Whether or not you’re a paid-up member of Greenpeace, it’s worth knowing how much your kit costs to run, as well as the impact it has on the environment. You’ll then be in a much better position to take steps to save money on electricity usage and reduce your PC’s harmful effect on the planet.

Here we’ll look at ways of monitoring how much energy your kit is using and how to save money by adjusting your computer’s power settings, and automatically turning off your kit when it’s not being used. Even some simple and common-sense measures can make a huge difference. See: Energy-saving tips around the home

Deciding to take the green option often isn’t an easy choice. Your mind might tell you that you ought to do your bit to save the planet by opting for a couple of weeks in Bognor Regis to avoid air travel but, in your heart, that dream holiday in the Caribbean seems so much more appealing.

It’s no easier when it comes to buying a car. Certainly you can save money by going for the environmentally-friendly alternative but at the expense of so much more. After all, a Toyota Yaris isn’t exactly going to give a Porsche 911 Carrera S a run for its money.

However, we’ve got some good news for you – it doesn’t work like that in the world of computing. Here, by making some sensible choices, you can enjoy as much performance as you need while, at the same time, making a worthwhile saving to your household budget and reducing your environmental footprint.

Green computing doesn’t end with streamlining your existing gear, though. When your PC has had its day, there are more environmentally friendly ways of disposing of it than dumping it in landfill. Indeed, legislation has been brought in to make sure that doesn’t happen. So we’ll look at ways to recycle your electrical gear and investigate what the law says about how it should be disposed of and the manufacturer’s responsibilities.

Recycling might be good but there could well be better ways of disposing of your old kit and we’ll look at these too. For example, while the financial benefits might not huge, the chances are that you’d be able to get a bit of pocket money for your old computing equipment. Alternatively, there are charities that would welcome your cast-offs and will make good use of abandoned kit.

Should you buy a greener PC to save money and the planet?

Small business owners are all too aware that you often have to invest to make a profit. We're not suggesting that you ditch all your old gear to invest in newer, greener equipment though. Not only would that be extremely costly, but there's also the environmental impact to consider.

It’s been estimated that the amount of carbon dioxide generated in manufacturing a computer is more than double that which will be produced by running it during a typical lifetime of four years.

Similarly, it would take a long time to recover the cost of a new low-power PC via lower electricity bills, so our advice is to change your PC only when it no longer meets your technical requirements. At that time, of course, it would be sensible to include power efficiency alongside all the other criteria that you’d consider in making your choice.

So, replacing your kit isn’t rational from either an economic or an environmental viewpoint. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to make your existing equipment more efficient as we’re about to see.

Reducing Consumption

The cost of running a PC isn’t enough to justify upgrading it prematurely but those costs certainly add up, especially in the light of the recent unprecedented rises in energy prices. It’s true that there’s no point in worrying about what you can’t influence but there are worthwhile savings to be made here that’ll have very little impact on your computer's performance or your convenience.

Top of the list must go to turning your PC off when you’re not using it. Depending on its age, and how effectively its power saving features have been configured, for an office system this could reduce the cost of running each PC from £50 per year to just £12.

Savings for a home PC could well be greater since the machine will probably be more powerful and the hours you actually use it will tend to be fewer. When you multiply the saving by the number of PCs you own, it’s clear to see that an appreciable total saving is on offer compared to leaving your PCs switched on all the time.

Of course there’s the old debate about whether turning a PC on and off a lot causes it to wear out prematurely. While there are no guarantees, we’ve never found an expert who believed this to be true. What’s more, with PCs being ever faster to switch on, the time saved by having a PC always on and ready to go isn’t the major benefit it once was.

In addition to the PC itself, make sure you don’t forget to turn off peripherals such as printers and speakers when you’re not using them. Probably the only exception is your wireless router. Once again there are some savings to be made here, especially if your router has a schedule feature for turning the Wi-Fi on and off. You could set it to turn off while you're asleep, and turn back on as you get up in the morning.

We’re going to take a look at how to configure your PC to reduce its power consumption and, because it’s likely to remain the dominant operating system for some time yet, we’ll concentrate on Windows 7. However, a few words on Windows 8 are appropriate since a number of this operating system’s new features have a bearing on energy efficiency.

Perhaps the most relevant is the start-up time. While claims of reduced boot times have been made for most recent versions of Windows, it seems that the improvement offered in this latest upgrade is particularly significant. This might seem to further strengthen the argument that PCs should be turned off when they’re not being used although there’s the counter argument that you should use the “Always On, Always Connected” mode that Microsoft is promoting for Windows 8. For the sake of those few seconds, though, we’re still inclined to recommend turning PCs off properly and leave the use of “Always On, Always Connected” to handheld devices like smartphones and tablets.

To adjust Windows 7’s power-saving features, search for Power Options in the Start menu to go to the Power Options screen. Here you have two or more choices, depending on whether the manufacturer has added more. You'll definitely find the recommended 'Balanced' setting and the alternative 'Power saver' mode.

Since performance may be jeopardised in this latter mode, we suggest that you stick with the Balanced mode and adjust it to suit your needs. To do this, click on ‘Change plan settings’ for the Balanced mode. This allows you to choose the two main options that have a bearing on power consumption, namely the period of inactivity before the screen blanks and before the PC goes into sleep mode.

Decreasing these times will tend to reduce power consumption but increase the likelihood that you’ll have to wait a few seconds before using your PC after it sleeps. Bearing this in mind, select values that make sense for your usage pattern. If you want to further fine-tune power settings, click on ‘Change advanced power settings’ to display the Advanced settings dialogue box.

Now, assuming that you’re using the Balanced power plan, ensure that this mode is selected in the menu at the top and adjust the options to meet your needs. Although primarily intended for laptops, you might choose to enable hibernation.

Then, if you leave your PC for a long period of time (generally longer than the time you set for sleep mode), it’ll save the state of all your applications and turn the PC off. Waking up from hibernation will take longer than from Sleep mode so it wouldn’t make sense to choose the five minutes it takes to make a coffee.

To enable hibernation, click on the + sign next to Sleep to display more options including the hibernation period. Click on the blue hibernate value (probably set to never on a desktop) and choose a suitable time. Another option you might like to adjust, since hard disks are mechanical and therefore quite power hungry, is the period of inactivity before the hard disk is switched off. In selecting this value bear in mind that there’s a slight delay caused by spinning up the hard disk after it’s been turned off although, realistically, it’s not very long.

Windows 7 power options

Our emphasis here, quite rightly, is on computing equipment but it would be remiss of us to not also mention the other pieces of electronic gear that are using electricity unnecessarily in our homes.

No doubt you’ve heard it before but the number one waster of electricity here is the various devices that are often left on standby 24/7. Each individual device doesn’t use much energy and it’s this fact that lures us into a false sense of security.

According to a survey by the Energy Trust, though, it all adds up and the average household spends between £50 and £86 per year, which corresponds to 9% to 16% of total electricity consumption, for essentially nothing. So have a think about all those TVs, set-top boxes, DVD players, PVRs (personal video recorder), audio systems, games consoles, and the like and decide whether there’s any good reason to leave them on standby.

Of course there are a few devices that you’ll need to keep on standby under some circumstances – for example a PVR if you’ve programmed it to record a TV show – but this is the exception rather than the rule. Even “black brick” power supplies of the type used to power or recharge devices such as laptops and mobile phones use a surprisingly large amount of energy, even if the device they power has been charged up or even disconnected.

It’s been reported, for example, that some mobile phone chargers consume 3W while the phone is being charged, 2W once the phone is fully charged but still connected, and even a quarter of a watt when it’s plugged in but the phone’s been disconnected. In all probability, the only thing preventing you from turning off standby devices or unplugging power supplies when you’ve finished with them is remembering to do so but the financial saving might well be the incentive you need. If you need proof, you could try measuring your electricity consumption with all these devices (below) on standby or plugged in and then with them switched off or unplugged.

Next page: Green gadgets for saving money and how to recycle your old kit

Green gadgets which should save you money

Working on the assumption that you can really only control what you can measure, a really useful piece of kit is one that monitors your energy use. The simplest and cheapest type of energy monitor plugs into a mains socket and the kit you want to monitor plugs into the monitor. Your electricity consumption – either instantaneous or cumulative – is displayed on an LCD panel. The Energy Saving Power Meter (code ENER007) from Energenie costs just £15 including delivery.

Energenie

A more comprehensive solution is offered by AlertMe. The SmartEnergy kit (£50 plus £5 P&P) comprises the following. First there’s the SmartEnergy hub that connects to a spare Ethernet port on your router and communicates with the power monitor(s) wirelessly. Then there’s the SmartMeter Reader which clips around the cable entering your electricity meter and communicates your home’s complete electricity consumption back to the SmartEnergy hub.

Information is display on the stand-alone SmartDisplay, also part of the kit, or you can access the information using either a smartphone App or via AlertMe's website. In addition to this basic kit, you might also consider adding one or more SmartPlugs (£25 each) which also communicate with the hub allowing you to also monitor the energy consumption of specific devices such as your PC or printer. In addition to your computing gear, you could try moving the SmartPlugs around to see, for example, how much it’s costing you and the planet to power all those devices that are left on standby that we hear so much about.

AlertMe SmartDisplay

EnergyEggSeeing how much it’s costing you to keep kit turned on unnecessarily will probably provide the motivation to switch gear off when you’re not using it, but it’s all too easy to forget once the novelty wears off.

This is where equipment designed to automatically turn equipment off comes in handy. Energy Egg, for example (£40 from energy-egg.com, see our review) uses a motion detector to decide if a room is unoccupied, automatically turning gear off when it knows it’s not being used.

While this is a good idea for peripherals such as printers, speakers and external hard disks, we advise against using it on a PC which should always be shut down properly from Windows’ Start menu.

Bye Bye Standby Powerdown Strip (£20 from www.smarterproducts.co.uk), on the other hand, relies on you to turn off your PC but when you do that, will also turn off up to four peripherals that are attached to it. If you’d rather be in control yourself, though, the Conserve Switch from Belkin (£15 from Laptops Direct) is what you need. Again this is a device into which you plug your various peripherals but this time, those devices are all turned off when you press the button on a remote control device which can be up to 20 metres away.

Bye Bye Standby

Recycling

There are several reasons why you might want to get rid of your old computing gear. Most drastically, it might have suffered a hard disk failure or the power supply has burned out and repair isn’t economically viable. Alternatively, although it served you well when you first bought it, your PC might no longer be adequate to cope with the demands of more modern software. On the other hand, perhaps your kit is still relatively new but your needs have changed and, as a result, you need a PC with a larger hard disk, more memory or a faster processor.

In this latter case you surely wouldn’t consider dumping your computer. The best option – from both a financial and an environmental viewpoint – would be to upgrade it, although this won’t always be possible.

For example, the motherboard dictates which types of processor you can install yet having to change both motherboard and the processor can become a major undertaking and an expensive one at that. If, when you’ve done your homework, you discover that your old PC either can’t be upgraded or it doesn’t seem a financially sensible option to do so, it will have some resale value so selling it could be the next best option.

If you don’t know anyone locally who’d like to take it off your hands, an online service such as eBay or Gumtree would be a good bet. Although you probably won’t get as good a price, if you want a more sure-fire way of selling you could consider CeX (Computer eXchange) which has both a web presence (uk.webuy.com) and almost 200 high street stores branded as Entertainment Exchange.

CeX computer exchange

If your PC has died you almost certainly won’t be able to sell it and if it’s just run out of steam because it's old, its resale value will be poor. However, there are better things you can do with it than dump it in a skip full of general waste at your local household waste disposal centre. If you really have to take it to a disposal and recycling centre, do make sure that you deposit it in the area designated for electronic equipment.

Alternatively, you may find that the retailer from whom you buy your new computer will allow you to return your old equipment for recycling. According to the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive (WEEE), when you buy new equipment, retailers must either offer this service or make a financial contribution to the recycling facilities offered by local councils.

Ensuring that your old computer gear is recycled means that toxic substances don’t enter the environment and there’ll be some additional environmental benefit since using the various recovered substances will reduce consumption of the Earth’s rare resources.

Landfill

If your old gear is still working, even though it’s under-powered, there is no shortage of charities who would welcome its donation. Many towns and cities have furniture charities that provide furniture and other household items to families in need but some won’t accept electrical items because they’re unable to ensure that they're safe to use.

Needless to say this won’t apply to the various charities who are set up specifically to find a good home for unwanted computers. We’re not going to make any recommendations since you’ll surely want to decide what sort of charity you want to support but a Google search for “computer charity” will give you plenty to choose from.

At one time, many of these charities would even accept non-working PCs which they would strip for spare parts to build new systems. Today, though, you’ll tend to find that charities will only take systems that are less than five years old and working. Bizarrely, according to one such charity, the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment only allows working equipment less than five years old to be reused, insisting that equipment which doesn’t adhere to these criteria is recycled.

Computer Aid International

Photo credit: Computer Aid International

Whichever means you choose to dispose of your old equipment, do bear in mind that you should protect yourself from confidential data on the hard disk falling into the wrong hands. Most respectable charities will undertake to securely wipe all data from the disk but if you’re disposing of your kit elsewhere, or even if you just want added peace of mind, make sure that you adequately wipe the disk first. Bear in mind, though, that erasing data normally doesn’t actually destroy the data and that all it requires is a simple un-delete utility to recover that deleted data. We suggest that take a look at our guide on how to effectively destroy data at using Eraser 6 and take the appropriate action.

While our main emphasis has been on disposing old computers, just the same applies to other electronic gear. From old phones to games consoles and so much more, you should first consider selling your gear or donating it to a charity, opting to recycle only as a last resort. Remember that there are plenty of companies who specialise in buying mobile phones and charities who are specifically on the look-out for them.

We’ve looked at ways of disposing of your old gear but there’s another option you might like to consider, namely using it yourself. For while your old kit might no longer have what it takes to act as your main PC, there are secondary purposes it could serve. Probably top of the list here is to use your old PC as a server of some sort, perhaps a home media server or a network attached storage (NAS) device. See our guide to Tonido for information on how to convert your old PC to a personal cloud server and yet another guide on how to utilise it as a NAS device.

Unless you really do want a cloud server or NAS device, though, this really isn’t a particularly environmentally friendly option because it’ll be one more piece of kit consuming energy. However, if you have already decided to go that route, it could make a lot more sense – both financially and environmentally – than disposing of it and buying a brand new piece of kit.

Next page: top money-saving tips

Tips on saving power (and money)

  • Turn off your PC before you finish for the day. It only takes a minute to turn it on again and, contrary to urban myth, experts tell us that turning it on and off won’t wear it out prematurely.
  • Don’t forget to turn off your peripherals when you’re not using them. These too all add up and if you have a laser printer, it might consume as much as 40W, even on standby.
  • Unplug things when you’re not using them. Your PC might be using more power than you think, even when it's fully shut down.
  • You’ll probably not turn off your PC if you’re only going to be leaving it to make a coffee or answer the phone but do configure Windows’ Power Options so that it’ll go into an energy saving mode during periods of inactivity.
  • A few pence a day doesn’t sound like a lot but it all adds up. There are considerable savings to be made if you have several PCs, each with a range of peripherals.
  • A cheap power meter will show you how much electricity your kit is using. Plug your gear into one of these and it’ll provide the motivation to make a saving.
  • Consider investing in a device that turns your kit off automatically when it’s detected that you’re not using it.

How green are manufacturers?

Computers, in general, are more energy efficient than they were a few years ago and some companies such as Tiny Green PC offer PCs which are designed specifically for low energy consumption. So choosing a computer on its power efficiency credentials is surely a sensible move.

However, given that statistic about the environmental impact of manufacturing a PC being more substantial than that of using it, should you consider the green credentials of the manufacturer when you buy a new PC? If you’re concerned about the environment then you’ll probably think that’s a no-brainer but it’s important to consider if companies really do differ that much in how much damage they cause to the planet in manufacturing and distributing their wares.

According to Greenpeace, there is a difference in their environmental impact and should be a factor when choosing kit. In its latest Guide to Greener Electronics, Greenpeace indicates how its evaluation criteria include issues such as the company’s own energy efficiency, the energy efficiency of its products, its use of toxic substances in manufacturing, recycling policy and use of sustainable materials.

The rankings are shown on the Greenpeace website and, while scores differ substantially, it’s interesting to note that even the best-rated companies (HP led the pack when ranked in November 2011) score well below the maximum of 10 points.

Interesting as it might be, Greenpeace’s ranking includes only 15 of the world’s largest manufacturers of electronic gear and, in addition to computers, that list includes manufacturers of TVs and mobile phones.

Unless you’re intent on buying a big-name PC, therefore, this guide won’t help you choose a manufacturer based on its environmental credentials. What’s more, while the large companies in the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics will manufacture many of the parts in their PCs themselves, the same isn’t true of most of the smaller manufacturers.

Since these manufacturers buy in components such as motherboards, hard disks, power supplies and cases from the same few Far Eastern manufacturers, differences between the environmental footprint of these smaller system builders will not be nearly as large. Indeed, you might think that it makes more sense to consider transport costs by going to a small local system builder in preference to buying from a large retailer and buying a big-brand PC that will have been shipped to and fro between factories, warehouses and stores.