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Want to cut electric bills? Beware the 'phantom loads'

By Gary Foreman
Published: October 28, 2010

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for

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Question for the expert

Dear New Frugal You,
I'm confused about something called a "phantom electric load." Do turned off lights use electricity? What about can openers or toasters? And, if I have a lamp plugged into a wall switch, is it using any electricty if the light switch is not in the "on" position? -- Watt Wise

Answer for the expert

Dear Watt,
Watt Wise, you're on to something. Many of our appliances use some electricity even when they're turned off. It's something known as "standby power" to professionals, but commonly called "phantom loads" to me and you.

It's something that happens in almost every home. The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab estimates that 10 percent of residential electricity usage is consumed in phantom loads.

What are the most common phantom loads? You don't need to be an electrical engineer or have special tools to find them. Just look for appliances with an external power supply, remote control or continuous display.

Regular lights, can openers and toasters would not be among them, unless they have a built-in timer or other instant-on feature.

The biggest culprits are televisions, sound systems and microwave ovens. A typical "instant on" TV will still be consuming 28 watts when it's turned off. That's about 20 kilowatts per month, costing you about $1.75. Your microwave or charging station consumes about half as much as the TV.

When you add them all up, it's fairly common for the average home to spend $10 or more each month on phantom loads. What can you do about it?

Turning the appliance "off" isn't the answer. You must cut off its source of electricity. The problem is that it's not often practical to unplug each appliance from the wall outlet when it's not being used. In fact, electric plugs and outlets aren't designed for that. The solution is to plug your phantoms into a power strip with a built-in on/off switch. That way a simple switch cuts the power.

Unless you're a real electric miser, you'll be glad to pay for some phantom loads. For instance your telephone answering machine. Or the programmable coffee maker that has coffee ready when you get up in the morning (my favorite).

You may find that you'll put some items on a power strip and decide that the convenience of standby power of other items is worthwhile. The experiment can help you make up your mind.

For those items that you really want the convenience of standby features, look for the Energy Star label when you replace those appliances. Typically Energy Star products have a lower standby usage.

Bottom line: Armed with a little information, you can control which "phantoms" you allow in your home!

See related:  Tips to lower your electric billsA generic budget: Guidelines for spending categories, Filling your car's tires with nitrogen not worth the added cost, Buying a car? Know the 3 main costs of auto ownership, Don't be afraid of online coupon services -- they save money, too

For more than 35 years, Gary Foreman has worked to help people get the most for their money. Prior to founding The Dollar, he was a financial planner and purchasing manager. Gary began The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters in April 1996. Today the website features more than 6,000 articles on different ways to live better for less. Gary has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The Nightly Business Report, USA Today, Reader's Digest and other newspapers and magazines. Gary answers a question about a budgeting or saving issue from a reader each week. Send your question to The New Frugal You.