Phantom loads, also called standby power, is the electricity used by appliances even when they are turned off.
Reuben talks about the experiment he did at home with the Sense Home Energy Monitor. He shares using Kill A Watt meter, a device that measures the power consumed by an appliance. He then discusses the results and computed the monetary cost for the phantom load.
Tessa mentions that the age of appliances is a factor in electricity consumption. Reuben enumerates the expensive appliances that may consume a lot of electricity in his home.
Catch Reuben’s blogpost at structuretech.com.
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Reuben Saltzman: Welcome to my house. Welcome to the Structure Talk podcast, a production of Structure Tech Home Inspections. My name is Reuben Saltzman. I’m your host alongside building science geek Tessa Murry. We help home inspectors up their game through education, and we help homeowners to be better stewards of their houses. We’ve been keeping it real on this podcast since 2019, and we are also the number one home inspection podcast in the world, according to my mom. All right, welcome back to another episode. Tessa, how you doing today?
Tessa Murry: Hey, Reuben. I’m doing well. Long time no, see. It feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve chatted, but what has it been? Maybe like…
RS: Couple weeks, I think.
TM: Two weeks?
RS: Yeah. Anything new…
TM: Okay. What’s new? What’s going on?
RS: You beat me to it. Okay. All right.
RS: Well, did a recent ski trip. Went to Utah, did a little bit of skiing there. It wasn’t totally a ski trip, it was partial retreat. But we did one day of skiing on Beaver Mountain. They had a 10 foot base of snow there, and the day we skied, we got another 13 inches of snow. The day we were skiing. So every time we’d get to the top of the chairlift, we’d have another half inch of snow on ourselves that we’d have to dust off.
TM: Oh my gosh.
RS: It was insane. And I’m not big into skiing. I love skiing, but I’m not huge into it like some people are, but there was some other guys I was skiing with who basically live to ski. And they were just in amazement, they’re saying they’ve never seen anything like this in their life and they don’t really expect to see it ever again. So, felt really lucky to be there.
RS: Skiing through like 13 inches of just pure powder.
RS: We plowed through it and you’d be flying down the hill and there’d be snow just flying up in front of you. It was the craziest thing in the world. So that was a good time.
TM: Oh my gosh. Did anybody get hurt?
RS: No, nobody got hurt. I… It was almost like you couldn’t, I had a couple nasty wipeout ’cause I was really pushing it.
RS: And there was one time where I went forward where I was going through some trees and whatnot and my ski caught in something and I went sideways and then I went backward and I’m like… I’m laying on my back plowing snow. And I opened up my eyes and I’m completely buried [laughter] I’m like…
TM: Oh my God.
RS: Under the snow. And I just kind of started laughing and I had to brush all the snow off on my face. It was like the only way you’re gonna get hurt is if you run into something. There was…
TM: Ski into a tree.
RS: It was so deep. Yeah. So it was…
TM: So, the powder protected you?
RS: Yeah, pretty much. Pretty much.
RS: It was a fun day.
TM: Did Anna go with you?
RS: No. This was a guy’s trip.
TM: Got it. Well, you know what, the past week I spent a lot of time prepping for a… I was invited to do a human design reading for a group of chiropractors. [laughter] So…
RS: A human design reading?
TM: Yes, yes.
RS: Okay. Tell me more.
TM: For any… Okay, so for anyone that hasn’t heard of human design, it’s basically a system for self-understanding. And it combines astrology, the I Ching, the Hindu chakra system and the Kabbalah tree of Life, lots of different modalities and also quantum mechanics too, which is kind of interesting. And astronomy. It helps you understand your own unique energy. It has so many specifics to it that is so accurate on ways to help you live your best life in alignment with how… What your gifts are and how your energy works. So if you’ve ever tried something like, if you’ve taken the Myers Briggs or Maxwell DISC, or even in our home inspection world, we did the Acumen ACU Max.
TM: That’s what kind of turned me onto this, was diving into understanding each person’s unique gifts and talents and who that person really is. And so I found that human design is super accurate and really detailed and it even lines out your purpose and how to live in alignment and achieve those things that you’re put on this earth to do and to use your gifts. So that was…
TM: Yeah, it is. It is fascinating. So I was introduced to human design by a friend a few years ago and I just dove into it and I was like obsessed with it. And so anyways, yeah. So this past week I was prepping for that and then just two days ago went into the Twin Cities and did this reading for nine different chiropractors. So we had nine different charts we were studying and that was, it was really, really fun. And it was cool and a lot of people were interested to kind of just like, see how… Maybe some things that you’ve been struggling with in your life and then all of a sudden it makes sense when you look at your human design chart. So that was a really fun opportunity.
RS: Well, I’ll have to talk to you offline. I wanna know who these chiropractors were ’cause I feel like I know about a dozen chiropractors and I surely know at least one of the people you were sitting with. [laughter]
TM: Oh, really? I… Well you probably do Reuben.
TM: You know everyone. [laughter]
RS: But we’ll, we won’t bore our listeners with those little details.
TM: Yeah. We can talk offline. Yeah, I think you would like them, you would jive with these chiropractors, men and women.
RS: I bet.
TM: Okay. So enough about human design stuff. I could geek out on that for hours. But I wanted to ask you, Reuben, kind of what’s the topic that we are going to be diving into today?
RS: Well, on a recent podcast you and I were talking about vacant houses and what to do if you’re leaving your house for a long time. We got into that and then we got off on a little bit of a tangent talking about how much power different things use and whether you should unplug a bunch of appliances at your house. Like unplug your TV and your stereos and all that other stuff. ‘Cause there’s this thing called a phantom load where even when an appliance or an electrical device isn’t being used for its primary purpose, it’s still going to pull some electricity to say, run the clock on your microwave or run the internet connection for your TV ’cause it’s waiting for a signal to be turned on. They’re always doing work in the background and it might not seem like a lot for one.
TM: Yeah, if it’s plugged in it’s using energy.
RS: Yeah. Exactly. And it might not seem like a lot of power for just one appliance, but when you add everything up at your house, it’s a lot of… Well, that that’s the idea that has been suggested is that it’s a lot of power. When we were doing the podcast last we talked about maybe doing a follow up experiment.
TM: Have you done that already?
RS: Yeah, I said alright.
TM: Of course.
RS: Let’s go. I’m anxious to do this. I was super curious about it and you know, I have this device installed in my main electric panel called the Sense Home Energy Monitor. It’s this device where you get these sensors that wrap around the two main cables coming into your electric panel, and it gets connected to the internet and you get this app on your phone and you log into your account and it tells you your current power usage. And it also tells you, it begins to figure out different appliances or different things that are drawing power based on their electrical signature. Like it figured out my garage door opener right away. And you could set it up to give you an alert every time it senses your garage door opener turning on or off. I mean, you can do all these cool things with it, but probably, the coolest, most basic one is just an energy meter. It’s a graph that updates itself every second showing how much power is being used in your house right this second. And it’s an…
TM: How often do you look at that?
RS: Not often. I, back when I first got it…
TM: It’s not your screensaver? [laughter]
RS: It should be.
TM: Anna Turn off that TV. Too much energy.
RS: Who turned on a light in the basement bathroom?
RS: No, I’m not that dad. I am not super concerned about our power usage, but back when I first got it, I did spend a fair bit of time just putzing around with it, trying to figure out what actually uses power, what doesn’t. And you learn some surprising things. I mean, well I’m not gonna get into all of them right now, but maybe we will get into some, but it’s a really easy way for you to monitor how much power everything is using. I mean, you can buy these one-off devices. I bought this one device a long time ago called a, it was called a Kill A Watt. And it’s a device that plugs into the wall and then you plug something else into it and it measures how much power is coming through it. So it’s really neat, but it takes a long time. It’s like you gotta leave something plugged in for about a day. And then you can see how much it’s costing you. But with the Sense monitor you see all that data in real time. It’s instant.
TM: And would you say that that Kill A Watt device was fairly in alignment with, with the monitor you have installed in your electrical panel? Were they similar readings?
RS: They do. Yeah. I haven’t done a side by side comparison because with the Sense it measures everything and it’s not very good at measuring individual items. The Kill A Watt is more, I want to know exactly what this one thing is doing over a long period of time. So they, they serve different purposes.
TM: Different Purposes.
RS: I’m assuming they’re both accurate. I mean, they gotta be within some percentage of accuracy, of each other. But so I… I thought let’s see what this phantom load is and you know, the phantom load is all these little things that aren’t really doing anything. But to establish a baseline, I had to start out by unplugging or shutting off the power to all those things in a house that turn on and off by themselves. Tessa list a few. I bet you could think of some.
TM: Well, I’m thinking like appliances. Like refrigerators and.
TM: Microwaves. Well, you’re turning those on and off, so I guess that’s Not…
RS: Microwave I control.
TM: The appliance itself. But what about like mechanical systems too? Like an HRV or ERV system?
RS: Yes. I shut that off.
TM: Were you brave enough to turn off your furnace? [laughter]
RS: I shut off the furnace. Yes.
TM: Okay. Water heater. If you’ve got, you know, a power vent water heater potentially.
RS: Yep. I’ve got a power vent water heater and I’ll stop you there because you got ’em all.
TM: Oh good. Thank you.
RS: I can’t think of any others that turn on and off. Well done Tess. I knew you’d get there quickly.
TM: I May not be inspecting houses anymore, but.
RS: But you got a head for this stuff.
TM: There we go.
RS: You know how they work.
TM: I’m staying in the game trying to at least.
RS: Yep. So shut all those down. And then I went around and shut down some other stuff that kind of has variable power consumption like my desktop computer, you know, depending on what’s going on and it may pull more power to less power, shut that off. Desktop Computers pull quite a bit of power and I always leave mine on because I’ve always got Google Drive running in the background and I’ve got this sync tool, so it’s always syncing files that inspectors upload overnight. And I always just want it always up to date. But man, it uses a lot of power. I’m second guessing my decision, but turned off my desktop, turned off Anna’s desktop. She was working from home.
TM: Oh oh.
RS: Sorry honey. But she was very gracious and I had her work on her laptop not connected to a charger. The one thing I didn’t turn off is the internet because I need the internet to do this experiment. And whether I’m gonna, even if I’m gonna be gone for a month or two, I want the internet remaining on because I want my smart thermostat to be running. I want my water sensors to be connected. There’s stuff I want to leave on. So, I shut off all the stuff I could think of, established a baseline, and then I went around and I unplugged everything. I unplugged the televisions, the laptop chargers, the phone chargers, the microwave, the toaster oven. What else? The coffee maker. Six Alexa devices. We got those all over the house.
TM: She’s always listening.
RS: That’s our intercom system. [laughter] Alexa’s always. Alexa knows what’s going on at my house. Yes.
TM: We should interview her on the podcast.
RS: Lot of dirt. No, my house is very boring. [laughter] There’s nothing…
TM: I doubt that.
RS: Interesting going on here, but all the Alexa devices, two stereos. Can’t remember what else. I’m sure there are a few other things, but when I was done, I unplugged all this stuff and my total usage shot by 10 watts Tess. 10 watts.
TM: Really? So after you had like, your computer turned off and everything was off.
TM: Then you unplugged it, that that change was only 10.
RS: Well, I didn’t even… I didn’t even unplug my computer. I just assumed that when my computer is shut down, it’s not drawing power. Now the monitors, that’s a question. So I did unplug the monitors.
RS: I unplugged, like there’s five different monitors I unplugged.
TM: Okay. Yeah. Wait, so how much was that energy usage?
RS: 10 watts.
TM: Again? 10 watts.
RS: 10 watts.
TM: What does that translate to in terms of money?
RS: Well, if you figure, it’s 10 watts an hour, they measure kilowatt hours. That’s how they bill you as like a kilowatt hour. And it basically means it’s 1,000 watts in one hour is a kilowatt hour. Okay. And you pay $0.14 for that or something close to that. We pay about $0.14 a kilowatt hour. So if we got 10 watts in an hour, you got 24 hours in a day, and then you multiply that times 30 days, 10 times 24 times 30. That gets us 7200 or 7.2 kilowatt hours.
TM: Kilowatt hours.
RS: And then, so to calculate what that costs, we’d have to multiply 7.2 times $0.14.
TM: That is kind of mind blowing actually. I am really surprised by that. I’m shocked actually.
RS: It’s not as much as you’d think, is it?
TM: No, not at all.
TM: Not at all.
RS: And just if anybody doesn’t wanna pull out a calculator and do the math, it’s $1.008. So…
RS: $1. Yeah.
TM: You know, I feel like this kind of… This experiment that you did and the results of that are so counter everything that I’ve been told and taught, coming from the energy efficiency world and stuff years ago, I remember, all the discussion about phantom loads and the draw of appliances. And so still to this day, ingrained in my head, I’m like, I’ve gotta unplug my computer when I’m not using it and all these things. So it’s very interesting that in a house of your size with all these different appliances, it was like $1 a month, not a day.
RS: It’s nothing.
TM: A month.
RS: Yes. Yes. It’s crazy.
TM: That’s so crazy. Do you think that there’s… Do you think that the whole phantom load thing, it doesn’t apply to this… It seems like current modern day devices, but maybe that was a thing in 20, 30 years ago.
RS: Tessa I think that’s exactly it. I think you hit the nail on the head. I don’t know. But I did a little bit of digging before I did this experiment just to see what I should expect to see. And I found this one blog where they’re saying, even a laptop charger, just leaving a laptop charger plugged in, is gonna draw four and a half watts constantly, even without your laptop plugged in. And I thought, wow, that is a lot of power. So I just thought, I need to prove this. So I had my wife help me. We took our two laptop chargers and we took one of our kids’ Chromebook chargers and we plugged all those in at the same time, staring at my power meter. And then we unplugged them. And the power meter did not know there was any difference. It didn’t go up, it didn’t go down. Nothing happened.
RS: There’s zero draw. So I think maybe in the day, there used to be some old chargers… There must have been a lot of appliances, dumber appliances that actually would draw a fair bit of power, phantom load. You know what Tessa, I’m calling BS on phantom loads today. I don’t think there’s any significant pull.
TM: You know, I do… I have this fuzzy memory coming back to me from my weatherization days. This would’ve been probably back like around 2010 or whatever. But I remember going to people’s houses and if they had refrigerators that were like predating 2000 manufacture date, we would increase their average electrical costs that we were calculating.
RS: I totally believe it, Tess.
TM: Yeah. So I feel like it is a thing of the past. It’s like if you have a refrigerator from 1980 that’s [laughter] plugged into your garage or something like that is going to use a ton more electricity than a refrigerator you buy today.
RS: Yeah. Yeah. And even… But even today’s refrigerators, they do use a lot of electricity. My refrigerator was actively running when I was shutting stuff off and I didn’t wanna pull it out, so I just flipped the breaker. And there was a big drop in my power usage for my entire house. Just shutting off the refrigerator.
TM: The refrigerator? Well, so that would be interesting. What would you… If you were to rank like the top three most expensive appliances in your house electrical usage wise, what do you think they would be?
RS: Oh man, that’s tough. I’d say floor heat. We got some floor heat in Anna’s basement office and we’ve got floor heat in the basement bathroom. Those are gigantic users of electricity. Back when I had a working hot tub…
RS: That would’ve been one with a… Number one with a bullet.
RS: You’ve got a 240 volt heater and then these huge 240 volt pumps. I mean everything that… Every time that would kick on, it would just… It would be a major spike in my power usage.
TM: The lights in your house would dim.
RS: Just about. Yeah. Now that’s not working anymore. So I don’t have a working hot tub, but floor heat, any type of electric resistance heat, that’s gonna use a lot of power. My computer uses a lot. One interesting thing, I went out to my garage to unplug the refrigerator and I flipped on my garage lights. And Tess, I like a lot of light, especially in the garage. And I’ve got LED lights all over the garage. I’ve got this row of these four foot strips, and then I’ve got those super duper tri bulb things that you screw into the light sockets to replace a traditional bulb.
TM: Oh my gosh.
RS: And then I’ve got all these other lights underneath my shelves. So, it’s like…
RS: You can almost hear the electrical when you turn on the lights. And all are LEDs.
TM: You need your sunglasses. You need your sunglasses in there.
RS: Just about, my garage is really bright, but they’re all LEDs. So I kind of thought, it’s not gonna be that big of a deal. Even so, even though they’re all LEDs, I’ve got so stinking many of ’em, it draws about 500 watts when I turn on my garage lights.
RS: So, that was an eyeopener for me. And I thought, boy, don’t ever leave those lights on at night. If I’m leaving the house, don’t ever forget to shut those off. This is not one or two little bulbs. This is a lot of power I’m using to light up my garage. So, that was interesting.
TM: Huh. I remember when I was a kid, I’d always leave my light on for my bedroom. I remember my dad always telling me like, “Don’t… Turn off your light.” Typical teenager. And today with LED light bulbs and one or two light bulbs for an overhead light, it’s not drawing hardly anything.
TM: These days.
RS: No, it’s not. My daughter has these lights, they’re kind of like Christmas lights or something that she’s got under her bed. And she basically never turns them off. And I don’t make any stink about it, but for this test, that was one of the things that I unplugged, just getting ready to unplug stuff, thinking this is a draw. And I watched my power meter, it didn’t even change it a bit. It was less than a watt. And so I just kind of shrugged and I went, yeah, good. [laughter]
TM: It is a mindset shift, I feel like, from what I was taught and what I was told, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, to the reality of today. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if you get some… Maybe some hate mail from this one, Reuben.
RS: Oh, I’m sure. I’m sure.
RS: It doesn’t fit the narrative that people have ingrained in their heads. Yeah. And they’re gonna look for some hole in what I did. And if there is a hole in what I did, if I’m wrong, I would love to hear about it. I wouldn’t love, but I would appreciate it.
RS: I should hear about it.
TM: Let us know, yeah. No, it’s interesting. I’m glad that you did that experiment and that you have those tools to be able to make those assessments.
RS: It’s fun to have that stuff. It is interesting to know what your big drivers are for your electric bill. All right, cool. Well, I will surely have a blog post talking about this, and I’ll do a YouTube video as well to go along with the podcast just to share these results.
TM: Sounds good.
RS: Bottom line is, if you’re leaving town, shut stuff off. Be smart about it. If your refrigerator is going to be 100% empty, you’re gonna have nothing left in there. Go ahead and unplug it and then crack the door so it doesn’t get all funky.
RS: But otherwise, it’s gonna use power, leaving it plugged in. But as far as, clocks and TVs and all that stuff, I say don’t waste your time.
TM: Unplugging them.
RS: Yeah. There’s a lot bigger fish to fry.
TM: Well, thanks for that insight, Reuben. Good advice.
RS: Certainly. Well, thank you Tessa. I think that’ll wrap up this episode.
TM: See you next time.