Despite hype, unplugging chargers is only a small part of saving energy

Most probably wouldn’t have guessed their cellphone would be next to don the environmentalist hat.

Some cellphone manufacturers and service providers are programming a message to appear when a phone’s battery is charged that reads, “To conserve energy, unplug charger from power source.”

As annoyingly idealistic as this reminder might sound, a lot of folks say the gesture to unplug is worth the bother.

“I think the message is great,” said Emily Cross, junior in LAS and Illini Media employee. “Nothing is too small when it comes to conserving energy.”

Cross, secretary of the Student Sustainability Committee, practices what she preaches by unplugging the heck out of her apartment. She puts all the electrical devices she can fit on a power strip and simply switches the power strip off when she leaves.

“Sure, it’s kind of a hassle,” Cross said, “but it gives me a little perk to know I’m doing something.”

But Professor John Abelson of materials science and engineering says there are more worthwhile ways to save energy than by unplugging a charger.

“The truth is that unplugging your chargers isn’t a significant way to save energy,” Abelson said. “From a student’s point of view, the plug on a TV and the plug on a cell phone charger look the same and, therefore, consume the same amount of energy. That’s just not the case.”

Abelson says unplugging a charger saves about 1/2 a watt of electricity daily. He believes David J.C. MacKay, a natural philosophy professor at the University of Cambridge, puts that amount in perspective best in his book entitled “Sustainable Energy — Without The Hot Air.”

“All the energy saved in switching off your charger for one day is used up in one second of car-driving,” MacKay states in his book. “Obsessively switching off the phone-charger is like bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon. Do switch it off, but please be aware how tiny a gesture it is.”

MacKay goes on to compare how each day, a TV on standby consumes 10 watts, an active laptop computer consumes 16 watts, and a vacuum cleaner in use consumes 1,600 watts.

Abelson thinks young people have a responsibility to be more proactive when purchasing electronics. He recommends reading the literature that comes with each device or renting a kilowatt meter from the library to test how much energy is being used. He warns that ads for energy-mindful gadgets are often exaggerative.

“I’m not impressed by companies pretending to be more green-conscious than they actually are,” said Abelson, explaining what he believes to be the ulterior motive for companies advertising the art of unplugging. “Companies just want customers to feel better about themselves, but customers shouldn’t feel better about doing something insignificant.”

Suhail Barot, graduate student in ACES and former chair of the Student Sustainability Committee, has a few tips for students that will conserve more energy and money than unplugging a charger of any sort.

Barot says students should use energy saver light bulbs and weather strip their doors and windows. He has saved $40 a month on his heating bill just by picking up inexpensive trimming materials at Wal-mart that prevent cool air from seeping into his apartment.

He also recommends using a clothes-drying rack rather than a dryer, especially in the summer when clothes dry in just a couple hours outside or near a window.

“And do less driving,” said Barot, explaining how he even rides his bike when snow is on the ground. “Campus has an award-winning transit system, so use it.”

Barot also carries a reusable water bottle, turns his thermostat down to 66 degrees Fahrenheit and keeps his computer on an energy saver preference when it’s in use.

He even unplugs his phone charger because, although it only saves a bit, he believes anything he remembers to do is worth doing.

Nevertheless, even an environmentally aware student like Barot is guilty of wasting energy once in a while.

“I probably should take shorter showers than I do,” he said, sheepishly. “No one’s perfect.”