Years ago, there were many shocking articles about how much energy cable and satellite boxes were wasting. Have things improved since then?
Why do set-top boxes consume so much power?
Way back in 2016, we answered a reader’s question about cable box power usage, and while things have improved since then, cable and satellite boxes are still significant sources of phantom loads in the home.
It would be easy to assume that the set-top boxes millions of people use for their cable and satellite service have been so inefficient over the years because manufacturers simply didn’t care about power consumption.
To some extent, that is true. From his perspective, there was no pressure to do so, and any money saved by upgrading the boxes went to the consumer, not them. But, part of it is a combination of necessity along with how we expect a set-top box and associated service to work.
First, any device that responds to remote controls or sits in standby mode ready for us to use must, by necessity, draw at least a small amount of power to do so. Without that phantom charge that keeps the device in ready and standby mode, you’d have to turn it on manually by pressing a button or flipping a switch.
Second, when it comes to set-top boxes, just having a remote isn’t enough. Consumers, especially US consumers, expect their cable or satellite service to be ready the moment they turn on the television. A cold boot where the device is not yet in standby mode introduces a significant delay.
On top of that, in addition to the power demands of general standby and always-on power, DVR systems must maintain an even higher power state to serve as a DVR and record their shows. Additionally, many DVR systems are configured where one box in the home serves as a combination DVR and media server, streaming content to the other non-DVR boxes in the home.
How much energy do decoders consume?
In 2011, a study by the National Resources Defense Council found that the common setup, a cable box with a DVR and a second box in the home, used more energy than running a new Energy Star-qualified refrigerator. It was not unusual for set-top boxes, especially those with built-in DVRs, to use 35W or more in standby mode.
Since then, the power consumption of set-top boxes has improved, largely thanks to a voluntary agreement brokered by the NRDC and other energy-oriented and environmental organizations. According to data from D+R International, an energy efficiency group, between 2012 and 2019 set-top box energy use fell 50% for DVRs and 38% for non-DVR set-top boxes.
Still, there’s no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to always-on functionality. Despite the improvements, the lighter boxes consume around 4-6 W in standby mode, with the most power-hungry models still drawing around 25 W.
If you refer to this list of cable boxes used by Xfinity, for example, you’ll get a rough idea of the power consumption ranges of different types of boxes. Most DVR units consume between 22 and 25 W in standby mode. Many of the traditional set-top boxes but not DVRs consume around 12-16W.
One thing worth keeping in mind when studying the list (or any similar list) is the difference between traditional cable/satellite boxes and IP boxes. You’ll often find IP-based cable boxes with very low power consumption (2-5W) because they’re your TV provider’s answer to a Roku streaming device. They don’t have the same hardware overhead as a traditional box and consume comparatively little power.
P3 International P4460 Kill a Watt
Curious about the power consumption of your cable box? Use this handy little meter to measure how much energy your devices and appliances are using.
While you can’t zero out the energy consumed by your cable or satellite box, we recommend calling your provider to replace really old boxes with newer ones. Not only will you get a better and faster experience with the latest hardware, but you’ll also save money on your electricity bill.
If all of this is really curious to see how much energy your particular box uses, you’ll need a Kill a Watt meter and our guide to measuring home energy use. We hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised and your rig will be more like an ultra-efficient LED light bulb and less like an old-school incandescent spotlight when it comes to power consumption.