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Cable TV boxes become biggest energy users in many homes

In the middle of the night, when most Americans are sound asleep, their lights and appliances off, a power hog is wide awake and running at nearly full throttle: the boxes that operate their cable or satellite television service.

The seemingly innocuous appliances — all 224 million of them across the nation — together consume as much electricity as produced by four giant nuclear reactors, running around the clock. They have become the single-biggest energy user in many homes, apart from air conditioning.

Cheryl Williamsen, a Los Alamitos, Calif., architect, has three of the boxes leased from her cable provider in her home, but she had no idea how much power they consumed until recently, when she saw a rating on the back for as much as 500 watts — about the same as a washing machine.

A set-top cable box with a digital recorder can consume as much as 35 watts of power, costing about $8 a month for a typical Southern California consumer. The devices use nearly as much power turned off as they do when they are turned on.

“I could yank the power supply cord,” Williamsen said, “but that’s not a very consumer-friendly way to reduce energy consumption.”

The boxes have been at the center of a battle between the cable industry and conservationists who believe the devices could be far more efficient.

“It is a classic case of market failure,” said Andrew McAllister, a member of the California Energy Commission. “The consumers have zero information and zero control over the devices they get.”

The industry agreed recently to voluntarily reduce the power consumption of new devices, which it said would save consumers $1 billion annually. But experts say the deal will provide only a fraction of the potential gains and take years to realize.

While the technology exists to make giant strides in energy efficiency, the economic incentives often are missing. In many cases, there is no connection between who pays for electricity and who decides how much electricity gets used.

It has fallen to the federal and state governments to clamp on mandatory standards in many cases, though they are fiercely opposed by the industry. Federal standards on refrigerators and televisions have driven down their energy use by 75 percent, even while the retail prices have dropped, said Ralph Cavanagh, an energy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“There are still lots of $20 bills lying on the sidewalk,” he said. “The potential is huge.”

The set-top boxes consume power when turned off because of spinning hard drives, program guide updates and software downloads, leaving consumers with one choice to reduce that load: Unplug the device. The downside is that turning the system back on requires a convoluted reboot.

Energy experts say the boxes could be just as efficient as smartphones, laptop computers or other electronic devices that use a fraction of the power thanks to microprocessors and other technology that conserves electricity. Ideally, they say, these boxes could be put into a deep sleep mode when turned off, cutting consumption to a few watts. At that rate, a box could cost less than $1 a month for power, depending on how much it is used.

McAllister said the commission was closely watching the voluntary agreement and may still impose binding state standards.

The deal signed late last year by 11 cable and satellite companies, which control the bulk of the nation’s communications services, calls for a power reduction in the range of 10 percent to 45 percent by 2017. It requires an independent audit of the program, detailed public reports and disclosures to consumers.

Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said that by 2017 about 90 percent of the boxes would meet a standard set by the federal government, though a more ambitious standard already is being established. Dietz said the new boxes would provide all the current functionality for consumers, allowing them to program their television watching and to record shows, while still saving energy.

But Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America, takes a dim view of the deal, saying, “This voluntary agreement is very modest, to say the least.”