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Q: My father-in-law has various rechargers and power cords that come with digital cameras, cell phones, laptop/portable computers, etc. While it is certainly convenient to leave all these various chargers/cords plugged into the outlets, are they drawing any power (and therefore wasting money) if the chargers and cords are not plugged into the actual device for either use or recharging?

A: Generally, the consumption of electric current only occurs when the camera, cellular phone or other item is actually charging. However, some types of cords and rechargers may use a very small amount of current at all times. This is known as a "phantom load." Unless there is a light on indicating some consumption, the only way you may be able to determine consumption is if the cord or charger is warm to the touch. Electric consumption by these items generally creates a little heat that is detectable by touch. If you determine that your father-in-law's cords and chargers are consuming electric 24 hours a day, about the only way to prevent it is to unplug them when not in use. If the specification sticker on the cord or charger gives standby consumption information, we may be able to calculate it for you. The information to look for is standby (or no load) kW and amperage consumption.

Most people probably don't realize that many electronics and gadgets contribute to energy use even when the device is not powered on. Common household power strips used with those electric items can consume even more power. Electric consumers should be aware that some appliances contain clocks, memories, remote controls, microprocessors and instant- on features that consume electricity any time they are plugged in — which is typically 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Devices that continue to consume power while seemingly not in use are called "phantom loads" and the consumption adds up quickly in today's increasingly technological world.

Many of the video game consoles, rechargeable portable music players and computers share an important characteristic: the tendency to keep using electricity, even when they're not in use, if they're plugged in to power adapters. The adapters drain a bit of electricity at all times, even if no device is plugged into them.

Other electricity draining items that are commonly plugged into adapters and consume energy even when not in use include high-definition televisions that can pull more than 10 watts of power, computers that draw energy while in sleep mode, personal digital assistants (PDAs), cellular telephones, BlackBerries and digital cameras.

A home entertainment system's components can consume as much as 30 watts of electricity when turned off. Over a 24-hour period, that is 720 watt-hours of energy used for nothing. Even as refrigerators, dryers and other big devices are becoming more efficient, consumers are relying more on personal electronics. The gadgets now account for 15 percent of electricity use, triple their share in 1980, and the federal government estimates personal electronics will account for one third of all electricity use by 2015. Power adapters get much of the blame, because they stay plugged in and draw a current when not in use. There are now five adapters for every American, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Individually, phantom loads may seem insignificant but when grouped together they are an enormous waste of electricity. In fact, the United States wastes about 43 billion kilowatt-hours of energy on phantom loads each year. That's enough energy to power the countries of Greece, Peru and Vietnam for a year. Electric consumers' first and easiest recourse against a hidden energy drain is simply unplugging an electric item when not in use. A more proactive approach is selecting more energy efficient appliances and other electrical items without built-in clocks or timers. Also, electronic memories should be avoided unless batteries within the device maintain the memory.


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