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Take Your Tech Off the Grid

What do a tree-hugging hippie, a die-hard survivalist with a year's worth of Campbell's soup, and a sensible bill-paying adult have in common?

If you were expecting a dirty joke, sorry to disappoint (this is PCWorld, after all). The correct answer is: They don't like to waste electricity. Maybe you're worried about peak oil and wasting natural resources, maybe you want your tech to work on the power you get from your home generator, or maybe you just want to save a few bucks--either way, we have a few tips, tricks, and tech toys that can help you cut down your power usage.

How Much Power Are You Using?

Unless you're taking meticulous notes on your monthly electricity bill, you won't be able to really eyeball your consumption. Microsoft's Joulemeter project looks promising, but it's still in alpha and I wasn't able to launch it successfully on my computer. At PCWorld, we track power usage with Watts Up electricity-plug load meters, and they're pretty simple to use--just plug one in and watch the numbers come in. Watts Up gear is a bit pricey for home use, though, so if you don't need some of the advanced features you can grab a Kill-A-Watt EZ plug load meter for a fraction of the price online.

Power Your PC for Less

MacBook Air laptop
Now, let's put together a low-power PC setup. Wouldn't it be nice if someone designed computers that go easy on the electricity? Of course, they already do--those machines are called laptops. As far as basic computing needs go, laptops already use less juice than desktop systems do in order to maximize battery life. If you're really looking to minimize power consumption, you'll want to do most of your computing on a netbook or ultraportable PC with a low-voltage processor, such as an Intel Atom or a CULV (Consumer Ultra Low Voltage) processor.

Dell Latitude 13 laptop
In our green power testing, Apple's 11-inch (1.4GHz) and 13-inch (1.86GHz) MacBook Air models topped our charts, with the former winning a green score of 91 out of 100 and the latter earning a 90. If you don't feel like going to the Mac side, the Dell Latitude 13, Lenovo ThinkPad Edge, and Dell Latitude E5510 all offer high green power scores (90, 88, and 87, respectively), so you have a good selection of laptops that can help cut your electricity bill, at different prices and sizes. If you truly want to be good about keeping consumption low, open the Power Settings control panel and choose a less energy-expensive plan (I'd recommend the 'Power saver' plan as a good starting point) to cut your usage further.

If you refuse to abandon your home-built desktop PC, you can still make a few changes to cut electricity consumption. The first target is your power supply unit. Although your PC's power supply might be rated at 600 watts, that only refers to the amount of power the PSU is guaranteed to provide your PC. Since your PSU isn't perfectly efficient, it draws more power than it provides to your PC, and loses that energy in the process. Look for a PSU that is labeled "80 Plus"--such models are certified to run at higher than 80 percent efficiency. If possible, grab yourself an 80 Plus Gold-certified PSU--they typically run at around 87 percent to 90 percent.

Generally speaking, a few more labels are worth keeping an eye out for when you're shopping for power-saving gadgets. You've probably already seen Energy Star labels, which apply to PCs, HDTVs, and other consumer tech--but that's just the starting point. Check out EPEAT-certified tech, which is certified not only to meet (and often exceed) the current Energy Star specification but also wins bonus points for green materials, renewable power accessories, and several other factors. You'll even find region-specific energy ratings: If you're in the Pacific Northwest and you see Energy Forward labels, that means that the device you're looking at is among the leaders of the energy-efficient tech pack.

Low-Power Peripherals

Of course, your PC isn't the only thing that sucks up electricity. Everything you plug into your PC needs some juice to run--monitors, cameras, even your mouse and keyboard. Let's cut that down next.

Monitors are simple: If you're using a CRT (cathode ray tube) display, recycle it. An LCD monitor will use significantly less power, especially if it's an LED-backlit LCD model. Until we get true low-power display devices like Pixel Qi screens in mass production, a simple LED-backlit monitor is your best bet. Also, keep in mind that the bigger the display, the more juice it'll use, so go smaller if you can help it.

Next, swap your stock keyboard out for this snazzy Logitech K750 solar-powered keyboard ($80), which is sensitive enough to pick up light from a lamp and use that for a charge. Complement the keyboard with a set of small portable charging devices that can take sunlight and wind and turn them into electricity when you're on the go; your various battery-powered gadgets can run at full power without having to draw from your wall outlet or laptop battery. Of particular interest are the crank-driven Windstream Human Power Generator, the Voltaic Generator Solar Laptop Charger bag, and the solar-powered Brunton SolarRoll. Finally, remember to unplug your gear after it's fully charged, or it will keep on draining power from your charging implements instead of using its own battery power.

Kill Vampire Power Drain

To complete your power-cutting quest, you're going to have to kill a vampire. Don't break out the wooden stake and garlic quite yet, though--this vampire is in your electric outlets. "Vampire draw" or "standby power" refers to the electricity that you lose simply by leaving your stuff plugged in, even if it's turned off. You see, many devices never fully shut down; your TV, for example, needs to leave some electronics on to make sure it can respond to the power button from your remote.

We've covered this topic in the past; read "Unplug for Dollars: Stop ‘Vampire Power' Waste" for more how-to tips. Belkin has also released a set of green power gadgets that help you track your power waste, ranging from the $10 Conserve Socket (a timed power-outlet adapter that can cut all electricity to the connected devices after 30 minutes, 3 hours, or 6 hours) to the $40 Conserve Valet charging station (which automatically shuts off once all your charging devices are fully juiced and good to go). And Green Plug has announced a special low-power processor, due out in the second quarter of 2011, that's designed to allow your tech to "talk" to the power supply so that it receives the right amount of juice at the right time without waste.

Keep in mind that you don't necessarily need to spend money on new stuff in order to save money on your power usage--although these neat new gadgets can certainly help, the cheapest way to kill vampire draw is simply to press the switch on your power strips or unplug your devices from the wall completely. Doing so is not nearly as elegant as using a timed or automatic approach, but it is the easiest way to get started on slashing your bill, saving electricity, and making your tech setup as independent as possible.

Care to share your own power-saving tips? Post them in the comments!

Patrick Miller is going to save electricity by shutting off his PC and leaving work now, thank you. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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