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Save money by going green with your tech kit

Re-use, recycle and decrease power consumption. We explain how.

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

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