It's Not Easy Being Green
July 2007

Kermit the Frog was talking about color when Jim Hensen's popular Muppet character uttered the phrase "it's not easy being green", but that phrase lends itself especially well to the more modern ecological interpretation of the word "green".

I've been playing with electricity and electronics since I was a pre-teen.  Soldering was as natural to me as walking, and my parents were always afraid to step into my room for fear of electrocution.  Crank the clock forward three decades through energy crisis', inflation, oil wars and skyrocketing fuel costs and I'm finding that my technophile nature needs an environmentally friendly and budget conscious adjustment.

It is NOT as easy as it seems.

Let's start with the single most common electrical device in your home...  the light bulb.

CFL (compact fluorescent) bulbs seem like a no-brainer, don't they?  They're sure being marketed aggressively enough.  Canada is even talking about outlawing incandescent bulbs, eh!  Sure, replace each incandescent bulb with a CFL "equivalent" that supposedly lasts ten times as long, and save 60%-75% in electricity costs, right?

First, I find it very interesting that the CFL bulbs cost ten times as much as incandescents.  Don't you?  I know they don't cost that much more to produce!  Someone is making a handsome profit here...

But CFL bulbs have environmental issues of their own.  They all contain mercury - a highly toxic element that has been banned from many uses - and devices containing mercury must be taken to special recycling facilities when consumed.  Yeah, that's gonna happen.  A broken bulb requires haz-mat handling techniques that most people haven't a prayer of knowing.  And most CFL lamps cannot be used with dimmers or even simple room occupancy sensors (the automatic switches that turn off lights when you leave the room).  Seems a bit counter-productive, no?

CFL bulbs are limited in power range and styles and even the big box stores don't yet carry the high powered and 3-way models.  They also produce an unusual spectrum of light that doesn't translate very well to the current crop of incandescents, with odd color spikes that don't entirely reflect the rated color temperatures.  The unusual spectra sometimes results in the appearance of less light output than the lumen ratings claim and makes these bulbs impractical in places like bathrooms and kitchens where people need to judge the colors of clothing, makeup and food.  They also have color perception implications with photography and artwork and pose dangers to UV -sensitive materials such as thermal print media and photos.

CFL bulbs also exhibit some unfavorable electrical characteristics, such as radio interference and miserably low power factor.  At the risk of over-simplification, the poor power factor translates to less efficient use of the wires, transformers and generators that produce electricity and deliver it to your premises.  Even though poor PF may not affect your utility bills directly, it most certainly affects your energy bills indirectly in higher fuel consumption costs and higher subsystem maintenance costs passed down to you through your base kW/h rates.

Cable television boxes are an insidious problem too.  Take for example my Scientific Atlanta "Explorer 2200" cable converter, supplied by Time Warner Cable.  It draws 13 Watts, no matter whether it's on or off, and with a power factor of just 0.54 it's actually consuming 25 Volt-Amperes, and doing so 24 hours a day whether you're watching TV or not.

If that doesn't seem like much, consider that the TV only gets used around six hours per day on average.  Consider NYC with almost 2 million cable subscribers, some of whom possess more than one box.  If the cable boxes instead had a 1 Watt standby mode and perfectly reasonable .85 power factor, that could save over a million kilowatt hours of electricity every day just in New York City alone.  Each New Yorker with a cable box could save $35 a year in electricity if the set-top boxes were designed sensibly.

Watch the standby current requirements and power factor ratings on your fancy new plasma and LCD television sets, too.  At least one large screen TV draws over 70W when turned off, never mind their overall efficiency when turned on.

Efficient appliances are another challenge.  We wanted a new refrigerator for our apartment but nothing is ever simple.  You wouldn't think we'd have a problem, with Home Depot maintaining 259 Energy Star -rated SKUs in the refrigerator category, but there are just two Energy Star rated fridges in the under-65" category so frequently required in New York City apartments.  If you're interested in any convenience features, forget it.  Oh well, we wanted new cabinets in my kitchen anyway...

High Performance Computing has spiraled way out of control too.  Perhaps it's ridiculous to expect "efficiency" during this mad chase of gigahertz and teraflops, but the manufacturers of graphics cards in particular are showing a complete disregard for the environment and absolutely zero respect for the consumers' electric bills.

ATI gets the poorest marks this year, with their new flagship XT2900-XTX video card, which when completely idle draws sixty watts more than their prior flagship X1950-XTX.  If you're one of those folks who leaves their system on 24x7, that's a $100 per year increase in electricity costs for buying a graphics card that still can't keep up with an NVIDIA product introduced several months prior.

With the manufacturers of PC power supplies reaching outstanding efficiency goals and with Intel and AMD proudly showing off how much work per Watt they can achieve in the CPU market, there's just NO REASON for this kind of inefficiency in GPUs.

I'm trying to fight the Good Fight here but it's difficult.

If you haven't seen a Kill-A-Watt meter yet, you really need to try one out.  This inexpensive gadget - less than $20 on - measures the energy draw of your gadgets and appliances (up to 15A), and also monitors line voltage and frequency.  It's very simple to use.  Choose a device whose current you wish to measure and remove its plug from the AC socket, plug it into the Kill-A-Watt, then plug the Kill-A-Watt into the AC socket.

The line voltage is nice to know since if it's too low, your heavy appliances could become less efficient or even suffer damage.  Frequency is mostly academic in these days of fairly reliable utilities.  Knowing the wattage and power factor of your electrical devices is what interests us the most and that's where this gadget shines.  It will show your power consumption in Amps, Watts and VA and indicates the PF as well.  Try it on your electronic equipment and be prepared for some nasty surprises.

There's no substitute for the obvious things like turning the lights off when you leave a room, and for you idiots who insist on believing it's not worth the wear and tear in order to justify your miserable laziness, there's an episode of MythBusters you need to watch.

You may also want to start putting things like your audiophile equipment on switched power strips, or even use a "smart strip" such as this LCG4 Smart Strip to handle switching power to your home theater system and computer system accessories.  I've also had good luck using a Craftsman Automatic Switch for this purpose even though it's really meant for power tools.

Stay vigilant...

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