Cable Boxes Use an Absurd Amount of Energy, Even When They're Off

That innocuous little device atop your TV has a surprisingly large carbon footprint. 
More
oksana2010/Shutterstock

Game of Thrones is about a collection of power-hungry individuals. This, it turns out, is appropriate. Because the machines many people use to experience the show—cable boxes, allowing live and time-shifted viewing—are themselves collections of power-hungry individuals. Set-top boxes, the Los Angeles Times reports, are shockingly greedy energy-guzzlers. There are approximately 224 million of them in the United States, dotted across the nation's living rooms and bedrooms and taprooms. And, combined, they consume approximately the same amount of electricity as would be produced by four nuclear reactors—enormous ones, running around the clock.

The boxes have become, the Times writes, "the biggest single energy user in many homes, apart from air conditioning."

That's because they are, unlike Game of Thrones viewers, extremely bad at enjoying some downtime. The boxes don't just consume power when you're using them; they also suck up energy when they're turned off. That's in turn because there's a whole mess of work being done under the boxes' casing: spinning hard drives, program guide updates, software downloads, all going on in the background. To the extent that "the devices," the Times puts it, "use nearly as much power turned off as they do when they are turned on." 

You could actually unplug the boxes to stop all that work from being done ... but then, of course, you'd have to reboot the machine. And you know what that requires? Yep: energy. 

All in all, a set-top cable box with a DVR can consume as much as 35 kilowatt hours a month—meaning that it alone can account for $8 a month in electric bills (at least, that's according to reporting coming from the Times, for a Southern California consumer). Which is "a classic case of market failure," Andrew McAllister, a member of the California Energy Commission, tells the Times. "The consumers have zero information and zero control over the devices they get."

Jump to comments
Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

This Short Film Skewers Hollywood, Probably Predicts Disney's Next Hit

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.

Video

The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In