Green Computing

Energy Saving Tips related to your Computer (and how you can save the world with Open Source)

A house built in the 1960’s or 1970’s probably included a single electrical outlet on each of the four walls of a room though in many cased there were fewer. Architects and those who made the electrical code assumed that you might have a lamp or a radio or maybe even a TV set in a given room and that you would plug and unplug your other appliances like your vacuum cleaner as you used them. In 1970 when you turned off most devices you actually flipped a mechanical switch that disengaged all electrical power from the device. One exception may have been your television set. Many TV’s had special circuits in them called “keep alive” circuits that kept a small current flowing in the CRT’s filament and in other vacuum tubes. This current kept the tubes warm and meant that the TV could come on faster. This was the beginning of vampire power! (cue the ominous music and thunderclap here)

Today, 40 or 50 years later we have more electronic devices than ever could have been imagined in 1960. TV’s MP3 players, Computers, Printers, Multi-axis CNC laser cutters (if anyone would like to donate one to me), Cell Phones, VCR’s, DVD Players, Network Routers, Cable Modems, and the list goes on and on. I just counted and I have 21 things plugged into electrical outlets on my computer desk alone! All of these devices use electricity and many use it even when they are turned off (hence vampire power). This costs you money when you aren’t using these devices AND it uses up natural resources that are used to generate that electricity. In the rest of this article I am going to list some tricks and tips that I’ve used successfully that will help you reduce the amount of electricity (and energy and resources in general) that your computers and other high tech gadgets use. These tips can apply to your home, business, or school. Its not an exhaustive list, and I welcome comments and more suggestions.

Tip 1: Use Open Source Software!

Did you know that using Open Source software not only made you more attractive to the opposite sex, but also could save energy and save the planet! (cue the patriotic movie music). In all seriousness though Open Source can help save energy in a number of ways.

Open Source is developed by individuals working mostly from their homes, as such they don’t commute to a place of business (which requires its own lighting, heat/air, etc.) and thus saves energy. I’m also lead to believe many of them even toil away in dank dark basements and thus save some on their lighting bills in the process of coding.

Open Source is almost always available as a free download online. The impact in terms of energy use and pollution to the environment of downloading software is much less than when shipping packaged products to various stores and then having the end user throw away the packaging (many times plastic) to be dumped in a land fill.

For times when you do use proprietary or for-pay software try to download it from the internet instead of opting for buying at the store and getting physical packaging. In 1995 if you bought an office suite you got a cubic box about one foot to a side with lots of printed manuals that you didn’t read, sat on a shelf, and eventually were thrown away once version 47B was released a few years later. Today most software doesn’t come with printed manuals, instead the manual is online or help files or as a PDF on the CD-ROM. So if you think about it, there really isn’t an advantage in having a physical product vs. a download. Just make sure to keep track of serial numbers, product codes, pin numbers, installation passwords, or any other info that you may need to re-install a purchased software product later.

Tip 2: Monitor your Monitors

If you are lucky you’ve got a nice large widescreen monitor on your desk, or perhaps even multiple monitors to help increase your productivity. Even though today’s LCD monitors use much less electricity than older CRT monitors did, there are still ways to squeeze out some power savings from them.

In general monitors use electricity at four different levels… Standby-Off, Standby-On, Economy or Low Backlight mode, and Rival the Sun set it to 11 brightness mode! Standby-Off uses very little power. In this mode the back light and most of the electronics are turned off but there is some power being used just waiting for a button press. This is a tiny amount of power but physically unplugging your monitor at night and other long periods when it will not be in use can help save some vampire power. Standby-On is an energy saving mode where the monitor’s back lights are turned off but its other electronics are turned on. This mode is usually activated by a screen saver on your PC and has the monitor waiting for a signal to spring back to life. Low Brightness and High Brightness modes are just that, a preference by the user. It all depends on the lighting level at your computer and the tasks you are performing. You can save power by using lower brightness levels (and the side benefit is that you can also make your monitor last a little longer since you are driving the back lights at a lower level).

A very simple way to save some energy with your monitor is this… for longer periods of time when you will not be using your computer such as night time or even or an hour while you go to lunch simply unplug the monitor completely (or use a dedicated power strip or switched electrical outlet to turn off the supply electricity to make things more convenient.) If you are going to get up for 5 or 10 minutes and be away from your desk use the power button on the front of the monitor and turn it off (this uses slightly less power than even the screen saver’s power down mode) Overall try to use a lower brightness or economy setting if it gives you adequate contrast for your task and viewing environment.

One time saving convenience if you have a guaranteed schedule is to use a lamp-timer to automatically disconnect power from your monitor during periods that you know you won’t be using your computer (like after hours for an office, or night time at home). Just make sure you have a surge protector in between your timer and your monitor, especially if you use an older mechanical timer to avoid power surges that might damage your monitor.

Tip 3: Turn stuff off when you aren’t using it using ZONES!

This is common sense, but how many of us leave all of our stuff plugged in at all times AND turned on and running at all times. Even when electronics aren’t in use, many do still use power. So get in the habit of turning things off. For example, at home I’m not constantly printing things to my printer. Its great that if it was always on I could just press print any time I wanted to, but by turning it off and/or unplugging it when not in use you can save a lot of power over time. Obviously this would be different in an office environment so use your best judgment. One way to make this easier is to use dedicated power zones.

Like I said, I counted 21 electrical devices on my computer desk. My PC and a few need-to have items are plugged into an uninteruptable power supply (a battery backup in case the power fails) this is mostly to protect the equipment and the data it contains. From there I use power strips and have created power zones I can turn on and off as I need them.

My Zones Are:

  • PC/Master Zone (contains the PC, a USB Hub, and external Hard Drives… on the UPS)
  • Monitors (stemmed from the UPS, contains the two monitors, turned off for breaks, night time)
  • Network (contains my cable modem, wireless router, VOIP, and Telephone base station, always on except on vacations)
  • Printers (contains three printers, turned off when not in use)
  • Speakers and Other PC Stuff (turned off when not in use)
  • Cell Phone and MP3 Chargers (turned off when not charging the phones)
  • Desktop Power (extra outlets, plus desk lamp and other desktop stuff)

Use a label maker and tag each power cord and each zone, that way its easy to identify equipment in a jumble of wires.

Tip 4: Use software to control your energy use

From the energy savings options built into your BIOS and your Operating System to software to throttle your processor power or automagically turn your PC on and off there are lots of ways to control your power use via software tools. Here are a few suggestions:

Granola for your PC ( ) a tool that will not only throttle your modern processor power based on your usage needs but will also show you how much energy you’ve saved in terms of your carbon footprint.

Winoff ( ) a tool that will let you schedule and control windows shutdowns. Includes lots of options and features.

A built in GUI you didn’t know you had! ( ) did you know that the shutdown program in windows also has its own GUI?

Tip 5: For laptop use at your desk

If you have a laptop that you use for work, chances are 90% of your laptop use is actually at your desk and you probably tend to keep it plugged in for all of this time. A laptop’s power saving software is a lot different from a desktop PC’s because its main function is to squeeze as much life out of a battery as possible by throttling back resources on the fly to reduce power consumption. Most batteries that exist today can’t last more than a very few hours if power savings aren’t turned on. This can be annoying so most users leave their laptops plugged in at their desks. They also tend to leave that power supply brick plugged in over night when they aren’t there. This of course uses extra power but it also can have the effect of reducing the life of your battery. Many batteries develop a memory and as such if left charging all the time will quickly loose their capacity to hold a charge and operate a laptop for very long. This equates to a need to recycle batteries more often that might be optimal and the cost of a new battery.

Most laptops have software to limit charge/recharge cycles for optimal battery life, but the settings can be tricky to balance useability vs. power savings. One manual way to fix this is to use a lamp timer to turn your power supply brick off and on during the day, and to totally turn it off at night (if your laptop goes home with you that is). By turning it on and off your laptop battery will go through a more normal charge/use/recharge cycle and will last longer. It also saves on a lot of unneeded vampire power. Again just make sure to use a surge protector between your timer switch and the electronics it is powering to prevent any damage by line surges. (especially true if you use an older mechanical timer).

I hope you found these tips interesting and that maybe you can save a little money, energy, and reduce your impact to the environment a little bit.


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