GOING GREEN WITH YOUR PC
GOING GREEN WITH YOUR PC
2006-11-13 at 11:35:00 am #16840
Going green with your PC
Practical advice on reducing the environmental impact of your computer
Nov 2006As we add more and more computers to our homes, with networks, Nas (network-attached storage) devices, streaming multimedia and other gadgets, the amount of power that’s used adds up.Then there are the consumables; far from the paperless office, many computer users generate more waste paper than ever before, and of course plastic and metal and chemicals from toner and ink supplies too. Is it worth replacing equipment with ‘greener’ alternatives, and how do you judge that anyway?The good news is that, whether your concern is about the bottom line on your electricity bill, or the broader effects on the environment, you can make a difference. And you don’t have to drastically change the way you use your computer, replace costly equipment, or take a step back from the information age.
Climate change is a reality. Most people now realise that, although the academic arguments about the causes won’t be resolved any time soon. Thanks to publicity increasing our awareness, including films such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, more of us are trying to think about how we can do our bit to help curb emissions and use energy more efficiently.It’s important to realise that it’s not just about climate change, it’s also about sustainability – making the best use of the finite resources our planet has to offer.Lots of people do the obvious things first – using local recycling facilities, sorting rubbish, switching to low-energy light bulbs, walking or taking public transport instead of using the car, or remembering to turn the TV off instead of just pressing the standby button.You almost certainly have other ways that you can help too, since you’ll probably have at least one computer – and often many more – at home.You may remember to turn off the television set, but do you do the same with your computer? Even if you do, recent research shows that among younger people, the computer will be used as a source of entertainment more than the TV. In short, power use by computers is increasing, and with it the potential contribution towards emissions of greenhouse gases.It’s not just electricity consumed by our PCs that is an issue. Most people have a printer as well – and a quick look at most ink cartridges is all it takes to see that they’re more plastic and metal than ink. You can just throw empty ones away, but it’s far better to ensure they’re recycled, and preferably by a specialist, rather than just tossed in the local council recycling bin with your empty cereal packets.
Re-use and recycle
The key to green computing, as with other areas of life, is to reduce, re-use and recycle. We’ll look later at ways you can reduce consumption, but first it’s worth looking at what happens when you’ve finished with your PC.As you’ll know if you read our recent article ‘Our PCs, our planet’, computers contain a number of parts and chemicals that can be dangerous to both people and the environment, and it’s important to make sure that they’re disposed of properly. That means ensuring if you’re just throwing away an old system, you take it to a suitable recycling point.A recent survey in our sister magazine Computeractive suggests that’s what most people do – but seven per cent of users still put their old computers out with other household waste.Remember that, as some campaigning groups have discovered, when you hand over a computer for recycling, not all of it may be done in an environmentally friendly way, so don’t be afraid to ask how your old equipment will be disposed of. We listed some recycling and redistribution organisations for your old PC in the article mentioned above.If your PC is in reasonable condition, it can still be used for web browsing, email and basic tasks, even though it’s not up to scratch for the latest games or editing tasks – and around 60 per cent of the Computeractive readers surveyed passed their old systems on to friends or relatives, helping to prolong the life of the PC. And you can also, of course, re-use PCs yourself as network file servers, music servers or mail servers on a home network.But while re-using a computer may be a sound thing to do from the point of view of recycling, remember that you have to balance that against the power use of an older, less efficient system too – something that we’ll consider in more detail later.Consumables are the area where you can make most use of recyling; ensuring that old paper printouts are recycled is a good first step, especially when we so often print out multiple copies of a document, just because of a simple error, such as a misplaced comma.You should try to reduce paper usage by proofing on screen when you can, and look for options in printer drivers that will do things such as print two or more pages side by side on a single sheet of A4 (known as ‘n-up’ printing); it may not be OK for the finished document, but it’ll help save paper when you’re proofing.And if you’re in the market for a new printer, why not consider one that can do duplex printing, using both sides of a sheet of paper, without having to reload manually? It’s a common feature in business printers, but less so in domestic ones.You can buy recycled paper, of course, and when you change the toner or ink cartridges, use the manufacturer’s recycling scheme, if there is one, or save the empties and drop them in the recycling bins that can be found at many office suppliers.Don’t forget that many printers offer an ‘Eco’ or ‘Draft’ mode that will use less toner or ink, and should be suitable for many day-to-day printouts. Laser printer owners will often benefit from removing a toner cartridge that is being flagged as ‘low toner’ and rocking it from side to side. It’s not always effective, but it can eke out the remaining toner for a few dozen more pages.Finally, consider using rewritable media for your backups, whether CD or DVD; unless you’re planning to keep a complete audit trail, rewritable discs will allow you to cycle through a few backup sets, instead of creating a pile of old discs that are hard to recycle effectively – and with fewer discs to keep track of, it’s easier to secure data too.
Eco computing labels
Recycling consumables and passing on your old computer to someone else is just one part of the equation. There’s also the way that you use the computer. By choosing the right system and making the right choices about how it’s used, you can have an effect on the power consumption.So, what makes a system energy efficient? To start with, the power consumption of all the components obviously has a major effect on how much electricity is needed, and whether you’re upgrading or buying from scratch, choosing the right components can help make a difference (see our feature to see how to choose a power supply).One of the most obvious changes you can make is to replace older analogue CRT monitors with TFT LCD flat-panel models, which consume much less electricity. For example, a typical modern 21in CRT monitor consumes around 130W, while Apple’s 20in widescreen display is rated at 65W, or a massive 50 per cent saving.In effect, older monitors can be consuming almost as much power as the computers they’re connected to. Unless you have a pressing need (CRTs still have benefits for graphic designers), you really should consider switching – especially now that flat-panel displays are available very cheaply. If you’re passing on a computer, consider sending CRT displays for recycling, and encouraging the recipient to obtain a flat panel – even second hand.When buying fridges, washing machines and other appliances (even cars), you’ll have seen the stickers giving an indication of energy efficiency. Many of us now look for the more efficient products automatically. But when it comes to computing, where are the stickers?In fact, there are two main stickers that can be found on computers and monitors – Energy Star and TCO. The Energy Star logo is supported by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and sets minimum standards for computer equipment; in fact. As the website makes clear, it can be applied to a whole range of things, including buildings.Among the key requirements are that systems should enter sleep mode after 30 minutes of inactivity, and that in this mode, there is a limit on the amount of power consumed – roughly 10 per cent of the maximum. Similar standards for monitors currently specify sleep-mode power consumption of less than 4W, and standby consumption of less than two, although new Energy Star standards are being drawn up, which should be even stricter.It’s important to remember, however, that just because equipment is Energy Star compliant, it doesn’t have to be used in that way; make sure that your PC’s Bios and the Windows Power Management settings are configured correctly – a system with the Energy Star logo can still be set to stay on all the time.The TCO label is a little more complex than Energy Star; it’s from the Swedish Confederation for Professional Employees, and TCO Development provides labelling standards for office products in general, furniture coverings, mobile phones and computers.The environmental aspect of the scheme deals with power consumption and energy saving as well as recyclability and the use of hazardous substances during manufacture. In addition to environmental issues, the labelling also covers ergonomics and electromagnetic emissions; the intention is to provide an all-round symbol of qualityThere have been several versions of the TCO standards and their requirements are given on the website. However, they’re broadly similar to Energy Star, for example a TCO’03 monitor should use four watts or less in sleep mode, and three or less in off or standby mode.There’s another standard for green computing, called IEEE 1680; unlike the others we’ve mentioned, it’s not something you’ll see on a sticker (yet), but the standard encompasses a range of required and optional criteria, covering areas such as hazardous substances, end-of-life arrangements, and energy consumption.A new US website EPEAT, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, gives details of products that fulfil the requirements. Although it’s aimed more at professional and public sector purchasers, it’s still useful for individuals who wants to see how various models from major manufacturers such as Apple, HP and Dell stack up.
Standby to save
Standby and hibernate power consumption figures are important. They may seem small (a computer and monitor together may consume only around 5W in hibernate mode) but that still amounts to almost 44kWh each year. Research by Strathclyde University suggests that standby consumption could count for as much as 13 per cent of home power use. Ultimately, the more power consumed, the more emissions of greenhouse gases like CO2 are generated.One reason for using these modes, of course, is that Windows simply takes forever to start up from cold. If that’s your experience, it’s worth checking our recent article on optimising Windows start-up.With a well-tuned system, shutting down totally may be a more practical solution, and remember that faster start-up is also a promised benefit of Windows Vista. If you can speed up your system start-up and shut down, switching off at the wall socket, instead of on the front of the PC will save you a few extra watts.Most power is used, of course, when your PC is up and running. Choosing a more modern system with the latest Intel Core-based chips, for example, will use less power than older models, particularly some of the later ‘Prescott’ Pentium 4 models.If you don’t need the highest performance dual graphics cards, it’s overkill to opt for a PC that has them fitted. The computer will need a larger power supply to drive them and most PC power supplies aren’t as efficient when they’re not running almost flat out – which is an important factor to bear in mind if you’re building a system from scratch.It may seem like a good idea to fit the largest PSU (power supply unit) you can, in case you upgrade the system later, but if it’s under-used, it’s not going to use power efficiently, so you may be better off fitting a smaller PSU that’s used nearer its full capacity.You should also think about power issues when upgrading – and not just to make sure you don’t overload or underwork your PSU. If you’re adding a new hard drive, it may be tempting to keep the old one inside the PC for backing up. But will you be using it all the time? If not, what’s the point of having it spinning away inside the box, using power? Put it in an external USB caddy and only plug it in when you want to use it.Conversely, if you have an external drive in a caddy, but find it’s used most of the time, consider fitting it inside the PC if you don’t really need it to be portable. You’re likely to get better performance, as well as perhaps doing away with a power supply and freeing up a USB port.It’s also a good idea to check when you’re switching on peripherals, particularly printers and scanners; some don’t have power switches at all, and are automatically in a standby state, ready to wake up when you send a print job to them.Like PCs, there are obviously small savings to be made by switching off properly, instead of relying on standby, especially if you have a printer that turns itself on when the PC is powered up, rather than when a job is sent to it. Some inkjets are prone to this and, as well as the power consumption, a small amount of ink may be used too, as the nozzles are cleaned on start-up. So if it’s convenient, don’t plug them in unless they’re needed.Convenience, of course, is what can often scupper the best intentions when it comes to being environmentally friendly. Investing in a power monitor (see next page) will help you work out which peripherals consume most power, and you can decide how to weigh up the convenience of instant start-up against the power consumption.It may even be worth investing a little in new extension cables and sockets; if you can position plugs where they’re easily accessed, it’s much simpler to remove power from equipment than if it involves scrabbling on the floor under your desk.Before you press an old PC into service as a file or mail server, check its power consumption too, and consider whether or not you might be better off with a small Nas unit (see our Nas devices goup test or something similar – an old PC with its fans and unnecessary graphics cards may be overkill for sharing files and music around the home.
With even the most powerful computers taking a fraction of the power that we use daily in our homes, it’s easy to question the point of making the effort to save a few paltry watts. It’s true that individually we may not be making that much difference, but even small savings add up across the population and, with computers playing such a key part in households, it is possible to make a big difference.As we’ve seen, computer users who still have CRT monitors can potentially save most in terms of power consumption by switching to a new, flat-panel screen. In Computeractive’s recent survey, just over 25 per cent of respondents had the older displays, potentially almost doubling the power they use when their computer is turned on.Put another way, if those figures are representative of home computer use across the country, and everyone with a CRT could be persuaded to change to an LCD monitor, the amount of electricity used by the millions of home computers and their screens would drop by almost 13 per cent.Of course, such an immediate huge drop is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all do a little bit without becoming obsessive about it. Whether it’s simply changing the settings on our printers to use draft mode, turning over each piece of paper and printing on the back, or remembering to dispose of waste paper, ink and toner sensibly, it’s all loose change in the global piggy bank.You can set your computer to spin down the hard disk when it’s not being used, to put the screen to sleep, and choose to shut it down and switch it off, instead of using sleep mode overnight. Or, even better perhaps, have a PC-free weekend now and again.When you’re buying or building a new system, look out for the logos from Energy Star and TCO, or check the EPEAT lists for the systems that are kindest to the environment. Ask suppliers what arrangements they have, or will have, for recycling the equipment when it reaches the end of its life, and help someone else by passing on your old PC, instead of just throwing it away.Calculate the carbon emissions from your computer’s power use, and consider offsetting them through a tree planting scheme, or switching to greener power, which need only take a phone call.None of these things are complicated. It won’t slow down your word processing or web browsing, although you may have to wait a little longer for your PC to start up instead of return from sleep mode. But whether you’re keen to save money on your electricity bill or protect the planet, isn’t waiting a minute or so a relatively small price to pay?
How to offset carbon emissions
Carbon offsetting isn’t complicated; it simply means doing something to offset the CO2 emissions you cause, and the most common way to do that is by planting CO2-absorbing vegetation such as trees that otherwise wouldn’t be planted.There are several organisations that help you work out how many trees you should plant and then plant them in return for a small fee. For example, CO2 Balance has online calculators for you to use and then you can make an annual or one-off payment for trees that will be planted on its land.According to CO2 Balance, the 65W-power supply for an Apple Powerbook, used 12 hours a day, would consume 71.2kWh of power each quarter, creating 123kg of CO2 yearly and costing £9 to offset. Other sites give different figures; the National Energy Foundation suggests 1kWh of electricity usage will create 0.43kg of carbon dioxide, while figures from Strathclyde university are more detailed.Offsetting by planting trees isn’t the only solution, though – switching to a renewable electricity supplier effectively means there are no emissions caused by your electrical appliances, and many suppliers now cost the same as those burning exclusively fossil fuels.Comparison sites such as Uswitch include green suppliers. Ecotricity and Good Energy are two examples of such suppliers.
Whether you want to offset your emissions or simply work out which devices are using most power, a good starting point is to know the true consumption figures, rather than assuming that ratings on the back panel are accurate.For around £25 you can buy a PM-30 Power Monitor plug which will tell you how much power a device is using. Maplin also sells a similar model but with fewer features.Rationalising your computing equipment may help too. For example, a network print server means that not only can a single printer can be shared, but you don’t need to turn on an extra PC to make the printer connected to it available.If you’re planning a network, consider routers that include Wifi, instead of a separate router and access point.You can also help reduce the power consumption on some network equipment by using ‘Wake on Lan’ functions – so a PC used as a server can go to sleep, for example, and be automatically woken up from other systems on the network using tools like the Magic Packet Sender.Finally, don’t forget the Power Options control panel in Windows, which will enable you to set the computer to automatically hibernate or return to standby when it’s idle for a predetermined length of time.