What Are ‘Phantom Loads’? How to Identify Them and Save Money

Find out where your unused electricity is going and remove these energy-eating ghosts from your electricity bill.

Have you ever awakened in the middle of the night and been able to navigate your entire home without turning on a single light, thanks to the glow from your sleeping computer, TV, printer, or other electronic devices? Those little lights are a good indicator of how much electricity our homes use as we—and our devices—sleep.

When you look around your dark home at night, you might see dozens of electronic devices idling, waiting to be used. Or they're still plugged into chargers long after they've reached full power. The energy consumed by these devices as they remain on standby mode is called a phantom load, a standby load, or even "vampire power." These gadgets use valuable energy when we're not using them, and the expense can add up. Luckily, you don't need to call the Ghostbusters to unplug these devices. Here are a few easy tips for finding out where your electricity's going and how to minimize the loss.

how to reduce phantom loads infographic

BHG / Sydney Saporito

According to Save On Energy, the average annual electricity bill in the United States is $1,460. The average bill varies state by state; for instance, Utah has the lowest average monthly bill of $73.57, and Hawaii has the highest, with a monthly bill of $172.25. Interestingly, the states with the lowest bills are not necessarily the places with the lowest electricity rates, demonstrating that how we use our electricity can significantly impact our monthly statement.

By minimizing phantom loads, you can save up to 10% of your electricity bill, and that could be enough to upgrade to a new Energy Star refrigerator or other appliance, putting you in a virtuous cycle of energy savings.

What are phantom loads?

A phantom load is the amount of power drawn by an electronic device when it's not in use, but is still plugged in. Contrast this to the operating load, which is the amount of power a device consumes when it's actually in use. You can determine operating and phantom loads by looking up the appliance energy specifications online or measuring them directly with a meter. Although it might be evident that some appliances (the refrigerator) are constantly using electricity, others, like your television, might be more stealthy.

Older electronics tend not to have phantom loads; they shut off completely when not in use. However, newer electronics often wait on standby mode, rather than shutting down, so they'll be available the instant we need them. We know our printer is ready, because it springs to life as soon as we send a file, thanks to standby mode. But this convenience comes at a cost; many electronics continue to draw current even when we think they've been turned off, and this consistent flow of power adds up.

Not all electrical devices have phantom loads, but if you see a soft glow when one's not in use, it's drawing some current. Minimizing phantom loads is a great way to save money, and it's simply cutting off power when you're not using an appliance.

How can you identify the phantoms in your home?

As with minimizing water usage, the first step to reducing electricity usage is to become aware of your habits. You can conduct a home energy audit to determine how much power your home consumes in phantom loads. It's easier than you might think—an audit will reveal where your electricity's going and steps to reduce your power usage.

To conduct an audit, start by taking a quick walk through each room in the house, and look at what's plugged into each outlet. Are there devices plugged in that are not in use? Once you know what's plugged in, you can start quantifying how much energy each appliance draws. There are two ways to accomplish this task: Look up your appliance power usage online, or measure the power usage directly using a plug-in power consumption meter, such as the Poniie ($27, Amazon) or P3 International ($35, Amazon).

For a quick estimate of where your phantom loads are, Berkeley Labs gives an excellent overview of the standby power used by many household appliances. For example, a desktop computer can draw as much as 21 watts of power in sleep mode, and 74 watts when left idle. Simply closing your laptop at the end of the day is not the same as powering it down.

How can you reduce or eliminate phantom loads?

Once you've identified the devices responsible for the phantom loads in your home, you can minimize the power they're drawing. For TVs, computers, phones, and game consoles, use the power-saving settings, if available. To eliminate the phantom loads, unplug any devices you're not using. Another option is to use a smart power strip, which will power down appliances when they're not in use, or a WiFi smart plug ($16, Amazon), which provides energy monitoring and smart scheduling of your devices. Simple actions like these add up. According to SaveOnEnergy.com, you can save up $131 per year by unplugging your printer or using a smart power strip.

What about those obvious power hogs? Refrigerators and freezers are always running; by adjusting the setpoint temperature, you can ensure your food stays fresh while reducing how hard your appliance needs to work. Refrigerators can be set to 38°F, while your freezer can be anywhere between 0 to 5°F. Take a look at the current target temperature, and adjust as necessary.

Changing temperature settings is also a powerful tool for water heaters; the higher the temperature setting, the more power is consistently drawn to hold water at that temperature. Adjusting down just one or two degrees won't be perceptible in the water coming out of your faucet, but it can make a dent in your electricity bill.

Saving electricity can save you money, and it's the right thing to do for the environment. For more great tips on saving electricity, check out energy.gov and Energy Star, and use this checklist to help track your energy-saving actions. Many local power companies also provide free home energy audits. Check with your local provider to see what's available in your area. These steps are easy to take, and the cost savings can be substantial.

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