The Customer

Power Trip

Why the government is making TV manufacturers disclose energy use.

How much energy does your TV gobble? Soon the manufacturer will have to tell you

A couple of weeks ago a guy was doing some work in my living room that required him to move an electrical outlet a few inches to the left. A few days later, I turned on the microwave and tripped the circuit breaker. I tried to reset it but it wouldn’t stick, so I went around unplugging things. The culprit turned out to be my high-def flat-panel television. Every time I tried to plug it back in, a scary honking sound emanated from inside the walls. I broke the sad news to my kids that we’d be without TV for a few days, got the name of a recommended electrician from a local consumer magazine, put in a call, and scheduled a visit that has yet to occur.

(Brief digression: The trouble with hiring service people recommended by local consumer magazines is that typically they’re too fussily artisanal, or simply too overwhelmed by legions of satisfied customers, to arrange a quick visit. Often they don’t return phone calls at all because they have too much quirky integrity even to want new customers. Such people are therefore useless in an emergency. This wasn’t an emergency, however, so I resisted my usual impulse to phone one of the market leaders that actually employs somebody to answer the phones and will get someone to your house quickly so they can charge an exorbitant sum to perform a mediocre job.)

A few days later I was reading the novel of the moment, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and came across a speech by one of the protagonists, an angry and screwed-up but not-unlovable environmentalist, that included a rant against “six-foot-wide plasma TV screens that consume unbelievable amounts of energy, even when they’re not turned on!” Eureka, I thought. My flat-panel is liquid crystal display, not plasma, but it measures nearly 5 feet diagonally. Then, on Oct. 27, the Federal Trade Commission announced that any TV manufactured after May 10, 2011 will be required to carry the same yellow-and-black labels you currently see on monster home appliances like washing machines and refrigerators. The same information will have to be disclosed in catalogs and on Web sites that sell TVs.

This turns out to be a very good idea, because while not all new TVs are energy-sucking monsters, many are. Including, I now learn, mine.

How an otherwise sane man ended up with a five-foot TV screen is a story unto itself. It began four or five years ago when my low-def cathode-ray TV, manufactured in the 1990s, got fried during an electrical storm. I purchased a smallish flat-panel LCD to replace it, and almost immediately my son hauled all his video games up from the basement, where we had another cathode-ray TV, to the den, where the new flat-panel screen rendered blood and gore in irresistibly gorgeous high definition. To chase my son out of the den I bought a bigger flat-panel LCD for the basement. (If you find fault with this parenting technique, try to remember this is a consumer column, not a family-advice column.) Then we put the house on the market and the buyers’ son was so smitten with the basement LCD that they made its conveyance a condition of the sale. I smoothed that over with my kids by buying an even bigger LCD screen for our next house. A year later we moved out of that dwelling and into a third one, once again leaving behind a large flat-panel LCD. (There were multiple reasons why, one of which was that it was bolted to the wall.) I smoothed that over with my kids by buying a preposterously large 55-inch screen. All this cheesy consumption was abetted by dropping prices for LCD flat-panel TVs. (A vexing law of economics is that technological advances for frivolous things like consumer electronics drive prices down while technological advances for serious things like military jets and medical scanners drive prices up.)

Because my old-world-craftsman of an electrician hasn’t yet shown up, I can’t say for certain that my house’s electrical problems were caused by my (currently inert) 55-inch Samsung. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, this mother sucks down 187.54 kilowatt hours per year, which is more than one-third of what a refrigerator would. As big TVs go nowadays, that isn’t even so bad! The EPA warns on its Energy Star site that “some of the largest, high resolution, direct view TVs (versus rear projection products) can use as much electricity each year as a new, conventional refrigerator, or roughly 500 kWh, every year.”

This shouldn’t have been news to me, if only because Slate’s Nina Shen Rastogi pointed it out nearly two years ago. Shame on me; like an idiot, I figured that since flat-panel TVs were more modern and svelte than their cathode-ray forebears, they must consume less energy. The opposite is true. Back in 1979, at the height of the energy crisis, the FTC had briefly considered imposing a labeling requirement on cathode-ray TVs. But the television sets’ energy costs were so low, and the variation among models so slight, that it said the hell with it.

Everyone knows that in our market economy, a heavy-handed government regulation requiring TV manufacturers to post annual energy usage is entirely unnecessary. Consumers will demand such information, and the market will punish manufacturers who fail to provide it. Funny thing, though. The manufacturers don’t provide it. All they do is boast that their product meets the EPA’s minimum Energy Star requirement, which isn’t very demanding. In March, when the FTC first proposed requiring energy-usage labels for TVs, no manufacturer disputed that a consumer needed this information to make an intelligent purchasing decision. (I, for instance, might have opted for the more expensive LED alternative because it would inflict less damage to my electric bill.)

So why hadn’t manufacturers been providing this necessary information all along? Because they didn’t feel like it. Now it won’t matter whether they feel like it or not.

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