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Eco Etiquette: Should I Turn Off The TiVo?

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I try to unplug all my appliances when I'm not using them to save energy, but I just got TiVo a few weeks ago and now I'm realizing that it's on all the time. I want to unplug it when I'm not recording programs, but my husband says it'll mess up the box. Is that true? Am I wasting a lot of energy?

-Sarah

I actually entered the great DVR debate with my own husband last year, and for a reason that at first was more practical than environmental: Our lone TV is located in the bedroom (hold the Feng Shui comments), and I wasn't sleeping as well after our set-top box was installed because the darn thing was always on, humming in the background like a Tandy 1000 formatting a floppy disk.

A quick trip to the FAQ section of the Motorola website assured me that this noise was normal and that the box was "on and running to serve my entertainment needs," but then I got to thinking: If this noise is going 24/7, then so is the electricity that's feeding the box.

Almost a quarter of the world's population -- 1.6 billion people -- isn't fortunate enough to have electricity for basic needs like cooking food and heating homes, yet here I was squandering a steady stream of current because I was worried about missing the latest episode of Mad Men. How spoiled have we in modern society become?

Profound ponderings on a household appliance, I know. But standby power -- or vampire power, as it's also known -- has become a substantial source of increased energy consumption (not to mention greenhouse gas emissions) in the industrialized world.

An average American household could have multiple TVs, DVRs, desktops, and video game consoles plugged in perpetually, not to mention laptops, cell phones, iPods, and iPads charging. And let's not forget about the more traditional appliances that rarely get a break, like the toaster, coffeemaker, microwave, and refrigerator.

All of these gadgets continue to pull power even when they're not in use. According to VampirePowerSucks.com, 10 percent of all electricity in the US is wasted on idling standby current, at a cost of nearly $10 billion a year.

Your TiVo (and any other DVR, for that matter) factors into this equation, and not insignificantly: If you have two set-top boxes in your household, you're eating up more energy than it would take to run a conventional washing machine -- about 365 kWh a year.

Switch to an Energy Star–certified model, and you're cutting consumption by about 30 percent, but the machine will still guzzle from the grid whether the device is recording, not recording, or in "standby" mode: According to data from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, all three consume roughly the same amount of energy.

The sensible solution, of course, would be to either a) ditch the DVR altogether (which is what I did) or b) unplug the thing when you don't have any recordings scheduled, like when you go to sleep at night (are you recording infomercials?).

Having sampled the pleasures of a DVR myself, I realize the former is a tough sell, so let's consider the latter.

The word on the street is that unplugging the TiVo will somehow lead to its direct demise, or at least mess up your schedule settings. But a quick call to the company revealed this is not the case.

According to the spokesperson I consulted, while the TiVo won't record programs once it's disconnected, it's perfectly fine to unplug the device anytime in the name of energy conservation, whether that's every night or while you're away on vacation. The device will not be harmed, nor is there reason to fear a Jules & Mimi–esque malfunction.

A year back, a customer service rep at Time Warner Cable conveyed the same message, with the caveat that waiting a few minutes for the menu to repopulate after plugging back in could be a minor inconvenience. I went on to unplug my DVR every night without a hitch.

Well, not a hitch that can be faulted to the DVR, anyway: I did sometimes forget to plug it back in on Sunday mornings before Meet the Press, and I still haven't seen the season finale of Gossip Girl, after unfortunately unplugging the DVR before a trip I took the week the episode aired.

Small sacrifices in the name of sustainability. But if you can't stand the thought of missing your favorite programs, consider picking up an outlet timer. The newer digital versions let you schedule dozens of on/off settings and can even be programmed for different days of the week.

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