US STBs slammed for energy waste
By Colin Mann

The 160 million set-top boxes installed in US homes cost $3 billion to operate, largely because the boxes never go to sleep, an environmental group reports.

Inactive boxes that aren’t recording or playing back shows account for about $2 billion of that cost, the study found. Hitting the off button only dims the box’s clock or display, leaving it to continue consuming nearly the same amount of power.

“When not displaying or recording video content, US television set-top boxes (STBs) continue to use almost as much power as when they are in use,” says Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington-based advocacy group that studied the devices. “The consumer, who pays the electric bill, has little choice about what television set-top box the service provider installs and how much energy it uses.”

The study – released to coincide with the NCTA Cable Show in Chicago – found that today’s average new cable high-definition digital video recorders use more than half the energy of an average new refrigerator and more than an average new flat panel TV. Two-thirds of their total energy consumption – the equivalent annual energy output of six coal-burning power plants – occurs when they’re not in use.

According to Horowitz, the challenge is finding a way to have the box go into a significantly lower power state when not in use as well as maintaining network connection, security and being able to resume functionality in short order.

“But solutions already exist. In Europe they’re making progress,” he notes. “For example, Sky TV now has three power levels on its DVR boxes: 22.5W On; 13.2W Sleep; 0.65W Deep Sleep. They’re programmed to auto power down at 11 p.m. to 0.65 Watts – but for those who tape late night shows, the boxes wake-up automatically to record programmes. Sky’s boxes also wake-up every half-hour to check for new programme recording requests entered by subscribers using smart phones,” he observes.

“If we switched to better boxes, we could dramatically cut our energy costs. We hope these findings help inform US service providers and set-top box manufacturers and lead them to develop and deploy more efficient boxes,” he states, adding that for consumers, help is on the way. “You can call your pay-TV service provider and request a set-top box that meets ENERGY STAR Version 4.0. That means you’ll have the most efficient box on the market, keeping the vampires on your screen, not next to it,” he advises, in an allusion the popular Vampire Diaries programme.