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If Christmas brings new devices to plug in, here are tips to save energy

Sun., Dec. 22, 2013, midnight

Many of the gifts unwrapped this Christmas will be electronics.

Laptops, cellphones, tablets and game consoles have transformed how we work and play, and they’ve changed our electrical use, too, said Tom Lienhard, Avista’s chief engineer for energy efficiency.

Energy Star appliances have helped consumers reduce the amount of electricity consumed by refrigerators, air conditioning, lighting and water heaters in their homes.

“But there have been many more devices to come in and replace that use and add to it,” Lienhard said. “You can just think about one room and all the devices that are plugged in – then multiply by the number of rooms.”

There are ways to enjoy our new gadgets without a skyrocketing electric bill, Lienhard said. Here’s an edited version of a recent interview.

Q. So, where do you start?

A. There are three identifiers for things that could be causing problems in terms of energy use: If it has digital displays or a display of any kind; if it has chargers; or if it has a remote control of any kind. Those are the types of devices we need to look at to say, can I control the energy use in a different way?

Q. Give me an example.

A. Forty-five percent of homes with TVs have game consoles, which can use $100 per year in electricity if they’re left on all the time. Fifty percent of households run theirs all the time. That’s according to research from E Source, an energy think tank.

If there’s no switch on something, or there is a switch but you tuck the device away so you don’t see it … then you just shut off the TV but the rest of the things don’t go off.

Q. What do you recommend?

A. There’s an advanced power strip called a current-sensing power strip. You can use it with a computer to say, if my computer is on, supply power to the printer, the monitor, etc. But if the computer is off, it shuts down the other things.

The same system works well for a TV and all the things that go with it – the game console, the surround sound.

Q. You mentioned multitasking as a factor in electric load growth.

A. People are getting great at multitasking. While they’re watching TV, 85 percent of them are using their tablets. They say, “When I’m watching the game, and I want to know where a player came from, I go to the Internet and find out where they went to college.” We may have three to four devices going, helping us find out all this stuff as we’re watching TV. And we’re communicating back and forth with others.

Q. Is this an age thing?

A. We have a new consumer market that’s driven by people who were raised with mobile media. Research shows they change their attention to different media 27 times per hour. That would be someone who texts, calls, watches TV. … They’re taking us along with them. We’re all starting to be that culture.

When my wife and I arrive at a hotel room, we sometimes have six devices to charge – two phones, two iPads, two laptops. It’s becoming difficult to find enough plug-ins. One of my Christmas presents to my wife is a four-USB power-plug strip.

Q. How can multitaskers save energy?

A. That iPad I’ve got on my lap while I’m watching TV is going to have to be charged. You can plug it into the wall before you go to bed and leave it there until you get up. It only takes two hours to fully charge, but it’s there for 10 hours.

You can get a power strip with a timer on it. The timer will take all eight plugs and only run them for three hours per night.

Q. Does the power-plug strip for your wife come with a timer?

A. (Laughs) It doesn’t. I’m sorry for the hotel.

Q. Where do you buy advanced power strips?

A. Some hardware stores carry them, or you can buy them online. I recommend that people ask for them at stores, because it drives retailers to carry them.

Q. Are televisions the largest energy users in terms of home electronics?

A. People with a desktop computer, with a color laser printer probably use a little more than a TV. But it depends. A computer that’s on for nine hours per day uses $21 of electricity per year. If you don’t turn it off, you’re probably using $45 per year. Add a color laser printer. Add a couple of speakers. You’re talking about a home office using $120 per year if this stuff just gets left on.

Q. Is that high?

A. When you add up all the little things together it becomes big. Then we ask, “Why is my monthly bill $200?”

I have a battery charger in my garage for my power tools. I never unplug the charger. I’m doing two things wrong there. I’m using energy that I don’t need. And I’m overcharging a lithium battery, which won’t last as long. I’ll mend my ways.

Q. Is it hard to change people’s behavior?

A. These devices are fully in control of the people who are using them.

No part of this is Avista saying you should restrict something you’re doing. We don’t want to curtail anything. Let’s just do it with less energy. Efficiency is getting the same service for less energy.

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