Phantom Power: What It Is and Why You Should Care
Phantom Power - you can't see it, and until you get your electric bill, you probably don't notice it. But you can do something about it.
Here's a quick quiz:
- In your house, is Alexa sitting on the counter, awaiting your next command?
- Is there a digital clock keeping time in the guestroom no one ever uses?
- Is your electric toothbrush plugged in next to the sink, ready for action?
- And, finally: Is your electric bill higher than you think it should be?
If you answered yes to any of those questions – particularly the last one – your home and wallet are victims of phantom power: an invisible drain of electricity that could be costing you several hundred dollars a year.
What is Phantom Power?
Perhaps better described as phantom energy loss, "phantom power" goes by many names: standby loss, vampire draw, ghost load, idle load, or, if you want to sound technical, baseload consumption. It's the trickle of electrical energy lapped up 24/7 by your home's maintenance systems and anything that's plugged into a wall outlet.
You'll never rid your house entirely of phantom power loss. A steady stream of electricity is necessary for your home's baseline operation (powering your refrigerator and water heater, for example) and to keep you synced to the outside world (through your TV or cable modem). But most phantom power is just wasteful and costly to your household budget and the environment.
How Much Phantom Power Is My House Using?
Phantom power loss is difficult to assess, and homeowners can measure it in different ways. Studies from the early 2000s estimated that phantom power accounted for about 10% of an average home's electrical usage. More recent studies, including a 2015 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, put that percentage much higher, at 23%. This figure was supported in a 2018 customer survey conducted by the electrical monitoring company Sense. That survey of 4,271 households that use Sense's monitoring device placed the annual cost of phantom power at $308 per household, based on an average electric price of $0.1289 per kWh. It also points out that this "always-on" power uses more electricity in the average home than lighting, refrigeration, and space heating combined. Add it all up, and you have a power drain that costs US homeowners nearly $41 billion annually while sending 317 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
Why the apparent increase? One possible factor, cited in a 2020 research report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, is the rise in mandated household systems such as fire alarms or battery backups. But the bigger culprit is the explosive growth in consumer electronics (the so-called "Internet of Things") that has occurred over the last 20 years.
It's simple: the more devices you plug in, the greater the drain. And that's true even though individual devices have gotten better at limiting the amount of electricity they use in standby mode. In the Sense survey, homes with 15 or more consumer electronics—such as TVs, DVRs, game consoles, and cable boxes—trickled away four times as much energy as those with one or two devices. Big houses with many gadgets that made up the top 10% of energy wasters had 15 times the energy loss of the "energy sippers" in the bottom 10%.
But there is good news. The research also indicates that if those homes losing gobs of power lower their phantom power drain to what the median home loses—about 350W—it could cut overall energy use in the US by 10% and save homeowners $18 billion annually.
How Can I Prevent Phantom Power?
Phantom power loss is challenging to quantify, but here are some ways to determine if it's lurking in your home.
- Start by analyzing your utility usage.
- Then take an inventory.
- After that, test your devices.
- Finally, consider getting a Home Energy Monitor.
Now, let's dig into each of these.
Analyze Usage Data from Your Utility
For a general sense of how much energy you may be wasting, look at the daily usage chart on your utility bill. Find days when you're not at home or that have the lowest consistent value. If it's consistently high, that's a red flag. For greater detail, see if your utility supports "Green Button" data, enabling homeowners to download their energy data and analyze it through various companion apps.
Take an Inventory
Go through your house and list every electrical device you have in a spreadsheet, including the location and model. Use information from the manufacturer, or this consumption chart from the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, to determine each device's phantom power draw. You can also find brand-specific standby power data on the wiki-style Idle Load Database at askdrpower.com, a free resource funded by the California Energy Commission and energy consultant HEA. Homeowners can add their own phantom load data to that provided by manufacturers and energy experts. The Dr. Power website also offers a free smartphone app to help homeowners rein in phantom power.
Test Your Devices
A wattmeter, such as Kill A Watt, is an inexpensive device that plugs into the wall to measure how much standby power a particular device uses. Many public libraries, local environmental groups, and utilities will loan them to homeowners. Some smart plugs can also tell you how much power devices use when you aren't using them.
Invest in a Home Energy Monitor
A more expensive but comprehensive approach to monitoring your home's energy use is a home energy monitor installed in your electrical panel. These can help identify energy-wasting appliances, track energy use, and notify you via a mobile app of unusual spikes in usage.
What Home Products Use the Most Phantom Power?
If you know your home is leaking energy but not sure what to unplug, you're not alone. According to a Harris Poll conducted along with the Sense survey, 82 percent of respondents had no idea where their phantom power drain was coming from.
But some devices are known to contribute to phantom power losses. Here are the prime suspects and what you can do to prevent them from wasting energy:
What Are Plug Loads?
These include anything that plugs into a wall, such as digital clocks, small appliances, electric toothbrushes, printers, power adapters, and device chargers.
What to Do: Unplug these when not in use and when devices are fully charged. If a transformer is warm to the touch, that's a clue that it's drawing phantom power. Small appliances used at routine times—such as coffee-makers or towel warmers—can be on a timer.
How Can You Reduce Energy Lost From Home Office Equipment?
This includes desktop computers, monitors, faxes, and printers.
What to Do: Plug your computer and peripheral equipment into a power strip that you can shut off after use to disconnect them from the power supply. Or go a step further and replace your standard power strip with an "advanced" power strip that automatically shuts off electricity when devices are not in use. You can also reduce the standby power consumption of some computers by turning off components such as "wake on modem" or "wake on keyboard" that use power in standby mode.
How Can You Reduce Phantom Energy From Remote-Ready Electronics?
Remote-ready electronics can introduce phantom energy into the home. These include TVs and smart speakers, garage door openers, and other devices activated by remote control. See if your device has an energy-saving mode or consider upgrading to a new, ENERGY STAR model that uses less energy, whether awake or asleep.
How Can You Reduce Energy Lost From Connected Electronics?
The energy lost from connected electronics can originate from satellite boxes, cable modems, routers, and networked devices. Unplugging these devices isn't always an option, but newer models draw less power like their remote-ready relatives. ENERGY STAR-certified set-top boxes, for example, are on average 25 percent more efficient, so check with your cable or satellite service to see if they're an option.
How Can You Reduce Phantom Energy From Large Appliances?
Large appliances such as refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, washers, and dryers can introduce phantom energy into your home. It's impractical to unplug most large appliances, and you certainly can't unplug your refrigerator. But you can get rid of that energy-hogging spare one chugging away in the garage. If you're replacing any large appliance, chose an ENERGY STAR model for consistent savings.
How Can You Reduce Energy Wasted by Builder-Installed or Continuous Loads?
Builder-installed or continuous loads components include thermostats, furnaces, GFCI outlets, security systems, sump or recirculation pumps, and any device where continuous operation is necessary. Except for switching off your furnace in summer, you can't simply turn these systems off without defeating their purpose. Should you have occasion to replace them, though, consult your contractor about energy-saving options.
Will Phantom Power Ever Disappear?
Since 1999, governments and industries have made steady progress through legislation, stricter efficiency standards, and energy-saving technologies to shrink the toll of phantom power on our electrical grid. The current research by DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Lab suggests that standby power losses for many consumer products, including remote-controlled TVs, could be lowered to zero or near zero with further development of existing technologies. Homeowners can do their part, too, by taking steps to curtail phantom power loss in their homes and by urging lawmakers to enact measures like idle-load labeling so consumers can avoid energy-wasting products. Phantom power loss may always haunt us, but we have the tools to make it a lot less scary.
Debra Judge Silber
Debra Judge Silber is a Connecticut-based journalist who writes on home design with an eye toward practices that support our health and our planet. She is a former editor at This Old House, Fine Homebuilding and Inspired House, and has written for a number of other publications.