When to Turn Lights and Computers Off to Save Energy and Money

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When to Turn Lights and Computers Off to Save Energy and Money

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Lighting accounts for around 20 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States. Personal computers (PCs) are becoming standard equipment in most homes, and used by nearly every business, school, organization, and governmental agency. Turning lights and PCs off when they are not needed is a low-cost technique that reduces energy consumption and saves money, and avoids the environmental impacts of producing the electricity that would otherwise be consumed.


The energy and cost effectiveness of when to turn lights off depends on the type of light(s) and the price of electricity. The type of light is important for several reasons. All types of lights have a nominal or rated operating life, which is the total number of hours that they will provide a specified level or amount of light. However, the operating life of all types of light bulbs is affected by how many times they are turned on and off. Basically, the more often they are switched on and off, the lower their operating life. The exact number of hours that switching lights on and off reduces the total operating life depends on the type of light and how many times it is switched on and off.

Incandescent lights (or bulbs) should be turned off whenever they are not needed. Nearly all types of incandescent light bulbs are fairly inexpensive to produce and are relatively inefficient. Only about 10 to 15 percent of the electricity that incandescent lights consume results in light—the rest is turned into heat. So turning the light(s) off will keep a room cooler, an extra benefit in the summer. Therefore, the value of the energy saved by not having them on will be far greater than the cost of having to replace the bulb.

The cost effectiveness of turning fluorescent lights off to conserve energy is a bit more complicated. A general rule-of-thumb for when to turn off a fluorescent light(s), for most areas of the United States, is if you leave a room for more than 15 minutes, it is probably more cost effective to turn it/them off. Or in other words, if you leave the room for only up to 15 minutes, it will generally be more cost effective to leave the light(s) on. In areas where electric rates are high and/or during peak demand periods, this period may be as low as 5 minutes.

Fluorescent lights are more expensive to buy, and their operating life is more affected by the number of times they are switched on and off, relative to incandescent lights. Therefore, it is a cost trade-off between saving energy and money by turning a light off "frequently" and having to replace the bulbs "more" frequently. This is because the reduction in usable lamp life due to frequent on/off switching will probably be greater than the benefit of extending the useful life of the bulb from reduced use. By frequent we mean turning the light off and on many times during the day.

It is a popularly held belief that fluorescent lights use a "lot" of energy to get started, and thus it is better not to turn them off for "short" periods. There is an increase in power demand when a light is switched on. The exact amount of this depends on the type of ballast and lamp. The ballast provides an initial high voltage for starting the lamp and regulates the lamp current during operation. There are three basic types: magnetic (of which there are energy-efficient and not so energy-efficient types), cathode-disconnect, and electronic. All types can operate two or more lamps simultaneously. There are three main methods that are used in a lamp's ballast to start the lamp: preheat, rapid-start, and instant-start.

In any case, the relatively higher "in rush" current required lasts for half a cycle, or 1/120th of a second. The amount of electricity consumed to supply the inrush current is equal to a few seconds or less of normal light operation. So turning off florescent lights for more than 5 seconds will save more energy than will be consumed in turning them back on again. Therefore, the real issue is the value of the electricity saved by turning the light off relative to the cost of re-lamping a fixture. This in turn determines the shortest cost-effective period for turning a fluorescent light off.

The value of the energy saved by turning a fluorescent light (or array of lights) off depends on several factors. The price an electric utility charges its customers depends on the customer "class," which are typically residential, commercial, and industrial. There can be different rate schedules within each class. Some utilities may charge different rates for electricity consumption during different times of the day. It generally costs more for utilities to generate power during certain periods of high demand or consumption, called peaks. Some utilities can charge commercial and industrial customers more per kilowatt-hour (kWh) during peak periods, than for consumption off-peak. Some utilities may also charge a base rate for a certain level of consumption, then higher rates for increasing blocks of consumption. Often a utility adds miscellaneous service charges and/or a base charge, taxes, etc per billing period, that could be averaged per kWh consumed, if these are not already factored into the rate.

To calculate the exact value of energy savings by turning a light off, you need to first determine how much energy the light(s) consume when on. Every bulb has a Watt rating printed on it. For example, if the rating is 40 Watts, and the bulb is on for one hour, it will consume 0.04 kWh, or if it is off for one hour, you will be saving 0.04 kWh. (Note that many fluorescent fixtures have two or more bulbs. Also, one switch may control several fixtures—an "array." So you have to add the savings for each fixture to determine the total energy savings.)

Then you need to find out what you are paying for electricity per kWh (in general and during peak periods). You will need to look over your electricity bills and see what the utility charges per kWh. Then you multiply the rate per kWh by the amount of electricity saved, and this will give you the value of the savings. Continuing with the example above, let us say that your electric rate is 10 cents per kWh. The value of the energy savings would then be 0.4 cents ($ 0.004). The value of the savings will increase the higher the Watt rating of the bulb, the greater the number of bulbs controlled by a single switch, and the higher the rate per kWh.

The most cost-effective length of time that a light (or array of lights) can be turned off before the value of the savings exceeds the cost of having to replace bulbs (due to their shortened operating life) will depend on the type and model of bulb and ballast. The cost of replacing a bulb (or ballast) depends on the cost of the bulb and the cost of labor to do it.

Lighting manufactures should be able to supply information on the duty cycle of their products. In general, the more energy-efficient a bulb/light is, the longer you can keep a light on before it is cost effective to turn it off.

Personal Comupters

PCs with an ENERGY STAR® label come with a power down feature for the CPU and monitor. ENERGY STAR-labeled computers have the capability to power down to a "sleep" mode, in which they consume 15 Watts or less power, which is around 70% less electricity than a computer without power management features. ENERGY STAR-labeled monitors have the capability to power down into two successive "sleep" modes. In the first, the monitor energy consumption is less than or equal to 15 watts, and in the second power consumption reduces to eight watts, which is less than 10% of its operating power consumption. These features allow you to set a time of inactivity at which the PC and monitor will power down into the "sleep" mode. Make sure you have the power down feature set up on your PC through your operating system software. This has to be done by you, otherwise the PC will not power down. If your PC and monitor do not have a power down feature, and even if they do, follow the guidelines below about when to turn the CPU and monitor off.

Note that screen savers are not energy savers. They may in fact use more energy than not using one, and the power down feature may not work if you have a screen saver activated. In fact, modern color monitors do not need screen savers at all.

The cost-effective time for when a PC should be turned off when you will probably be using it for most of the day is mainly a question of how much your time is worth. If takes a long time shut down the computer and then restart it later and get back into working mode, the value of your time will probably be much greater than the value of the amount of electricity you will save by turning it off. Most PCs reach the end of their "useful" life due to advances in technology long before the affects of being switched on and off ten or more times a day are likely to have a negative impact on their service life. They use about the same amount of energy to startup as they use when they are on for about two seconds. The less time a PC is on, the longer it will "last." PCs also produce heat, so turning them off reduces building cooling loads. (On the other hand, PCs are not a cost-effective source of heat during the winter.) Also, there is no more effective security firewall than not having the PC on.

A rule of thumb for energy saving is that if you are not going to be using your PC for more than about 20 minutes, turn the monitor off. If you are not going to be using your PC for more than around two hours, turn the CPU and monitor off. If you use your computer most of the time over say an eight-hour period, but have breaks for longer than 20 minutes up to an hour, just turn the monitor off when the PC is not in use, and be sure to use the power down feature! You should definitely turn everything off if you won't be using the PC for more than four hours.

The exceptions are if the PC has a very old hard drive, if the PC operates or monitors some other device such as phone/fax, printer, or home security system, and/or if the PC is part of network file sharing operation.

Make sure your computer is on a power strip/surge protector. When the PC is not in use for extended periods, turn off the PC with the switch on the power strip. Even when you turn some PCs off with the switch on the PC itself, it may consume a small amount of power. If you don't use a power strip, unplug the CPU and monitor.

Environmental Benefits

The environmental benefits of turning lights and computers off are dependent on the source of the electricity you consume. Coal fired power plants produce about 50 percent of the electricity in the United States. Natural gas fired power plants provide about 15 percent, nuclear plants about 18 percent, hydro dams about 10 percent, and the rest is from oil (about 3 percent) and "renewable" sources such as biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar power plants. Fossil fuel combustion power plants (coal, gas, and oil) emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide (mainly from coal and oil fired power plants), nitrous oxides, and particulates and heavy metals such as mercury (coal fired power plants). Regardless of the source of electricity, if you consume less, you are reducing the impact you have on the environment.

Credits: US Department of Energy (http://www.eere.energy.gov/consumerinfo/factsheets/ef3.html)

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