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updated 3/14/2011 2:10:33 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:33

Halloween is prime time for creatures of the night, yet all year long many of us are unknowingly being bitten by "energy vampires" and haunted by "phantom loads."

These are nicknames for common household electronics – including computers, microwaves and air conditioners – and the amounts of electricity they drain while not performing their primary function or even when they are turned off.

Vampire, or standby power, allows inactive TVs to receive signals from a remote control, for instance. Standby power also charges batteries and energizes digital displays, clocks, and LED status lights (think of those green and red lights that shine spookily in a darkened room).

While an individual gadget's power consumption is relatively small, when lumped together, the energy vampires in an average home account for five to 10 percent of total electricity use, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

"There has been a proliferation of products that use standby power," said Alan Meier, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who has worked extensively on the issue. "The modern home can easily have 40 or more devices that are drawing power continuously."

This seepage in a typical electronics-crammed home in the United States ends up costing consumers around $100 extra on the electricity bill per year; nationwide that adds up to about $3 billion annually, the DOE estimates, although the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a non-profit science advocacy group, has pegged the dollar damage at twice that figure.

Worldwide, the electricity generation for standby power makes up about one percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions, Meier said. In the U.S., the thirst of energy vampires results in the spewing of almost 100 billion pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, according to the UCS, which is the equivalent of nearly 10 million cars' emissions.

The most heinous leeches

Tests conducted by the DOE have shown that among the vilest energy vampires around – the Draculas, we'll say – are digital video records (DVRs) and set-top cable and satellite boxes. Many slurp down over 40 watts while in standby mode.

The second worst offenders as a class – the Lestats, or maybe the Nosferatus – tend to be televisions. Old-school cathode ray tube televisions use 13 watts or so while in standby mode, same as a combination TV/VCR. Rear-projection televisions turned off by a remote lustily drink up electron juice – nearly 50 watts – and plasma and liquid-crystal display televisions can also quaff significant power.

Other vexing vampires – Edward from "Twilight," perhaps? – in many cases are components of home audio systems, such as CD players and receivers that use almost 20 watts in standby mode.

Slaying energy vampires

Here's some tips on how to drive a stake through the heart of your home's energy vampires:

•    Unplug devices when they're not in use. An energy vampire cannot do its power-draining business without having its metal fangs stuck into a wall outlet. So stem the bleeding with those household electronics that rarely get used, such as a television in a guest bedroom, and just pull the plug.

•    Use a power strip or a surge protector. Of course, having to plug back in a device every time you want to use it can be a pain. Instead, run the cords from multiple electronics – such as a DVD player, speakers and so on in a home entertainment system – to an easily accessible multi-outlet power strip or surge protector. A single flick of the strip's switch and power is restored to an array of electronics. When the strip or protector is turned off, electricity does not drain, and in the case of the latter, surge protection is still assured.

•    Opt for weak vampires. Different products draw varying amounts of electricity while in standby mode. The DOE maintains a database of low standby power devices that meet federal procurement guidelines that anyone can use to seek out less-thirsty equipment.

Governments break out the garlic

Beyond encouraging greater care at the consumer level, governments have taken important steps to respond to the the insidiousness of energy vampires.

In the U.S., for example, federal agencies since 2001 have had to purchase products that consume only one watt of standby power or the lowest available amount for that type of device. The United Kingdom and the European Commission have adopted similar measures.

Also across the Atlantic, a European Union-funded research initiative has recently been launched to sharply reduce electronics' power consumption while running and in standby mode.

The project, called Steeper, aims to make electronic components less "leaky" when they are passively plugged in but shut off. Using new kinds of transistors, researchers also hope to lessen the jolt of volts needed for a device to transition from an off to an on state and to take power needs in standby mode down to virtually zero.

"We've made enormous progress in reducing standby power, but the problem isn’t solved and still requires a lot of work," said Meier.

Indeed, killing an undead vampire – both in fiction and in real-life metaphorical, electrical form – is rarely easy.

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