Perfecting the PC

Computers are Getting Better, but Consumer Habits Matter, Too

Your personal computing habits may need a green makeover. Today's power-hungry computers are eating an ever-bigger share of the energy pie chart. With new, more energy-efficient technologies and green initiatives like the federal Energy Star program and the Green Electronics Council's Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), consumers can finally shop with energy efficiency in mind. But that's just the beginning. It helps to know that computer companies like Dell are taking steps toward becoming carbon neutral. And knowing about PC components—when to power down and when to use the energy-saving options of new operating systems such as Microsoft's Vista—can do much to save money and reduce the environmental impact of personal computing.

© Getty Images

Shop Wisely

A standard PC will use 200 to 400 watts or more, depending on its configuration and use. An inefficient gaming PC with powerful graphics card, multiple hard drives and optical drives, flash memory reader, and 30-inch LCD might consume 750 watts—as much as your typical refrigerator! The blue Energy Star logo has been helping people make energy-wise buying decisions since its creation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1992. Its latest revision in 2006 includes stricter efficiency requirements for computers. Every major manufacturer offers some Energy Star-compliant products, but you"ll find the largest selection from companies that typically sell preconfigured PCs and notebooks, including Dell, Sony and Hewlett Packard.

In fact, Dell has partnered with the nonprofit Conservation Fund and Carbonfund.org in its push to become the greenest technology company. Its "Plant a Tree for Me" program helps users offset their IT emissions. And Dell is the first computer company to join the Climate Group, a global nonprofit working for energy efficiency and lower emissions.

Businesses and federal agencies use EPEAT when deciding which "green" computing systems will work for them, and consumers can, too. The council evaluates computing equipment on 28 criteria for efficiency and sustainability attributes and rates them as bronze, silver or gold.

Under the Covers

Inside your computer's case, the most power-hungry component is the CPU, or central processing unit. Manufacturers have worked to make processors more efficient, but Intel's Core 2 Duo still uses about 65 watts of energy and the new Core 2 Duo Extreme, 75 watts. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Technology company VIA is well regarded as an industry leader in low-wattage processors, with some demanding only 12 watts from the power supply. VIA designs can outperform competitors using only 23 watts, or less than half the power called for by Energy Star specifications.

PC gamers and others with high-performance machines will not be happy to hear that the graphics card is a major energy hog. A top-end ATI or nVidia card gobbles 300 watts or more. Newer cards are better, but much depends on how they're used. The best advice is to buy only the graphics power you need.

A big source of both high energy consumption and hazardous waste disposal is the old-school cathode ray tube (CRT) display. These outdated heaters can burn more than 100 watts by themselves and may contain four to five pounds of lead. By just replacing your old CRT with a 19-inch LCD, you"ll cut power use in half. There are guidelines for disposing of old monitors—which can contain toxic mercury, cadmium, phosphorous and lead—on the EPA website.

Most power supplies weren't designed for energy efficiency. They typically pull more power than they need during normal operations, and some draw electricity when the PC is switched off. A voluntary certification program, 80 Plus, certifies that a power supply will only use the power it needs. An efficient 80 Plus power supply, like one of Antec's energy-conscious Earthwatts series, can provide significant savings.

Smart Power-Saving Options

Windows XP allows the user to configure power management settings and Vista Ultimate provides even more power-saving options. Vista can actually throttle back its power consumption for some tasks, saving energy while you work. If you are just typing a document in Microsoft Word, performance will back down. But if you're editing video in a powerful program like Adobe Premier Pro, Vista will use all the processing power available. For top energy efficiency, Vista users can create a "Power Plan" that will power down all fans when they aren't necessary to save energy.

And using a screen saver may be drawing excess energy. Power-down features may not work when a screen saver is activated. Happily, LCD color monitors don't need them.

When considering whether to power down, consider this: While PCs use a small amount of energy when they start up, it's considerably less than the energy used when a computer is running for long periods of time. Consider turning off the monitor if you aren't going to use your PC for more than 20 minutes, and both the CPU and monitor if you"ll be away for more than two hours. Don't worry about the wear and tear of turning PCs on and off. Most PCs reach the end of their "useful" life due to advances in technology long before the negative impacts of being switched on and off are noticeable.

And make sure monitors, printers and other accessories are on a power strip/surge protector. When not in use for extended periods, turn off the switch on the power strip to prevent devices from drawing power. If you're interested in checking the power consumption of your PC or any other appliance, consider buying a Kill-a-Watt or Kill-a-Watt EZ, easy-to-use household power monitor. You"ll find out exactly how much energy your PC uses and the EZ model will even calculate a monthly cost.

CONTACTS: Climate Group, www.theclimategroup.org; Dell, www.dell.com; Electronic Product Environment Asses-sment Tool, http://epeat.net; Energy Star, www.energystar.gov; EPA computer recycling page, www.epa.gov/epaoswer/hazwaste/recycle/ecycling/donate.htm; Kill-a-Watt, www.p3international.com/products; 80 Plus, www.80plus.org.

ANDY MCDONOUGH is a freelance writer and consulting engineer from Middletown, NJ.