Energy Efficiency Tips: Plug Load Management

Take a few minutes to look around your home, dorm room, office, or lab space and determine how many electronics or other devices are currently plugged into the wall outlets. Actually do it! Try to pick a space where you have some control or influence over decision making, and go take a look. This blog post will be waiting here for you when you get back!

How many did you find? 5? 10? 20? Share the number in the comments because I am curious! Also, tell me what kinds of devices they are, even if it’s mundane like a cell phone charger or more unique like a fish tank pump. I’ve done this exercise myself a few times over the years, and in trying to reduce my energy use as much as possible, I’ve found a few simple methods that might work for you too. 

Before listing those approaches, I’d like to briefly clarify two terms that will come up as I describe the various methods of energy use reduction: plug loads and standby power. Feel free to skip below to the numbered tips if you are familiar with both of these terms!

Plug loads refer to the energy consumed by devices while they are running and plugged into electrical outlets. It’s a common term in sustainability spaces, but not exactly a household phrase. Everything from cell phone chargers to coffee makers, printers to centrifuges are considered part of the plug load of a building. The U-M Center for Sustainable Systems Residential Buildings Fact Sheet identifies that in 2022, miscellaneous plug loads consumed more electricity than any other residential use, accounting for 50% of electricity consumption.

Standby power (sometimes also called vampire power) refers to the electricity utilized by devices plugged into electrical outlets while the devices are turned off. While it might not seem like this could add up to much, or that these items shouldn’t use energy when off, standby power accounts for 5 to 10 percent of residential energy use, and could cost the average U.S. household as much as $100 per year.

Now let’s talk about a few different approaches to saving energy that you might try depending on the devices in question.

  1. Unplug devices

If the device is something you seldom use that is easy to unplug, you might consider simply unplugging it. I have a paper shredder at home, and because I don’t use the shredder that often, it’s easy to remember to unplug. The main selling point of this method is simply that it doesn’t cost any additional money. Unplugging it also enables me to put the shredder away in a closet, which is nice too. 

  1. Use a traditional power strip

Traditional power strips are a simple and relatively cheap way to manage plug loads. By consolidating multiple plug-in devices onto a single strip, you can easily turn all of them off at once, preventing standby power consumption. I have a power strip on my desk at work that has my lamp, computer monitor, and docking station plugged into it. At the end of each work day, I flip the switch to make sure my electronics are not consuming electricity overnight. When I come into work in the morning, I flip the switch on. You can make this easier on yourself by placing the strip on top of the desk rather than underneath.

Someone turning off a power strip by flipping the switch.
  1. Invest in a smart power strip

Smart power strips work the same way as traditional power strips in that they block the electronics from pulling energy from the wall, but you don’t have to remember to turn them off. These smart power strips come with built-in sensors, enabling you to automate when they shut down due to inactivity. Some models can even be controlled via smartphone apps. One of my colleagues has a smart power strip for her workstation. It has a motion sensor, and when she hasn’t been sitting at her desk for about 15 minutes, the power strip turns off her docking station and monitors automatically. Sometimes these smart power strips will even have a plug or two that do not necessarily have to turn off when motion isn’t detected. This can be be helpful if you have a telephone at your desk.

  1. Try utilizing an outlet timer

Outlet timers are small devices often used for holiday lights that enable you to set a schedule of when devices turn off and on. These will often use a small amount of energy to keep time, so they make the most sense to use on devices that consume a lot of energy. One example of a device you might want to use an outlet timer with is a hot water bath utilized in a laboratory setting or a Keurig-style coffee maker in an office. While the bath and coffee maker may not be used overnight, some colleagues may want that device at the right temperature first thing when they arrive for work in the morning. A motion sensing power strip will likely not work in this instance, but an outlet timer may be a good option! 

Once again, take a brief moment to move around your space and consider your specific needs and devices. There isn’t one solution that fits every problem, but hopefully this post has given you some new and practical ideas. If you try one out, also be sure to tell me in the comments and share what your family members or colleagues think about it!