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Originally published Saturday, June 25, 2011 at 8:08 PM

Atop TV sets, a power drain that runs nonstop

Those little boxes that usher cable signals and digital-recording capacity into televisions have become the single largest electricity drain in many U.S. homes, with some typical home-entertainment configurations eating more power than a new refrigerator and even some central air-conditioning systems.

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Those little boxes that usher cable signals and digital-recording capacity into televisions have become the single largest electricity drain in many U.S. homes, with some typical home-entertainment configurations eating more power than a new refrigerator and even some central air-conditioning systems.

There are 160 million so-called set-top boxes in the United States, one for every two people, and that number is rising. Many homes now have one or more basic cable boxes as well as add-on DVRs, or digital-video recorders, which use nearly half-again as much power as the set-top box.

One high-definition DVR and one high-definition cable box use an average of 446 kilowatt hours a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator, a recent study found.

These set-top boxes are energy hogs mostly because their drives, tuners and other components are generally running full tilt, or nearly so, 24 hours a day even when not in active use.

The recent study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that the boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States — and 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded. That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months.

"People in the energy-efficiency community worry a lot about these boxes, since they will make it more difficult to lower home energy use," said John Wilson, a former member of the California Energy Commission, now with the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation. "Companies say it can't be done, or it's too expensive. But in my experience, neither one is true. It can be done, and it often doesn't cost much, if anything."

The perpetually "powered on" state is largely a function of design and programming choices made by electronics companies and cable and Internet providers, which are related to the way cable networks now function in the United States. Fixes exist, but they are not being mandated or deployed in the United States, critics say.

Similar devices in some European countries, for example, can automatically go into standby mode when not in use, cutting power drawn by half. They can also go into an optional "deep sleep," which can reduce energy consumption by about 95 percent compared with when the machine is active.

Alan Meier, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, said of the industry in the United States, "I don't want to use the word 'lazy,' but they have had different priorities, and saving energy is not one of them."

The Environmental Protection Agency has established Energy Star standards for set-top boxes, and it has plans to tighten and regulate them significantly by 2013, said Ann Bailey, director of Energy Star product labeling, in an email.

The voluntary seal indicates products that use energy efficiently. But today, there are many boxes on the list of products that meet the Energy Star standard that do not offer an automatic standby or sleep mode.

"If you hit the on/off button, it only dims the clock, it doesn't significantly reduce power use," said Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at the natural-resources council.

The industry has fought against more demanding specifications, saying they would harm business.

Energy efficiency is a function of hardware, software, the cable network and how a customer uses the service, said Robert Turner, consultant engineer at Pace, which makes set-top boxes that can operate using less power while not in use.

Sometimes energy efficiency can be vastly improved by remotely adjusting software over a cable, Turner said. In this way, Pace reduced the energy consumption of some of its older boxes by half.

Cable boxes are not designed to be turned completely off, and even when in deep sleep mode, it takes time to reconnect and "talk" with their cable or satellite network, though that time is highly variable depending on the technology.

Those devices may cause an increase of as little as a few dollars a month or well over $10 for a home with many devices. In Europe, electricity rates are often double those in the United States, providing greater financial motivation to conserve.

Cisco Systems, one of the largest makers of set-top boxes, said in an email that it would offer some new models this year that would cut consumption by 25 percent "through reduced power used in 'on' and standby states." There will be no deep sleep or fully "off" setting.

But Cisco said that taking advantage of the potential energy savings for a box would also depend on "how it is operated by the service provider." Cable and satellite providers will have to decide whether the boxes can automatically go to standby, for example, and whether customers will be able to adjust their own settings. Currently, providers often do system maintenance and download information at night over the cable, so an ever-at-the ready cable box is more convenient for them.

Wilson recalled that when he was on the California Energy Board, he asked box makers why the hard drives were on all the time, using so much power. The answer: "Nobody asked us to use less."

The biggest challenge in reducing energy use is maintaining the rapid response time now expected of home-entertainment systems, Turner said. "People are used to the idea that computers take some time to boot up," he said, "but they expect the TV to turn on instantly."

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