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Reality Check: How much power do 'vampire electronics' really drain? ©Getty Images
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Reality Check: How much power do 'vampire electronics' really drain?

Published: 24th May, 2022 at 04:00
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Can you save £££s by switching off appliances at the mains, as suggested by some headlines?

In April, British Gas published a report claiming households could save an average £147 per year on their energy bills by switching off devices that drain power when left on standby.

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The finding sparked the latest conversation about so-called ‘vampire electronics’ – devices that consume electricity when they’re on standby mode or at other times you may not think they are – such as phone chargers plugged in at the wall but not connected to a phone, which will add a few pence to your bill.

So how much power are these devices draining, and can we do anything about it to lower our bills?

In its report, British Gas named set-top boxes, satellites, internet routers and TVs as the top three worst offenders when it comes to wasting money by being unnecessarily left on standby. Microwaves, games consoles and computers also drain a lot of energy on standby, it said.

It used a survey carried out by YouGov to understand appliance use in UK households in April 2022, and combined that with their latest energy prices to understand the potential cost of vampire gadgets, a spokesperson for British Gas said.

“This is a ‘could’ scenario and ‘up to’ this amount – this is based on what people are telling us, so it’s not an exact science but our aim is to start the conversation to highlight the tips around turning things off when not in use,” the spokesperson said.

“A good top tip is to replace things with more energy-efficient models when you can and we especially see big savings from items like washing machines and dishwashers amongst our customers.”

Craig Melson, associate director for climate, environment and sustainability for trade body techUK, says it’s hard to calculate a figure for the average percentage of bills which come from vampire devices as there are too many variables.

“We all have different tariffs, and some people use flexible energy services and smart meters to lower bills and have differing devices,” he says.

Others have also attempted to name a figure, however. Energy Saving Trust advises that households can save around £55 a year just by turning appliances off standby mode.

“Most electrical appliances can be turned off at the plug without impacting their programming,” a spokesperson said.

An earlier 2012 study highlighted home entertainment systems, VCRs and printers as high users of energy on standby mode. And another 2017 study cited Energy Saving Trust findings in 2014, which stated that standby demand can range from 9 to 16 per cent of a household’s total electricity consumption.

But the problem with using older studies as a basis for understanding how much money we are currently wasting due to vampire devices is that standby modes have become far more energy efficient in recent years.

“Since the mid-2010s, the European Union has had regulations on standby consumption of electronic devices in order to minimise the amount of electricity being used on standby,” says Sara Walker, professor of energy at Newcastle University.

This has led most new devices to use far less energy than older ones. Meanwhile, Walker notes, the number of devices that we own, and the number that are internet-enabled, has increased.

“Although one device might use less, overall, we’re still using about the same amount of electricity for our appliances, because we’re using them more, and we own more of them,” she says. “When you’ve got 10 or 15 of those in the house, as opposed to two or three, it can still add up over a full year.”

Turning off these devices at the plug when not in use is a fairly easy win on energy bills, says Walker.

“Obviously, this is a no-cost measure, which has its advantages for people who are really struggling with their bills,” she says.

However, manufacturers should also make sure they make this easy for us, she adds. For example, by making sure you don’t need to reset a clock to make a device work when you turn it back on.

Melson says the rollout of smart meters in the UK is also helping by informing people how much they are spending on electricity. Meanwhile, investing in low-cost smart plugs and smart home tech – which can cost under £20 – allows you to power devices down using your phone.

However, Walker explains that for most people, gas consumption is a larger part of overall energy consumption than electricity.

Small measures can help here too, such as using the shower instead of the bath to cut down on hot water demand, draught-proofing by closing the curtains and using draught excluders on doors, and wearing warm clothing. And for those who can afford it, insulation – starting with the loft – is a great way to reduce the heat loss, she adds.

Walker notes that our electricity consumption today is connected to social networks and the way that we like to use our free time. Much of our energy use comes from surfing the internet, streaming or watching television, or cooking.

“Some of that is a personal choice, but even so the price that we pay for the energy in order to do those things is outside of our control, it’s market forces,” she says. “And there’s a limit to our individual power to reduce that.”

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Authors

Jocelyn is a freelance climate and science journalist.

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