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Put your DVR on an energy diet

DVRs and set-top boxes consume, and waste, a lot of energy. Boosting energy efficiency requires changes in how electronics are designed and what consumers demand from service providers.

The case of the energy-hogging set-top boxes and DVRs highlights the challenges of changing existing industry and consumer practices to boost energy efficiency.

The New York Times yesterday ran an in-depth look at the issues surrounding set-top boxes and DVRs, which have become the biggest energy consumer in many homes. The National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, published an analysis two weeks ago which found that set-top boxes consume more energy than the TVs they're connected to, and more than EnergyStar refrigerators. Because they're on all the time, they cost consumers $2 billion a year when they're not in use, and all together they consume as much energy in a year as the state of Maryland.

Set-top boxes have become as smart as computers and big power consumers, using as much as energy as refrigerators. Motorola

The voluntary EnergyStar program is set to address set-top boxes and DVRs in the near future, but better product design and changes to consumer behavior can move the needle on efficiency now, which is the case in other industries as well.

For manufacturers, energy efficiency simply isn't one of the top priorities, and those companies aren't being prodded on efficiency by cable operators, consumers, or regulators. In fact, cable operators often do updates at night, so they would rather keep the devices on at all times, the Times article notes. Meanwhile, consumers don't want to wait a long time to "boot up" up their TV or lose out on the ability to record shows.

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But there are technical fixes. The NRDC notes that a cable box operator in the U.K. has designed a system that has three modes--on at 22.5 watts, sleep at 13.2 watts, and deep sleep at 0.65 watt. The boxes have been programmed to power down automatically, wake up to record shows, and wake every half hour to check a subscriber's smartphone for recording requests.

Meanwhile, consumers have a role to play, too, with their day-to-day actions and the equipment they choose to use. If you don't have a DVR that needs to be on all the time, you can put your TV and set-top box on a power strip and turn that off, or use a smart strip that cuts the stand-by power to zero for peripheral devices.

Energy Star 4.0 will have more stringent efficiency requirements, which consumers can request. Requesting Energy Star gear may not be business-as-usual for your cable or satellite operator, but it's a signal that you're not keen on having energy vampires at home.