, which was held during October. The students saved 11,585 kilowatt hours of electricity during the month – enough to heat 220 homes for a single day or provide lighting for nearly 600 residences for a day.
Students kept daily diaries of energy use.
“I started by unplugging my cell phone charger,” Marick said.
Marick grew up in what she described as a “green conscious” family in Portland. Turning off lights and recycling came naturally to the GU student, who plans to study marketing and public relations.
But Marick was less likely to turn off power strips or unplug chargers that weren’t in use.
When Avista employees conducted an energy audit of Marick’s room, they also encouraged her to switch the light bulbs in her floor lamp from incandescent to compact fluorescent bulbs. And they took note of the two refrigerators.
If the roommates couldn’t cut back to one refrigerator, Avista employees encouraged the women to keep their separate refrigerators as full as possible. Empty refrigerators use more energy than full ones.
“They said that overall, I was doing pretty good,” Marick said.
An analysis of contest results showed that participating students were most likely to close windows and turn off lights when they left their rooms. They were least likely to unplug cell phone chargers.
Changing behavior takes time, Simock said. As the use of plug-in devices continues to grow, so will the financial incentives for energy efficiency, she said.
“There are some convenience factors,” Simock acknowledged, noting that people don’t want to constantly reset clocks on microwaves.
But “turn out your lights at home sometime, and count how many blinking red and blue lights you see from electronic devices,” she said. “It all adds up.”