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Chewing up costly energy is the price of eternal readiness

Australians spend more than $1 billion a year and use 10 per cent of their electricity consumption keeping appliances asleep.

The most recent government survey of standby power consumption, published in December, found it cost an average household $136 a year and accounted for nearly 5.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

Home entertainment appliances and computer equipment suck up the most electricity in sleep mode, followed by large appliances such as washing machines and stereos, the survey found.

A professor of industrial design, Vesna Popovic, says the introduction of standby or sleep modes was meant to improve a device's function. "[An] answering machine would not be able to record if not left on standby," says Popovic, from the Queensland University of Technology.

But the feature quickly became a standard part of many appliances, and designers did not consider the significance of the cumulative energy consumption of many devices each using a small amount of power, she says.

Standby typically consumes only a fraction of the energy used when appliances are in full operation, but the survey found the number of appliances in each household was increasing. In 2010, the average house had 67 devices running on mains power, compared with 46 in 2000 and 55 in 2005. (Some houses in the most recent survey had as many as 175.) An average of 38 devices were plugged in at the time of the survey, and 25 of those were using standby power.


The survey, the third in a series conducted every five years for the federal, state, territory and New Zealand governments, examined power use in 150 Australian homes.

The curator of power technologies at the Powerhouse Museum, Debbie Rudder, says leaving appliances running on a small amount of power all day just so that they can be turned on with a remote control later is self indulgent.

Turning off some older appliances that use clocks, such as video recorders or microwaves, means having to reset the time, but most modern appliances have a built-in memory of the time so that it is correct when switched back on, she says. "It's not a big deal to bend down and turn something on when you get home."

Rudder says people may be reluctant to turn off appliances in part because of the basic difficulty in finding the off switch. Black writing on black plastic makes buttons impossible to find, she says.

It was the designers of transistor radios who introduced sleek, neat looking buttons to replace clunky switches, Rudder says. "They were supposed to look cool and inviting [but] that sort of aesthetic has been carried over into great bulky household appliances, where it doesn't need to be."

The director of the industrial design program at the University of Technology, Sydney, Berto Pandolfo, says designers initially made standby modes part of their devices to encourage owners to keep their product on.

But a greater sense of environmental awareness and the rising price of electricity have made consumers more willing to turn off appliances at the power point, he says.

And energy-saving devices that make it easy for people to turn off multiple devices with a central master switch have grown in popularity. "Now any red light that is on, we think to turn it off because it is consuming power."

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