Vampire Hunting: What Is Running Up Our Energy Usage?

Vampire Hunting: What Is Running Up Our Energy Usage?

Written by Rudy Radelic

The cost of energy is something we consider at least once a month when the utility bill arrives. Like most anyone else reading this, I have seen our household electricity bill grow substantially over the past decade or two. We are likely to point our fingers at the rising utility rates, yet we often don’t stop to consider that our usage is creeping up also, year after year, in ways we may not realize.

I have observed this at home. Our lighting usage has evolved since first moving into this house in 2010. While we had mostly incandescent bulbs when we moved in, I replaced a few of those with compact fluorescent bulbs in the early 2010s and finally, over the past several years, have switched almost exclusively to LED bulbs throughout the house. You would think with those large drops in usage that It would affect our bill but no, it was still creeping upward despite that substantial savings in lighting costs.

If many LED bulbs use 1/5 to 1/6 the electricity of incandescents, shouldn’t that have made a bigger difference in the monthly bill?

Granted, we still have an older, inefficient refrigerator, and summers with the air conditioner running are always a pain in the wallet (despite replacing a decades-old compressor two summers ago). Our water heater and forced air furnace are fueled by natural gas. Our house is also a mix of energy efficiency and inefficiency in that the original part was built in 1940 (and not very well insulated), while the back third is an addition built in the mid-1980s.

Being empty nesters, there are only two of us in the house using lights, appliances, and electronics. But I can imagine larger households have seen a similar if not larger increase in electricity usage. We need to look beyond the obvious and begin itemizing exactly what we are using, so we can make sense of our true energy costs.

I long suspected there were other energy-consuming items in the house. For this article, I thought it would be enlightening to put an actual wattage number to some of the various gadgets around the house to see where all the energy goes.

The catalyst for my power usage investigation was the purchase of a portable Anker PowerHouse 521 120-volt power unit. I bought this mainly to power the refrigerator I carry in the car, the idea being to keep the refrigerator running while the car is parked or the engine stopped, and to recharge the battery as I drove. The Anker can simultaneously provide power and recharge itself, as one of the intended uses is to supplement a portable solar panel. (The largest Anker units can power an entire household for hours.)

Anker PowerHouse 521 charging unit.


One feature of the Anker PowerHouse 521 is that it shows both incoming and outgoing charge rates in watts. Out of curiosity, I decided to hook it up to a few things in the house to see what their power usage was. Aside from a few typical household devices like phone chargers, I was surprised to see what a few devices were using, including the audio system while it was idle!

My trusted companion for this experiment was an inexpensive watt meter, easily found on Amazon. (I thought of buying the industry standard Kill A Watt made by P3 International but since I don’t plan to use it that often, I bought a generic TechBee meter from Amazon for only $9.99. Plenty good enough for our purposes.)

After I collect usage data from the TechBee meter, I can plug in the cost of electricity from our utility company to put the kilowatt hours into the practical terms of dollars and cents.


TechBee model JK-PM04 power meter.


Since the numbers I measure and analyze will take up some space, I decided to split this article into two pieces. What will follow is a summary of what we will be examining in depth with data when I start itemizing many of our household electronics. While I may name a couple of brands in this series (simply to clarify exactly what a device is), I am not out to “name and shame” anyone and will not be naming any of the audio equipment.

As I sat here earlier this month beginning work on the list of devices I planned to document, I realized we have a lot of “vampires” in the house. “Vampire power” refers to devices that consume energy even when we think they are shut off. Some only nibble on the powerlines a little, but many nibbles can add up to a rather large chomp.

Here is an overview of some of the devices I can think of that might be using energy at idle.

  • We have several Wi-Fi smart plugs and smart LED bulbs in use, as well as some outdoor smart plugs that operate decorations during the holidays.
  • Various chargers live full time in sockets throughout the house; anything from individual USB chargers to multi-output charging bricks. There are also the occasional flashlights and LED light bars being charged, but I usually unplug those and store the chargers if I’m using them only occasionally.
  • How about our computers? We have desktop computers in sleep mode, and laptops on a charger in standby mode. Networking equipment (modems or optical interfaces, routers, switches, wireless access points, etc.) that runs 24/7 also draws a lot of power, as can NAS (network attached storage) boxes, which in essence are bare-bones computers running any number of hard drives or SSDs.
  • Televisions must also draw power at idle and, for that matter, any device in the home that can be power cycled by remote has to remain in a constant standby mode to detect the infrared signal from the remote to turn the device on. A glance at the coffee table will give us a rough clue as to what might be drawing power while idle.
  • Video game consoles similarly have remotes, and sometimes even the remotes live on chargers. The consoles may also update while they are not in use.
  • Audio systems can often draw a lot of vampire power, especially the more modern “digital age” components. The simplest of components with a physical power switch draw nothing, while other components on standby can draw a surprising amount. (I found that one of my components uses a shocking amount of electricity at idle!) If there are any subwoofers that turn on automatically, or speakers that require wall power, add those to the total.
  • And don’t forget the doorbell.
  • This is all just inside the house. Let’s look outdoors, and in the garage. A garage door opener at idle is drawing power. Motion-sensitive lights draw power when not illuminated. Surveillance cameras are a continuous draw and use more power at night when the infrared LEDs turn on after dark. In the garage, battery chargers for power tools and battery tenders for automotive batteries are consuming the kilowatt hours.

Getting curious yet? I sure am! I’ve already compiled some preliminary usage readings from the TechBee watt meter, and the results are making me anxious to see the results. Next month’s installment will feature compiled data and a total of power used in kilowatt hours, the measure by which our utility company charges us for electricity usage.


Header image courtesy of DeepMind.

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