Not All Are Vampires

I heard a report on NPR this evening about how digital picture frames are proliferating, and how they are sucking power. I was simultaneously thrilled and disappointed at this story — thrilled because this important issue was being raised on national radio … disappointed because I fear people listening heard the wrong message.

The story raised many good points and was technically accurate. I was most excited that it raised the important issue of vampire transformers. All electronics use transformers; but until recently, most used ones that looked and acted like vampires — with two teeth to stick into your socket and suck your electricity (even when the sun is up!). The story properly moved on to other common things that use power continuously, such as a DVR (My measurements: TiVo uses 11W, Comcast/Motorola DVR uses ~ 100W). Eventually it cited cell-phone chargers as the most likely culprit in many households. The advice: get a Kill-A-Watt and measure. What, … what (!) could I possibly not like about this story?

My complaint? It fell into “quick journalism” traps: using a hook issue (the newly popular digital picture frame) to grab attention, then isolating a few aspects of the larger issue. Given the presentation, I’m afraid that most listeners only heard “digital picture frames are bad”, even fewer heard that “cell phone chargers should be unplugged”, and only a rather small percentage of people heard about the recommendation to use a Kill-A-Watt (as I do – yes, I am a certified geek).

Back to the real issue of the vampires.  So are digital picture frames bad? Sure, if they use cheap old-technology transformers — but, not so bad if they use modern switch-mode transformers, which only use power when power is required. Cellphones? The same story — I rushed over to measure the power used by the two cellphone (iPhone) chargers we have plugged in at my house, and was not surprised to see they registered no power draw on my Kill-A-Watt.  They use switch-mode transformers. Even if you don’t have a Kill-A-Watt, all you have to do is touch and listen: no heat or sound, no power (mostly).

My “close” on the NPR story would have been to give a pat on the back of electronics manufacturers who spend the extra $1 for switch-mode transformers … and a slap in the face for makers of any cheap electronics that still go for vampire transformers. The switch-mode ones are better for the environment and save a lot of money on your electricity bill – what’s not to like?


WattzOn Labs is always innovating ways to engage people to save water and energy. It showcases the WattzOn products under the WattzOn Labs private-label. We don’t market these products, but use this small-scale direct-to-consumer experience to constantly evolve and learn. Then we apply the findings to the rich, private-label products used by all our customers at WattzOn.