Phantoms and Vampires and Watts! Oh, My!

Earth Day is right around the corner (as in Sunday, April 22nd).

Before you let out a collective groan, I am not going to make you feel guilty for not feeding your family all grass-fed, organic, hormone and nitrate-free food. I am not going to point out your car is not terribly fuel efficient. And I am not going to begrudge you for refusing to spend five gallons of water rinsing the food residue from that jar of tomato paste (next time I’m getting the one in the tube!)

What I do hope to do is to give you an idea of something you can do with your kids which can help them (and you) understand how little things you do around the house can save energy – and money!

A few months ago, I noticed a blurb in my electric bill about a kit you could check out at the library to measure the “energy vampires” in your home. (And no, energy vampires are not your children, but appliances and other electronic devices which draw power when turned off or on standby mode). I promptly forgot about it until we visited the central library downtown and I noticed a display made up of boxes adorned with ghost-like drawings. Sure enough, they were Wattmeter Home Checkout Kits. I scooped one up, excited at my find.

The Kit contains a wattmeter and an information packet. The wattmeter is about the size of a camera and plugs into standard electrical outlets. It has a place to plug in whatever you want to measure — be it a lamp, TV, printer, phone charger, DVD player, video game console or desktop. Since the wattmeter is programmed with the average year-round cost of electricity here in Austin, you can use it to scroll through to see how much it costs you to power that device for an hour, day, week, month or year.

“Phantom loads” — the appliances that draw power when off or in standby mode — account for 10 percent of the average household’s electricity use, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. According to the Kit’s information packet, “a typical home has about 40 devices that draw phantom loads”. Just think, during the summer, when electric usage is at its peak, you could be paying more than $20 for appliances and other devices you aren’t even using!

You might find these watt-sucking devices in your home office, entertainment center, bathrooms and garage (think cordless screwdriver). To avoid wasted energy and  money, you can:Advertisement

  • use power strips and surge protectors to turn off the power to entertainment centers (a Smart Strip can keep power to certain devices that must stay on) when they are not in use;
  • unplug chargers when their job is done and
  • use timers in hard to reach areas or for devices that are in use during waking hours.

My sales pitch to my six-year-old son about how much fun it would be to test the devices around the house failed miserably, although he was curious enough to come to see what I was doing at one point (at least I’m modeling, right?!) I wasn’t allowed near our entertainment center, so I tested a lamp, bedside alarm clock, phone charger, printer, monitor, desktop and laptop. The desktop (which I tend to leave on all day, oops!) was the worst offender, at $7.53 a month. The laptop was $3.31 a month. (Note to self: perhaps constant access to my laptop to check the latest status update is not really necessary.)

Seriously, though, if my son were older, or if I check a Kit out again, I’ll see if we can try to guess the energy use of devices around the house and make it into a game or “science experiment”. It’s too bad we can’t measure the energy wasted when the bathroom light is left on or when someone forgets to turn off the ceiling fan when we leave for school. But at least it starts kids (and parents) thinking about the importance of unplugging things as part of the daily routine and puts a price on it. Energy is such an ethereal and abstract concept that the Wattmeter Home Checkout Kit can help make it real. So, the next time you leave a room, hopefully your family will take that extra moment to flip that switch.

You can preview the Kit packet, which includes a list of how to save money at home. You can also check out Austin Energy’s Energy Efficiency page, which includes links to rebates offered in partnership with the City of Austin.

What are you doing for Earth Day this year? What, if anything, does your family do to help conserve energy around your house?

Written by: Nicole Basham

About Nicole Basham 793 Articles
A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 10-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau's words, her mission is to "suck out all the marrow of life", or in her son's words, to cultivate in him a love of "advenchers".

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