net.wars: This little light of mine

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 21 November 2003

Wendy Grossman appears to be having trouble getting to sleep ... perhaps it's the "fierce attack rabbits"? Or is it the LRLs?

Wendy M Grossman

Someone on the WELL recently brought up the subject of what he likes to call "little red lights". They may not be exactly red - they may be orange, yellow, or green - and you may prefer to call them "pilot lights". They are those little lights that say, "Hello, this device is ON." On a late-night trip to the bathroom, he counted no less than 22 LRLs winking at him. No one, he pointed out, needs night lights any more.

Naturally, this brought out the LRL-competitive instinct, and everyone had to do a count. In my office: one on the front of the main computer and two on the back; one on each of two monitors; one on the TV; no less than seven on the router; one on the Hauppauge Freeview box; one on the printer; one on the scanner; one on the cordless phone; and one - believe it or not - on the computer's speaker system.

That's 17. Plus one on the business card scanner. Eighteen. In the hall: one each fax machine and CD player; two on the mailserver, eight (!) on the hub, two on the wireless access point. Thirty-two. Nothing on the 20-year-old stereo system. In the bedroom: another cordless phone, the TV's DC converter, the DVD player. Do I count the alarm clock? Well, it's always on. Thirty-six. Living room: cordless phone, VCR, Tivo, TV, satellite box, cable box, fridge-freezer (two). Kitchen: washing machine, freezer (another two, and yes, this wins the award for "most confusing appliance location". British people think it's a fridge and look for milk in it; Americans try to put dirty dishes in it). That's 47 LRLs in one apartment. Forty-nine - the laptop. Fifty, when the Palm is charging. Oh. And the flashlight recharger, the Roomba charger, at least eight more power strips - and the other computer, when it's on -

(At this point I suppose I should mention that prospective burglars should be advised that all this junk is protected by extremely fierce attack rabbits.)

One US study estimated that LRLs - or at least, appliances on standby - consume 5 percent of all residential electricity, and I've seen similar figures for the Netherlands. It still isn't much when you compare it to the loss of electricity in poorly insulated, drafty homes. Nonetheless, the usual reaction is to say that the only sensible thing, both economically and environmentally, is to pull all those plugs every time we leave the house and every night when we go to bed. Cue memories of my childhood, when my mother's commands would send us careening around the house in all directions to unplug everything from table lamps to TV sets. It made going out a real trial. The US government even has a program to help people identify and buy products that have low standby power draws. Wind-up radio, anyone?

Increasingly, however, I think the problem is not so much devices in standby but devices that are left on all the time. I will pass over my two fish tanks on the grounds that they contain live swimmers who need air and filtration, and the freezers on the grounds that you wouldn't want me to starve. Ten years ago, I turned my computer off at night. Five years ago, I had one computer running 24/7. Now, that's two computers, a DSL router, a hub, a wireless access point, and a Tivo to record Letterman. This is how people live now. As ordinary devices keep getting smarter - wait until we're inundated with devices that can read all those new RFID tags we're likely to have in everything - there are going to be more and more of then operating continuously.

The logical conclusion, therefore, is that the devices themselves need to use less power and we need to find a more efficient way of supplying that power in the first place. In the first category, I note that a lot of people are writing excitedly about a near future in which the incandescent and fluorescent bulbs of the last century are replaced with LEDs, which need to be replaced much less frequently and which drain a fraction of the power. You can start next Friday, if you like, by getting LED "Seasonal" light strings. (Next Friday, because there is no "holiday season" until we've had Thanksgiving, and that's next Thursday.)

In the second category, Jock Gill, the man who electronified the White House (in the first Clinton administration) has for some years been fascinated by the future fuel cells could bring us. Instead of the current grid that dispenses electricity from a handful of central points, Gill's imagined future has fuel cells in every garage that could share electricity with neighbouring households (he didn't call it peer-to-peer then, but we would now) or sell the surplus back to the electricity company, which in turn would supply any shortfall the house had. Forget Big Energy, we could have Small Energy and more of it. It was probably five years ago that he told me that such a system would protect against outages and also enhance national security by removing the central points of failure that could be attacked. In such a world, what would a few dozen LEDs more or less matter?

Technorati tags:     
You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).