Set-top boxes continuously run in homes who have them. Cable boxes, satellite boxes, and digital video recorders (DVRs) are designed to constantly remain on, even while no one in the household is home. According to the National Resources Defense Council, these devices cost $3 billion to run every year, and $2 billion of that cost is incurred while the boxes are not being used.
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Part of the problem is the design of the boxes. Television providers want the ability to communicate with the boxes at any time, for example, to send software upgrades late at night when fewer people are watching television, and so they don’t encourage consumers to turn the boxes off. The boxes are also designed to take a long time to reboot and download programming guides, so powering down the boxes frequently could be a nuisance for customers who don’t want to wait before being able to tune into their favorite shows. Furthermore, for those with DVRs, shutting off the boxes might result in a missed recording.
Turning off the cable boxes — many households have more than one — is an easy way to reduce the power bill. The issue isn’t just affording to pay the bills, however.
In 2010, set-top boxes in the United States consumed approximately 27 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is equivalent to the annual output of nine average (500 MW) coal-fired power plants. The electricity required to operate all U.S. boxes is equal to the annual household electricity consumption of the entire state of Maryland, results in 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions…
The average new cable high-definition digital video recorder (HD-DVR) consumes more than half the energy of an average new refrigerator and more than an average new flat-panel television. Even more troubling, when not displaying or recording video content, U.S. boxes draw nearly as much power as they do when in use.
The NRDC offers suggestions for manufacturers and television providers to improve energy consumption, but it could be worthwhile for consumers to get in the habit of removing the cable box from the power source on a regular basis. Turning the power off often just results in turning the clock display off with the device remaining on to communicate with the cable or satellite company and for programming to be available immediately when the box is turned on. Unplugging or shutting off power (via a wall switch) is the best way to ensure the box is not consuming any power.
For those who use the DVR to record programs while they are away — and DVRs consumer 40% more energy than boxes without recording technology — there are more ways to view programs you missed. Many content providers offer a wider selection of shows to be viewed at a later time (like Comcast’s “On Demand”), and networks offer full episodes to be streamed from network websites.
Updated October 21, 2015 and originally published June 27, 2011.