Fight The Power!

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We are lucky to live in B.C., and I am not just referring to the weather, the outdoor lifestyle, the quality of the “bud,” or our distance from Toronto.

No, I am referring to the fact we have access to cheap and, relatively speaking, a more environmentally friendly energy source than most. Hydro power is not perfect, but at least we are not covered in coal dust or subject to the (albeit low) risks that come with nuclear power. I must applaud myself that I mentioned nuclear power while resisting a second dig at Toronto in just this first paragraph. But I fear I am not sure if I can hold off again for the entire article.

Despite our relatively clean power source and some of the lowest energy costs in North America, we must still be conscious of reducing power usage as much as possible. I would like to introduce some basic techniques that any office can use to assist with energy reduction. These tips revolve around personal computers (PCs), which are the one piece of hardware that every office has.

The easiest thing your office can do for energy reduction is quite simple: power off your PC when going home for the night. This step is quick, effective, and easier than finding a senior in Swiss Chalet at 4:30 p.m.

There are two key benefits of powering off your machines overnight: The cost savings of reduced energy use and reduced wear on your PCs, which allows them an extended life and is a significant benefit for any corporate “evergreening” policy. Because 75 per cent of the energy used during the lifetime of a PC is during its manufacture, the longer a PC can remain in service, the greener an organization can strive to be. 

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PCs are the single biggest area where every member of your organization can get involved and make an impact by powering off their machines when leaving work for the day. I should clarify that turning a PC off means powering it completely down, as opposed to putting it in sleep, idle, or standby mode. As an idle PC left on all night really provides little value to an organization, a company policy of shutting off machines nightly can be established and communicated to allow staff to understand and participate in your corporate energy-reduction initiatives. 

A summary of independent research on why users in the UK do not power off their machines at night was performed in 2006. This survey actually showed that about 23 per cent of users do not turn off their machines regularly. Perhaps the most significant statistic from this survey may be that 88 per cent of respondents say that their bosses never told them in the first place, nor ever reminded them, to power off PCs at the end of the day. I found this fascinating because it showed that (just like me), when in doubt, the Brits also blame their bosses.  

There are four longstanding arguments against powering off machines when not in use. None of these arguments stands up after a little research is done on its counterpoint. Here is a list of those arguments and the counterpoints. (Many of these arguments and counterpoints take me fondly back to past Christmas dinners. Where is that uncle now and where did he hide that scotch?)

1) Argument: The amount of energy used to power a machine back on negates any power savings by turning it off.

Counterpoint: A standard PC draws approximately 89 watts per hour. If left on overnight (say 16 hours) and if not in use, it consumes 1.42 kw. To create the power surge that has to occur when powering on a PC to rival that number, one would have to draw energy at a rate of 17 kwh. Because the average North American wall outlet provides 1.8 kw of draw (about one-tenth of what the power surge would require), and powering on a machine takes just minutes, this myth is disputed.

2) Argument: Screen savers save energy, so leaving a machine on all night will not burn as much energy. 

Counterpoint: Some graphic-intensive screen savers consume significant energy. But really, if your PC is doing anything, there can’t be energy savings occurring as it obviously takes power to display anything on a screen.

3) Argument: Turning a PC on and off every day will reduce its life. 

Counterpoint: PCs are constructed to handle 40,000 on/off cycles before failure, a number is unlikely to be reached during an average PC’s five- to seven-year lifespan. With a PC powered on every day of the year for seven years, that’s only 2,555 times. A second point could also be made that powering off a machine prolongs the life of the device as opposed to shortening it. This is due to reducing the effect of heat on the PC, along with the fact that a hard drive wears out in proportion to the period that it is running. 

3) Argument: Patches and updates can’t be installed on a powered-off machine.

Counterpoint: An often-used argument by organizations requiring that PCs be left on is that they will be easier to update with patches from various software providers. But as many IT staff now have the ability to power on remotely (using “Wake on LAN” software) before a software install, this argument has less support than the HST. 

I could go on, and I will! Here are a couple of extra things you can consider. 

Take a look at your monitors and review them for energy usage. An LCD (liquid crystal display) monitor requires about one-third the power of a CRT (cathode ray tube, like older TVs) display with the same screen area. To further simplify, just look for the Energy Star logo. Energy Star is an easy way to ensure you are on the right track. 

Another option for energy savings is switching from desktop PCs to laptops. A typical laptop uses significantly less power than a similarly equipped desktop.

My final suggestion is to consider plugging all components into smart universal power supply (UPS) units. The benefit here is the master outlet (which the PC would be plugged into) on a smart UPS can automatically shut off power to the controlled outlets of peripherals when it detects that the PC is powered down.

Remember, when it comes to power conservation, every little bit helps. 

And I don’t think there is any point in me trying to make people in Toronto feel worse: the Leafs are doing a good enough job of that.