House and Home

Energy Experts Name Cable Boxes as One of the Biggest Electricity-Draining Devices in U.S. Homes


As if Americans needed another reason to hate their cable companies, energy experts are now pointing to set-top cable boxes as one of the most power-hungry electrical devices in the home.

According to an article in the L.A. Times, cable boxes (or cable/DVR combo devices) are second only to air conditioners in terms of wattage consumed, at least in Southern California homes. Some brands can even command up to 35 watts of energy, possibly amounting to an extra $8 on the monthly electricity bill.

Even more infuriating is the fact that customers have no choice in the matter. If a household wants to install cable, they're pretty much forced to hook up the box (or multiple boxes) they're offered.

And simply hitting the "off" switch does little to quell a device's energy consumption. Cable/DVR boxes use nearly the same amount of energy whether on or off, mostly for purposes of updating on-screen guides or powering hard drives.  Unplugging the device is always an option, but as most digital cable subscribers already know, it takes minutes, if not much longer, to start back up.

The California Energy Commission's Andrew McAllister told the L.A. Times that this is a "classic case of market failure," in that the average cable customer gets "zero information and zero control over the devices they get." And this doesn't look like it's going to change in the near future.

On the bright side, the cable and satellite companies have recently agreed — voluntarily — to begin to tackle the energy issue. In late 2013, they signed a deal to reduce their devices' consumption by 10 to 45 percent in the next three years, although there's no penalty in place for companies that fail to live up to their end of the bargain.

It's also a "very modest" deal, according to a research director at the Consumer Federation of America. Experts who spoke with the L.A. Times actually believe that cable companies could reduce power consumption much further by utilizing the same microprocessors as smartphones, or by implementing a "sleep mode." The problem is, there's no incentive to install this new technology. After all, why should the cable companies redesign their boxes with expensive new features when customers are footing the electricity bills?

Until the big cable companies cave, however, it sounds like there's very little subscribers can do about their energy-sucking set-top boxes.