To unplug, or not?
November 1, 2006 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Should I turn the thing off, or unplug it, when I'm not using it, or leave it plugged in/turned on? How can you tell?

I'd like to save money, and save electricity, and have my mechanical/electronic devices last as long as possible. But I'm often confused.

It's my understanding that many people think it's best to keep computers on all the time, as problems are likely to occur because of the stress of components heating up, cooling down, etc.

I've also heard, though, in reference to things like video game consoles and VCRs, that it's best to cut their power off completely when not in use, both to save energy and to save wear on the components.

I'm no expert on any of this stuff, and I might have some misinformation. It's safe to say, though, that there's a lot of seemingly-contradictory information floating around, and so I'm wondering: Which devices should be turned off/unplugged, and which shouldn't be? How can you tell? Are there any rules of thumb or general principles or whatnot?

What if I don't really care about the electric consumption, and I just want my devices to last as long as possible? What if I'm only concerned with saving energy? What if I'm only concerned with saving money?
posted by box to Technology (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Turning off your computers when you aren't using them will increase the life of your hard drive. You'll also save a lot on electricity.

Even if there were some verifiable benefit to increased lifetime of electronics by leaving them on - such a benefit would probably be extremely small. You're better off saving money on the electric bill by turning them off when not in use.
posted by odinsdream at 11:38 AM on November 1, 2006

If you're concerned about saving energy, you can buy a Kill-A-Watt to monitor the electricity usage of individual items in various states of use.
posted by alms at 11:43 AM on November 1, 2006

Turning off your computers when you aren't using them will increase the life of your hard drive.

It's a lot easier to just let the drive spin down.
posted by smackfu at 11:56 AM on November 1, 2006

If any part of the device is warm, it's using electricity. I unplug my cell phone and electric razor chargers.
posted by prodevel at 12:15 PM on November 1, 2006

That Kill-A-Watt mentioned above is really useful for seeing where to concentrate your efforts. It's true that something that's warm is using power, but it may only be 3-5 watts an hour. The real power-suckers are appliances and light bulbs.
posted by smackfu at 12:26 PM on November 1, 2006

Modern computer equipment is pretty good, and I'm not sure there's that much difference, relatively speaking.

There's one area where that's not true... most SCSI hard drives are designed to run 24x7, and will only survive a relatively limited number of poweron/off cycles. Those are meant to be left on all the time.

With most everything else, it doesn't matter much anymore. Power consumption and reliability have both gone up substantially over the last ten years. At this point, I'd tend to suggest just turning everything off. In exchange for waiting for the extra 1 minute for the computer to power up each day, you can save a few bucks a month.

Most current power supplies use power whether they are being used or not, so it's best to unplug them at all times except when actually using the equipment. There's a political movement to reduce standby power to one watt for all devices, but it will probably be several years before that happens, and then you'll have to buy all new stuff (or at least all new power supplies). Currently, standby power can be pretty significant.

If you use an extension cord with a power switch, that will absolutely guarantee that all attached devices are OFF, and not drawing any power.
posted by Malor at 12:28 PM on November 1, 2006

I've always unplugged power cords that are alone. Things like phone chargers, laptop chargers and power cords that disconnect from their units (for video game consoles as an example) still draw power from the outlet, even though the other end isn't connected to a phone, laptop or xBox.

I've also understood that most electronic devices that plug in draw power when they're off because they're in a state of 'ready' - just waiting for you to turn them on. Let's say if you were to unplug your TV for a while, it would take longer for it to start up than if you just left it plugged in all the time. But that's the only one I've noticed taking longer to get going. For most small appliances (iron, hair dryer, coffee pot, george foreman, toaster, laptop) I say unplug it. I've also heard of things like toasters getting fried when not in use because they still pull power when they're not on but still plugged in.
posted by youngergirl44 at 12:32 PM on November 1, 2006

Just a question, do N. American power outlets not have switches (I assume these are mainly N. American responses) ?
posted by claudius at 12:50 PM on November 1, 2006

In my experience, most power outlets do not have switches. Sometimes a room will have a single plug on one or two outlets in the room that have a wall switch, since these plugs are intended for lamps. This generally only occurs in apartments / houses that don't have built in ceiling lighting.

(I'm in Canada, btw.)
posted by utsutsu at 1:28 PM on November 1, 2006

As far as computers go, I find it a lot easier to use standby or hibernate mode, rather than a full shut down. It'll use very little power, and will easily "wake up" when needed without a long bootup time.

Most appliances, battery charges, and so on use a small amount of electricity when plugged in, even if they're "off". If you want to save the electricity, unplug the item, or plug it into a power bar and turn off the power bar. The amount of electricity used isn't likely to be massive, though (maybe a dollar's worth each month).

As far as reliability and long life goes, I think there are hundreds of other reasons that a gizmo might fail. Chances are that turning the gadget on and off every day isn't going to make a significant difference.

If saving money and reducing electricity costs are your focus, it's a good idea to look at the big things rather than the little ones. Items that use the most electricity are things that heat things up, or cool them down. Getting a more efficient refrigerator will reduce your electric bill more than unplugging your phone charger all the time, for example.

As suggested above, a Kill-A-Watt meter will give you a very good idea of where your electricity is going.
posted by gwenzel at 1:46 PM on November 1, 2006

Michael Bluejay has an excellent guide to electricity that gives tips on where all the juice goes and how you can save money. It's a fantastic site. I recommend it.
posted by jdroth at 2:19 PM on November 1, 2006 [2 favorites]

Hmm. One of his suggestions is "Stop watching TV." I think he may have an agenda beyond saving money on electricity.
posted by languagehat at 2:24 PM on November 1, 2006

Keeping an integrated circuit hot definitely shortens its life. The thing is, shortening it from 50 years to 20 just isn't that important most of the time.

Feeling things for warmth is a great indicator of power consumption. However, a very slight bit of warmth over the entire surface of a large object translates into a lot of power. This method is discussed more thoroughly in one of the questions below.

Previous questions related to power consumption:
Do chargers use electricity when they aren't being used?
July 28, 2006 7:26 PM
How can I monitor electricity usage in my home?
July 11, 2006 7:31 AM
Minimizing the electricity drain of plugged-in items?
October 3, 2005 10:57 AM
The fire hazard issue was addressed previously as well.
Will my toaster burn down the house?
September 1, 2006 10:33 PM
posted by Chuckles at 2:40 PM on November 1, 2006

I think he may have an agenda beyond saving money on electricity.

Regardless, he's got some great information there.
posted by jdroth at 2:51 PM on November 1, 2006

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