Phantom Load (or, How Not To Live In Caves)

The new microwave in the Mill Creek NetZero Home tries to burn 35 Kg of coal every year to display the time.

When discussing the environment with non-converts, the debate often degenerates to someone commenting “you want us to go back to living in caves”. The sentiment reveals a shocking but widespread ignorance about the vast quantities of energy and materials that we squander. Energy is cheap and ubiquitous, and it seems that humans are doomed to waste whatever is abundant.

The answer to the living in caves comment is that we could reduce our materials and energy consumption by 50% in a heartbeat without touching our standard of living. In fact, we could reduce consumption by over 90% and still live better than kings and emperors did 300 years ago. (Yes, monster truck rallies would have to go. If by “living in caves” you mean “stop driving my Hummer around while Tweeting on my cell phone”, then I stand corrected.)

The microwave at the top of page is state-of-the-art; we purchased it this year from IKEA, a company that makes claims of environmental responsibility. The problem is, it draws four Watts of electricity, all the time, day or night. The useful work that it manages to produce out of the 100 grams of dirty coal that it needs every day is to display a digital clock.  Quick! Raise your hand if you need another clock in your house!

So should we live in caves? Hell no. But we also shouldn’t change the climate of this planet just to have a fourteenth digital time teller. Roughly speaking, every 195 houses with a microwave in it burns this much coal per year in order to display the time on said microwave:

15 tons (6.8 tonnes) of coal

(picture from here)

Phantom Load

The phenomenon of electronics and appliances constantly burning coal to achieve practically nothing is referred to as phantom load.  To eliminate this phantom load, we installed switched plug-ins.

the wall swtich cuts power to the microwave

How to deal with irresponsible appliance manufacturers

Besides the one in the kitchen, we have a switched plugin in every room in the house.  Hitting a switch before watching TV or listening to music becomes automatic; once you get set up it is really no big deal.

What To Do

What to do about phantom load if you’re a conscious citizen?

  1. Get a power meter like this $25 dollar device from Canadian Tire:


    Blue Planet Electronic Energy Meter

    You can also borrow one of these from the Edmonton public library or Earth’s General Store (I think).

  2. Use the energy meter to see which electronic devices are wasting power while “off”. Most of them will be. If something is drawing one Watt of power, it will burn about 1 gram of coal per hour. If the phantom load for a house is 50 Watts, that house will draw 50 * 24 hours = 1.2 kWh per day of electricity. 1.2 Kilograms of coal burned per day to accomplish nothing.
  3. Get some power strips and/or switched extension cords to turn your stuff off – REALLY off – when you’re done with them.
    power strip switched extension cord
    Value Village and Goodwill are full of power strips like this.
  4. When renovating or building new, include one switched power outlet in each room.
  5. To tell the time without wasting a bunch of electricity, use battery-powered clocks.

    battery-powered “eco-clock”

    battery-powered “eco-clock”

    battery-powered “eco-clock”

    rechargeable batteries only please!


Phantom load wouldn’t exist if we cared about climate change. As a society, it’s obvious that we don’t. As individuals, we can choose to stop the waste. Before we move in to our caves we can take reasonable steps to cut our energy use; especially the most wasteful stuff like phantom loads.

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Hi Conrad. We borrowed a power meter from the library a couple of years ago and measured the power consumption of practically everything in the house that uses electricity. It was very enlightening and prompted us to change some of our habits and to use power strips for the computer, TV, VCR/DVD etc. We were quite shocked at how big the phantom load was for certain things. For example, leaving a PC and monitor turned on all the time, as many people do, wastes a huge amount of energy. The clock on the VCR was another big offender. As you point out, these appliances still draw significant amounts of power when turned off if they are left plugged in. Power strips are a very worthwhile investment to solve this problem. We were also amazed at how much power our electric kettle used so we switched to a highly efficient kettle that we heat on our gas stove. By the way, although the Edmonton Public Library does have power meters available on loan, there is usually a very long wait - I think we had one on hold for about 6 months before we finally got it.


I'm thinking of putting switch in every room also. But my electrician told me the regular switch will hit up and might not be able to handle the load. Right now each room has their own 20amp breaker. Have you experience any similar issue with your current switch?



We have not. I'm not sure what your electrician is talking about to be honest. Putting a switch on a plugin is a fairly simple matter.


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