My husband's legs stuck out from under the computer desk, and I heard a "wow!"
He couldn't believe the balls of dust. Or the energy we were wasting.
He was fiddling with the $23 Kill a Watt meter I had bought to measure our energy use. Our printer was gulping six watts at that very moment. Even though I'd turned it "off."
And I kept adding other things. Computer, three watts. Monitor, one. . .
Dozens of household appliances are never really off.
You may have flipped a switch, and they may seem off, but in reality they're remembering settings, checking the date, ever on the alert for a signal from the remote.
All that takes energy. Professionals call it "standby" power, but I like the more colorful "vampire power," because the devices are sucking electrons from the grid - more than $3 billion worth in a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The typical house harbors more than three dozen devices that never shut down.
All those cell phone chargers? Even if they're not connected to phones, like mini-SUVs they keep on guzzling.
Anything that has a digital display or touch pad - a stove, a dishwasher, a microwave - is using power. Anything with a light, a remote.
Some of the power waste is teensy, maybe half a watt. But some cable and satellite boxes draw 40 watts, said Alan Meier, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory energy analyst and one of the first to take the issue seriously.
"That's about half a refrigerator," he marvels. And the fridge is doing something useful, like keeping beer cold.
Nationwide, the EPA recently calculated the cost of keeping our TVs alone in standby at $600 million. (My old analog draws nine watts when off and costs me nearly $12 a year, just sitting there.)
"What any of us does as an individual, we don't think it's very relevant," says Tom Reddoch, director of energy utilization for the Electric Power Research Institute. "But there are a lot of us. And we forget the impact of what large numbers do."
Fortunately, manufacturers, prodded by people like Meier and the federal government's Energy Star program, have been making changes to reduce standby power needs.
A 2001 presidential order limiting government purchases to devices with standby draws of one watt or less also has influenced the market.
The bad news is that there's ever-more stuff. "We keep thinking of new and clever gadgets to plug into the wall," laments Jeff Harris, of the national advocacy group, the Alliance to Save Energy.
And we hang on to what we've got. We buy a new TV, maybe more efficient, but then put the old electron hog in the guest bedroom. Even though it's rarely watched, we leave it plugged in!
Meier figures the typical home's 40 devices on standby consume 5 percent to 8 percent of household energy - equal to one month's bill.
While we all wait for more technological advances and regulatory action, the obvious thing to do is to unplug.
I suppose my husband and I are lucky. Technologically indifferent, we don't have cable, satellite or games. Still, I've calculated our annual standby drain at 35 watts, or $45.50. Not much at first blush, but it becomes serious jack when you look at the big picture. And philosophically, why waste anything?
I left the dishwasher and stove as is - some things are unrealistic - but the microwave (four watts) has an accessible plug. It's dangling now.
For the office, we got one of the new "smart" power strips.
We plugged the computer into a control outlet, which governs outlets that the monitor and printer are plugged into. When the computer goes off, the strip senses it and cuts the juice to everything. (At $39 it will pay for itself in, OK, nearly three years. Hmmm.)
I had included the wireless router in this circuit, but the dratted thing took forever to reorient. So I keep it on and live with the eight-watt seepage. How obsessive can I be?
But I may reconsider. Reddoch tells me that eight watts times every U.S. household equals five power plants.
As for the TV, it's just one plug, and most of the time I remember to pull it.
It's no trouble, really. Plus, there's a lot of dust back there to tend to. EndText