Phantom Load: How Unplugging Can Save You $100 or More

They lurk in corners… they look like everyday objects… and they’re gouging your bank account needlessly. Your appliances may seem idle when you turn them off, but they are still raising your energy bill.

This phenomenon, called “phantom load,” is common with modern household electronics. Many are designed to have continuous displays and a standby resting state, which leads to a quick start-up. Unfortunately, this convenience wastes energy and increases carbon emissions. According to Cornell University and The Daily Green, phantom load can cost the average home $200 per year.

So what kind of energy ghouls might prowl an unassuming person’s home? I researched the average phantom load of common electronics and calculated their annual costs. Then, I checked my own apartment—armed with a “Kill-a-Watt” meter from the library—to find out where my energy is going.


Kitchens can harbor many energy-sucking appliances, including refrigerators, coffee makers, and more. But which ones generate phantom load?

Total: $13.79 annually

At my house, the microwave was the only phantom loader. I found that it requires a constant 2 watts of capacity, costing me $1.89 per yeariii, when not in use. Not too bad, so far.


You may not consider your living room a ghastly place, but it often harbors the most phantom activity. Devices like TVs and cable boxes can use a hefty amount of energy, even if you’re diligent about hitting the “off” button. The scariest thing? Most homes have two or more TV/cable set-ups, so you could easily be losing $50-$100 a year on TV-based phantom load alone.

Total: $86.18 annually

In my living room, several small electronics added up to about 5 watts of phantom load, or $4.73 per year (audio minisystem: 2 watts, surge protector: 1 watt, two mobile phone chargers: 2 watts). I have no TV, so I’m avoiding a major energy suck.


The home office—with its myriad tools—is also a prime location for energy loss. Do you leave your computer on all the time? A desktop computer left running, connected to a CRT monitor in sleep mode, draws an average of 89 watts. That can cost over $87 per year! Unfortunately, even switching your computer off draws phantom load, as detailed in the chart below.

Total: $32.93 annually

The phantom load in my office space includes two laptops that are normally plugged in, even when turned off. One draws 1 watt (it’s an ENERGY STAR product), and the other one is closer to the average (8 watts). There are computer speakers (3 watts); a wireless router that’s always on, even when not in use (5 watts); a printer (5 watts); and two surge protectors (2 watts). Finally, there’s a cordless phone that uses 3 watts even when it’s completely off. Total: 27 watts, or $25.50 per year.


At first glance, the bedroom seems to be the least energy-intensive room. But if you added a TV, stereo, or other entertainment system to the calculations below, the number would quickly rise.

Total: $3.20 annually

My bedroom had a few ghouls, including a clock radio (3 watts) and even the window fan (1 watt)—$3.78 per year.


These calculations demonstrate how the phantom load for a typical household can easily cost $136.10 per year, if not more. Even at my small apartment, the cost is equivalent to nearly one full monthly electric bill. Worse still, residential standby power is responsible for an estimated 28.7 million tons of CO2 emissions per year in the United Statesiv.

That’s a lot of money and greenhouse gas pollution. So what can we do about it?


1. Find your worst offenders
Borrow a “Kill-a-Watt” meter from your local library (or purchase one) and test your appliances.

 2. Plug electronics into power strips
It’s a lot easier to turn off a single switch than to unplug multiple electronics, and this convenience might help you stay motivated. Make the process even more efficient by separating the frequently-used electronics from seldom-used ones.

3. Unplug for short or long trips
If turning off power supplies just isn’t going to happen, consider unplugging everything during your vacations or business trips. Even this occasional savings can add up.

 4. Buy ENERGY STAR appliances 
 Buy products that use less energy overall.