In the Market for a New TV? Check out NRDC's Holiday Shopping Guide

Noah Horowitz, NRDC
Posted on Monday 22nd November 2010

Get ready for the tidal wave of Black Friday, Christmas and End of Year sales on big screen TVs and other consumer electronics.

All the major retailers and manufacturers are gearing up to offer you rock bottom prices.   What they won’t be telling you, though, is how much energy their products use or what they cost to operate.

Someday, maybe, we’ll see the industry leaders declare a “Green Friday” and compete based on energy use and other environmental impact. In the interim, I’ve put together a list of the most energy efficient TVs on the market as well as some additional shopping tips and advice on how to minimize the energy use of TVs and some of the products connected to them.

Consumer Electronics and Energy Use 101

Consumer electronics are the fastest growing source of energy use in our homes and represent 10 percent to 20 of our overall electric bills. The biggest chunk of this energy use is tied to your TVs and the equipment connected to them – the DVD player, video game console, cable or satellite set top box(es), surround sound system, etc. When you add it all up, it is like adding a new kitchen’s worth of electricity use to your home. As everyone cares about at least one of the following -- lower electric bills and saving money, cleaner air, and less global warming pollution -- products that offer the same performance while using less energy are the way to go.

Shopping for a TV

While the 2010 models are significantly more efficient than the offerings just a few years ago, there are still some real dogs out there.  For example, some models use twice as much power to operate as another similar-sized product.  Unfortunately consumers have no way of knowing this when shopping and as a result may be paying a few hundred dollars extra in their electric bill over the ten-year lifetime of their new TV. 

So here is what you can do:

1.  Only buy a model that has the ENERGY STAR label on it.  Today this means a TV is one of the better models on the market (but not necessarily the best) in terms of energy efficiency. 

2.  Take the enclosed list of the 200 most efficient models on the market with you. These TVs use roughly 25 percent less power than today’s ENERGY STAR Version 4.1 requirements. This list includes a wide cross section of manufacturers, screen sizes and features. When deciding which TV to buy, be sure to factor in the lifetime electricity cost data I provide in the last column. 

3.  When setting up your new TV be sure to pick the home setting. TVs at the home setting will operate at the correct brightness level for your home and use 15 to 25 percent less power than those in the other unnecessarily bright settings.

As a result of NRDC’s advocacy, all new TVs will contain a yellow Energy Guide label by the middle of 2011 like the one shown below.  This will make it a lot easier for consumers to make informed decisions when picking which TV to buy and we anticipate that disclosure of this information will further drive manufacturer competition to improve the energy efficiency of their products.

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Video Game Consoles

An increasing number of homes also have a video game console – Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation3 or Nintendo Wii -- connected to their big screen TV.  The older versions of the Xbox 360 and PS 3 consumed in excess of 150 watts when in use. To make matters worse, these devices as shipped do not automatically turn themselves off when not in use. The design flaw in these products is they continue to consume near full power levels if the user forgets to turn them off when they are done playing the game or watching a movie.  Depending on the version purchased, the consumer is throwing away roughly $ 75 - 125 per year to power their device when it is NOT in use. For an older model left on all the time, this is the same amount of energy used by two new refrigerators each year.

Now for some really good news. Today’s Xbox 360 and PS3 use roughly 50 percent less power (around 85 watts) than earlier models, and the Wii continues to use much lower levels (under 25 watts) of power then the other devices. In addition, the Xbox 360 and PS3 now both contain an auto power down feature that puts the machine into a low power mode after extended periods of inactivity. In other words, your video game console will use only 1 Watt in the middle of the night instead of the 80 to 150+ Watts levels your new or older model, respectively, would use if left on.

You will have to dig deep into the operating menus to find out how to enable the auto power down feature. To help guide you through this process we provide you with step-by-step instructions below. We are continuing to encourage manufacturers to ship all their new models with this feature enabled by default and are optimistic they will make this change relatively soon.

Sony PlayStation 3

Microsoft Xbox 360

From the Navigation menu, select:

  • System Settings
  • Power Save Settings
  • System Auto-Off
  • 1 hour
  • Turn Off System Automatically Even Under Special Conditions[1]
  • Controller Auto-Off

From the Dashboard, select:

  • My Xbox
  • System Settings
  • Console Settings
  • Startup and Shutdown
  • Auto-Off
  • Enable

Cable and Satellite Set Top Boxes

Unfortunately there is not much good news to report here. Today’s cable and satellite set top boxes and DVRs essentially stay at near full power levels 24/7, even when you “turn them off.”  The major part of the problem here is that we the consumer instead of the service provider pay the electric bill.  This really adds up as there are around 188 million of these set top boxes in the US.  As such, our nation is wasting the equivalent output of six large (500 megawatt) power plants each year to power these devices when they are NOT in use.  Many of today’s DVRs use more energy each year than the TV they are connected to.  Later this year we will announce the results of a recent field study we did on these devices.

In the meantime, let’s try an interesting little experiment: Head over to the Facebook pages of Comcast, Time Warner, Direct TV, Dish Networks and tell them you are not happy with this situation and you want a box that uses very little power when you are not watching or recording a show.

Ask the companies if they’d be willing to pay you for the portion of your electric bill, approximately $25 a year, caused by them to power your box when you are not using it. If they hear from enough of us, perhaps they’ll move more quickly to solve this flaw in their system.

And then maybe we can celebrate a green Friday before too long.

[1] Enabling the special conditions function will allow the auto-shutdown feature to work even if you have a game or movie inserted in the console and on its main menu page. Without it, the console will not turn off after video or game play, including idle menu page screens - making it rarely effective.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard.

Noah Horowitz is a Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for Energy Efficiency for the NRDC in San Francisco, CA

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