Up All Night

During off hours, business computers are rarely turned off, and unattended PCs chew up loads of electricity.
John GoffJanuary 13, 2004

For all the corporate exhorting of workers to cut costs wherever possible, employees remain a decidedly wasteful group. This is particularly true when it comes to using office equipment. Copier machines, expensive appliances to operate under the best of circumstances, are treated as personal printers, reproducing requests for proposals and wedding invitations in nearly equal numbers. Printers, conversely, are used as copier machines, churning out reams of novella-length reports.

But nowhere is this insouciance more evident than in employees’ treatment of computers. Walk around any office after closing time and you’ll invariably find the same scene: a phalanx of PCs left to run all night, fans humming, status lights blinking, screen savers conjuring endless journeys through asteroid-filled galaxies.

Purple prose? Yes. An exaggeration? Hardly. The fact is, during off hours, business computers are rarely turned off, and unattended PCs chew up loads of electricity. According to the Department of Energy, idle machines account for well over half of the 53 billion kilowatt hours of power that business computers consume annually. And the yearly cost of this unnecessary consumption is $3 billion for U.S. corporations. (Interestingly, the belief is rampant among users that leaving a computer on consumes less power than turning it off at night, but energy experts say that’s far from the case. At full power, the average PC and monitor use nearly 200 watts of power, and even in the “hibernate” mode, they consume 4 watts.)

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The cost of these switched-on computers will likely go up as more-powerful processors hit the market and electricity rates rise. In response, a couple of software vendors have begun selling products to reduce PC power consumption. Seattle-based Verdiem Corp., for one, markets a computer energy-management program called Surveyor, which enables companies to measure, monitor, and manage computer-power policies from a single network server. 1E Ltd., a London-based company, sells a similar program called NightWatchman. And the Environmental Protection Agency has gotten into the act as well, offering its own PC power-management program.

Users seem to like the idea. Walter Lin, a senior engineering technician at the City of San Jose, Calif., General Services Department, says that city will have Verdiem’s software running on 6,000 computers by the early part of this year. “In the worst-case scenario, our simple payback period will be under a year,” he says. The best case? “A few months.”

The Worker-Bypass Route

To date, municipalities have been the first to embrace PC power-management software, while private-sector managers are taking to it more slowly. Verdiem, with a handful of municipal and education customers, has only one corporate sign-up so far, a large U.S. retailer.

The cautious reaction in the private sector isn’t surprising. Power-management software typically shaves PC energy costs by a third to as much as a half, or about $20 to $50 per computer per year, so programs don’t make sense unless companies operate at least 1,000 PCs. And experts point out that electricity-consumption costs are generally not well understood by many business managers, who also tend to ignore enterprise electricity. What’s more, employees often resent even the smallest interference with their computers. Some say they don’t like to work with a computer in energy-saving mode, for example, because it takes too long for the PC to recover.

Bypassing workers entirely may be the best bet. Jerry Green, administrator for facilities operations and maintenance in the Beaverton, Oreg., school district, says the school system does have an in-house program that encourages employees to turn off their computers. But his employer bought a PC power-management program from Verdiem anyway. Explains Green: “The software is an automatic substitute for human behavior.”

Expect to see more technology vendors get into this space, particularly if the European Union pushes its “greening of information technology” agenda. Intel is flogging the notion of instantly available PCs—able to recover within seconds from the hibernate mode. Microsoft, too, could up the ante with the release of its new operating system in 2006. Current Windows versions offer some power-management features, of course, but networks can’t tailor the settings for specific user groups. Adds Lin: “Power-saving settings for Windows NT can be tough to initiate.”

That may help explain why fully 75 percent of the business computers in the United States have their power-management features disabled.

Big Gulp

Largest guzzlers of electricity in the office.
Source: Department of Energy, 2002

  1. Computers: 32%
  2. Monitors: 23%
  3. Networks: 19%
  4. Copiers: 10%