When Off Doesn’t Mean Off

February 13th, 2011

With options for TV, radio, video on demand, and even internet, modern cable boxes have become increasingly complex.  Yesterday I watched a two year old sit on a cable remote control.  He changed the box into what I think was some sort of radio mode.  I think he also managed to overload the remote of the box or both, because nothing seemed to be working.  We were trying to watch the news of events in Egypt, so we tried to get the channel back.  We had to leave, so we shut off the TV, and left.  Later, someone had tried to turn the TV back on, and we found it still stuck in it’s jammed state, completely unresponsive to the remote.

Generally when a computer crashes like that you turn it off and then back on, and these gadgets and gizmos are more and more like little computers.  But, someone protested, we had already tried turning it on and off again.   So, I reached in behind the box, and pulled out it’s power cable to turn it off manually.  Of course, when it came back on everything was working just fine and one again I had saved the day.

It got me thinking about how often we turn ‘off’ gadgets and appliances without actually turning them off.  Lots of things have displays with clocks, but even more than that is our need for instant on.  When you turn on your TV, you want the picture to be there right away.  Nobody wants to wait for the box to boot up and then try to remember where it was last.  Standby power, or Vampire power, is the term given to the juice used by appliances when they are not being actively used.

Our washing machine has a little display window.  When you press the power button, the only analog button on the machine, it turns on the screen which shows you what settings have been selected and the estimated finish time of the cycle.  And we leave it on all the time.  Granted in my house the machine gets a lot of use, but still… for a lot of the time, it sits there idle, waiting.

I’m far more interested in this as a social and cultural phenomenon that plays to our need for constant feedback and instant gratification then as an environmental issue.  I think in the grand scheme of things, this is such a small fraction of the waste we create that our efforts are better suited else where.  And now to go where I said I wasn’t going to go, our electricity comes from the very same fuel sources that internal combustion engines use negating much of the electric car as savior of the environment argument in my mind.  Even more interesting than that was an article I read a couple of months ago (I can’t remember where) that talked about power usage and argued that the future is going to be in home power generators.  Apparently there is a tremendous amount of energy lost just by moving electricity from power stations to homes.

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