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

It used to be that the only energy issue of the year-end holidays was whether Santa Claus remembered to bring enough batteries for all the new toys. But today's gifts of phones, TVs, computers, video game consoles, and other electricity eaters can generate Santa-sized drains on household power all year long.

A few simple changes to all those nifty gadgets can help trim energy costs and serve as a gift to the environment and your community. Along with lowering your utility bill, you’ll help prevent the generation of unnecessary electricity and the millions of tons of pollution that comes from power plants. Here are some tips on how to best configure your devices to minimize electricity use.

A green TV, with the right settings — A new flat-panel television uses far less energy than models manufactured even five years ago, but you can increase the savings even more.  In the picture set-up menu, choose the “home” or “standard” screen setting – the “vivid” or “retail” settings are unnecessarily bright for most home use and, more important, they burn 15 percent to 20 percent more power. While you’re in the main menu, also disable the “quick start” function. Most TVs sip just enough juice in standby, about 0.5 watts, to recognize your remote control signal to power up. The quick-start function turns on the TV slightly faster, but eats significantly more power in standby during the 20 or so hours per day you aren’t using your TV.

Set-top cable and satellite boxes run at near full power even when “off” — More than 85% of households are pay TV subscribers and have one or more set top boxes from their cable, satellite, or telephone company. The industry has recently made some big improvements in the energy use of their boxes, with more coming soon. To make sure you have one of the latest, most efficient versions ask your cable or satellite provider for a box that meets at least ENERGY STAR® version 3.0. If you’re connecting pay TV service to multiple televisions, request a whole-home DVR for your primary TV and a thin client for the other sets. This eliminates the need for another larger box or DVR, cutting overall energy use, and you can still watch recorded shows on any TV. Also, unplug the set-top box on seldom-used TVs (such as in guest rooms and vacation homes).

The best ways to play movies — If you’re lucky, your new TV is internet-ready, allowing you to stream a movie from Netflix directly without another device. But if it’s not, the next best thing is to access movies through a small box such as Roku or Apple TV, which use 5 or fewer Watts. Avoid streaming movies through game consoles like the Play Station or Xbox because they use 10 to 20-plus times more energy to play the exact same movie.)

Shut off your game console or let it sleep — Failing to turn off the console after playing a game or movie wastes lots of electricity – up to $75 worth annually. Over five years, that equals what you paid for the game console. You can set the device to put itself to sleep when it’s not being used. Go to the console’s user menu and enable the “auto power down” feature to kick in after one hour of inactivity when a game is loaded, and four hours to allow for movie play. 

Your computer could use a nap, too — Today’s desktop computers and laptops come equipped with excellent power management features that result in very low levels of standby power while maintaining the ability to quickly wake when you return. Don’t disable these settings, but do avoid having a slide show or screen saver continuously running when you’re not there to watch it. A typical desktop computer and monitor running 24/7 unnecessarily uses $40 a year more in electricity than when the devices are put to sleep. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends adjusting control-panel settings for the monitor or screen to turn off after 15 minutes of inactivity and for the computer to power down off after 30.

Buy an ENERGY STAR modem or router — To connect your new computer, tablet, or new TV to the internet, you’ll need a router and a modem. A recent NRDC study found these devices consume about $1 billion in electricity annually. If you are in the market for a new modem or router, make sure to buy one with the ENERGY STAR label and it will use roughly 30% less energy.

Don’t forget your thermostat and water heater — Although a new furnace or water heater aren’t traditional holiday gifts, still look at their settings. If used correctly, a programmable thermostat can save a few hundred dollars a year by ensuring your heater or air conditioner isn’t running when you are away. Make sure thermostat settings reflect your usual schedule. (When your schedule varies, you can temporarily override the settings for a day without losing them.) Also make sure your gas or electric water heater doesn’t work harder than necessary. If water from the tap scalds your hand, the water-heater setting is too high, and you’re wasting money. Turn it way down when you’re going to be away for more than a few days.

Out with the old, in with the new — Now that you’ve obtained the latest gadget, what should you do with the old version? A lot of energy goes into the manufacture of smart phones, tablets and laptops, and it often can be better to keep an old device in service for as long as possible. Give an older unit to family or friends or engage in buybacks offered by numerous websites. But if the old device no longer works or is an energy guzzler, take it to a recycler classified as an e-Steward. Best Buy, a longtime leader in this facet of the industry, accepts waste electronics, including TVs, at its stores for free, no matter where the devices were purchased. Staples has a similar program but does not take old TVs.

Here’s a one-page guide that explains it all:

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