The Battle Against Phantom Energy (and No, It's Not a Cheap Sci-Fi Thriller)

Here's an energy statistic that recently grabbed my attention, "on average, 75 percent of all energy used to power household electronics is sent to these devices while they are turned off, according to the U.S. Department of Energy," wrote Graham Hill and Meaghan O'Neill in "Ready Set Green: Eight Weeks to Modern Eco-Living." The authors go on to write, "We actually spend more money to power our DVD players and audio equipment, for example, while they're in standby mode than while they're entertaining us."

It's called "phantom energy" and means the wasted electricity that flows into our appliances when they're just sitting on a shelf collecting dust not in use. And I can say that if there's any wasteful habit I'm guilty of, this is undoubtedly at the top of the list.

I leave my laptop plugged in 24/7 except when I'm taking it somewhere. My desk light is always plugged in, as is my room lamp. The same goes for the massive entertainment system -- wall projector, TV, DVD player, a couple of video game consoles, surround sound system -- that my roommates and I use in our living room.

If there's anyone guilty of sucking up the phantom energy, it's me.

But the times they are a-changing. Today's lifestyle tweak is simple (or so I initially thought): I set a goal today to unplug all of my appliances and other things that use electricity when not in use and to plug them back in only when I needed them.

At first, it wasn't so bad. It took me, at the most, five minutes to unplug a decent amount of appliances.

But after unplugging and then plugging back in my room lamp seven or eight times, I will admit it got a bit tedious and annoying. And that's just one plug in a room with maybe 10 or 15 appliances needing electricity. You can see where I'm going with this.

So what to do about this phantom energy problem? I don't want to waste 75 percent of all the energy I use to power the stuff in my room, but I also don't want to crouch down and climb under my desk to pull out five plugs each time I leave my desk for some reason.

Here's my solution: Use power strips. The ones with On/Off switches. What I ended up doing was digging an unused power strip out of my basement, plugging as many of the appliances in my room as I could into the strip and the plugging the strip into the wall, and when I'm not using those appliances, all I have to do is turn off the power strip. It's that simple, and you can get a decent, reliable power strip at any big-box electronics store for $20 or $25.

With the On/Off switch, you turn off the power to the strip and eliminate all of that wasted phantom energy. You might not notice the difference all that much in the dorms, where you don't pay electricity bills, but you certainly will in an apartment or house where you pay utilities.

I have yet to tackle the entertainment system in my living room -- first, because I don't own any of the appliances and don't really want to tamper with them and, second, because the mess of cords and wires and plugs is so complicated that I'm afraid of pulling out the wrong plug and crashing the entire thing. But I'll bring it up with my more tech-savvy roommates and try to sell them on it.

Update: The laundry I wrote about earlier is all done -- clean, smelling good and washing entirely with all-natural, eco-friendly detergent. The few shirts I tried to air-dry are still a bit damp almost two days later, and they're really wrinkled too. On the benefits of the air-drying, I remain a skeptic.