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Unplug Your Cable Box to Save Money

This article was written by in Frugality. 24 comments.


Set-top boxes continuously run in homes who have them. Cable boxes, satellite boxes, and digital video recorders (DVRs) are designed to constantly remain on, even while no one in the household is home. According to the National Resources Defense Council, these devices cost $3 billion to run every year, and $2 billion of that cost is incurred while the boxes are not being used.

Part of the problem is the design of the boxes. Television providers want the ability to communicate with the boxes at any time, for example, to send software upgrades late at night when fewer people are watching television, and so they don’t encourage consumers to turn the boxes off. The boxes are also designed to take a long time to reboot and download programming guides, so powering down the boxes frequently could be a nuisance for customers who don’t want to wait before being able to tune into their favorite shows. Furthermore, for those with DVRs, shutting off the boxes might result in a missed recording.

Turning off the cable boxes — many households have more than one — is an easy way to reduce the power bill. The issue isn’t just affording to pay the bills, however.

In 2010, set-top boxes in the United States consumed approximately 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is equivalent to the annual output of nine average (500 MW) coal-fired power plants. The electricity required to operate all U.S. boxes is equal to the annual household electricity consumption of the entire state of Maryland, results in 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions…

The average new cable high-definition digital video recorder (HD-DVR) consumes more than half the energy of an average new refrigerator and more than an average new flat-panel television. Even more troubling, when not displaying or recording video content, U.S. boxes draw nearly as much power as they do when in use.

The NRDC offers suggestions for manufacturers and television providers to improve energy consumption, but it could be worthwhile for consumers to get in the habit of removing the cable box from the power source on a regular basis. Turning the power off often just results in turning the clock display off with the device remaining on to communicate with the cable or satellite company and for programming to be available immediately when the box is turned on. Unplugging or shutting off power (via a wall switch) is the best way to ensure the box is not consuming any power.

For those who use the DVR to record programs while they are away — and DVRs consumer 40% more energy than boxes without recording technology — there are more ways to view programs you missed. Many content providers offer a wider selection of shows to be viewed at a later time (like Comcast’s “On Demand”), and networks offer full episodes to be streamed from network websites.

Photo: meddygarnet
National Resources Defense Council [pdf]

Published or updated June 27, 2011. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Eric J. Nisall

There was a big deal a few years ago with the “Cable Card”, a PCMCIA card that looked like a laptop card, which was supposed to be a close alternative set-top boxes and supposedly going to not only save the consumers hundreds of dollars a year on box rentals but electricity as well. Then the media companies realized that they didn’t have the same control as they do with set-tops plus the consumers lost the ability to purchase movies, PPV events, and perform other two-way activities. Suffice it to say, the media companies got rid of them real quick and locked consumers into rental and service fees for boxes and DVR service. Me, I got rid of all but the basic package, yet I still get all the local channels plus ION in HD through my TV’s built in digital decoder some how, leaving me with the electrical savings as well as the cable-free savings (and I don’t miss it at all).

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avatar Kristin

Who do we start to communicate about the design of these boxes? Having learned how much power they use, I want to start turning it off when I know I won’t be using it or recording anything.

It seems like such a waste of both energy and money. I would like to limit my use of both.

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avatar rewards ♦31 (Newbie)

One way to communicate your opinion is to take your dollars elsewhere. You don’t have to rent/buy the boxes that are offered by your service provider. Search the internet for a model that you like and tell others about it.

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avatar wylerassociate ♦162 (Cent)

i’m one of the many people who leave my cable box and modem on all day at home when i’m at work. But I’ll have to start turning off my modem, router, & cable box soon.

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avatar Ceecee ♦53 (Newbie)

This is very surprising. Can you just use a power strip and turn it off?

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avatar Eric J. Nisall

Any time you disrupt the power connection from a cable box, the receiver takes time to reboot the time and date settings as well as any 2-way communications such as the channel guide and DVR functionality (if you have anything set for that particular time). That’s the big drawback regarding these services in regards with trying to conserve energy and reduce energy bills.

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avatar skylog ♦368 (Nickel)

this is the killer for me. i should do this, but it sometimes takes quite a while before everything is synced back. if i am going to use the service, i want to use it. should i cut out the service? that could be the true argument for me.

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avatar Cejay ♦1,521 (Half-Dollar)

I used to have all of our TV type gadgets plugged into a power strip and turned it off to help on our electric bill a few years back. It was really annoying waiting for it to come on or not being able to record a TV show because some update did not download.

I am actually thinking of doing away with ours all together and using Hulu or On Demand. I just want to save some of the money we are spending on these cable bills

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avatar Jon -- Free Money Wisdom

I don’t even have cable. It isn’t necessary–there are more important things to be doing than sitting in front of your television for hours wasting time. Plus, it saves money — and gives you more opportunity to save!

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avatar Thedogeofsl ♦139 (Cent)

Yeah, we disconnected our Dish Network a few years ago when we realized we never watched it anyway. Anything that’s worth watching will be on Netflix pretty quickly anyway. I now make a point of turning off the power strips to which our various electronics are attached whenever I can. It’s surprising how many of these “vampire” power drains there are and how much difference it makes to kill them when you go to bed.

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avatar qixx ♦1,890 (Half-Dollar)

You can also use smart power strips or ones with USB control. You can program different plugs for different things. You can get ones that kill power at certain times. After a quick search i even found one with USB support that will kill power to everything after is stops pulling a USB draw. Since my cable box has a USB port (not sure what for yet) this might be a way to get it to kill power when i turn off the cable box. Now to find one that works with my harmony remote control…

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avatar Michael Je

My sister and I had a conversation just yesterday about this and the related issue of whether surge protector strips work when turned off (most opinions say they do). When we went online we discovered a line of strips from Belkin that had various power saving options: remote control, dedicated always-on combinations, etc. There was even one which sensed when the line which was plugged into it was not in use, like your TV, then it would shut down the adjacent 5 plug-ins. All these were also surge protectors. The prices were reasonable enough and the convenience of shutting down multiple devices (and thus saving more $ and CO2) got our attention. In neither our economic nor our environmental situation can we afford to shirk the little things because, as this well presented article points out: it all adds up to big effects.

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avatar Sustainable PF

We’ve reduced our phone/internet/cable from about $170 per month down to just over $40 per month. We watch TV on the web, we got a lower cost Internet provide and MagicJack handles our phone needs. $130 a month x 12 months is over $1500 annually. I need to write about this one …

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avatar Bobka ♦13 (Newbie)

If you are really into saving energy and the cost to run electronics, you should also be turning off the power to your computers at night.

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avatar Thedogeofsl ♦139 (Cent)

Yep. Pretty much any electronic component has a vampire power drain these days. If you shut down your DSL router and wireless router as well (for those of you that have ‘em), you’ll also find that your Internet connection tends to run faster. Wireless routers tend to slow down if they’re not rebooted on a regular basis.

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avatar shellye ♦107 (Cent)

I had no idea about this power drain, and I’m fairly conscientious about saving energy. Thanks for the info.

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avatar Ryan

Wow, this is incredibly wasteful! Just another reason for people on tight budgets to stop wasting hundreds per month on cable bills and instead rely on PC based services for their home entertainment.

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avatar Thedogeofsl ♦139 (Cent)

We’re not on a particularly tight budget, but we dumped our Dish service years ago because we just weren’t watching TV very much. I have to say we don’t miss it. Besides, most levels of Netflix subscription are far cheaper than most cable/sat offerings and the range of offerings is incredible. And, of course, digital broadcast TV offers a lot more options that analog used to.

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avatar Will @ HackingTheBank.com ♦258 (Nickel)

Any numbers on what this costs per household per year? Numbers for the industry are neat, but not really actionable. There’s a price to pay for the convenience of not having to turn on/off your boxes and worry about things not being recorded. Without seeing actual numbers I’d guess my cable box is probably costing me $10/mo at most? At that price, I’ll keep my box on. If anybody has found household numbers though, please post.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,485 (Platinum)

According to the PDF I linked to in the article, a household configuration including only one HD set-top box consumes on average 275 killowatt-hours per year. In New Jersey, the average kWh cost (data from February 2011) is $0.16, so that’s approximately $44 a year or $3.67 a month. Perhaps not worth the effort for an individual consumer to worry about. Many typical household configurations include more than one set-top box, though, so the cost could be more.

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avatar Thedogeofsl ♦139 (Cent)

And, of course, many households also have lots of other “vampire” power consumers (computers, cordless phone charging and base stations, DSL modems, wireless routers, TVs and other electronic components). I don’t know if there are any data on all of those, but it stands to reason that they’d add up pretty quickly.

Personally, I just try to use as little power as I can as a matter of principle. The cost savings is just an added benefit.

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avatar rick c

the answer is to put certain things on a timer and surge supressor. i set my timer for 2pm on and 2am off. cuts your elec. bill by 45%. this way it’s usually loaded and ready for me , except on sundays @ 1.for NFL.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

I have been wrestling with the cable thing for over a year. When the bill went up 2x in a 6 month period, I’d had it. I took out 2 boxes and reduced to the basic package. I watch DVD’s in my room at night to fall asleep by and use Netflix if I want to watch a TV show. I’ll continue to tweak my habits until I feel I’m no longer being taken advantage of. It’s a matter of feeling like I’m being held hostage. I’m not comfortable paying someone to hold something over me.

I am trying to remember to unplug the one remaining box. Sometimes I fail at this, Sometimes I don’t.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

Update on my actions: I remember to unplug the box most days. As soon as I dropped the ‘ protection plan’ my receiver didn’t work and I had to have someone come out to ‘fix’ it. I mentioned how convenient it was that the system stopped working as soom as I dropped the plan. I got a free visit and a new updated box.

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