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Push Here to Save Energy

One researcher’s unlikely crusade: to overthrow the on/off button.
June 27, 2002

Look down about six inches at your monitors power button. Theres a similar button on your PC, printer, copier and fax machine. At a brief glance, they may look similar, but the odds are they arent. And that, believe it or not, may be costing your office big bucks.

So says Bruce Nordman, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories (LBNL). According to Nordman, non-standard indicators cost businesses hundreds of millions of dollars when usersconfounded by too many choicesfail to take advantage of their office equipments power-saving features.

Some significant percentage of devices that have the ability to turn off arent being turned off because people dont want to spend a lot of time figuring it out, Nordman says. He aims to do something about it by urging software and hardware manufacturers to adopt a voluntary standard interface for the next generation of office machines, and replace confusing states like standby with three universal power modes: on, off and asleep.

Through his position as a researcher in LBNLs Environmental Energy Technologies Division, Nordman hopes to build on the success of the Energy Star, an EPA program that awards its seal of approval to the most energy-efficient consumer equipment, from laptop computers to refrigerators. Power management controlswhich put computers and other office equipment into a low-power sleep mode after a period of inactivitywere introduced more than a decade ago and today save U.S. businesses more than 2 billion dollars a year. But theres room to do better: Nordman says that each year more than $1.3 billion in energy costs are wasted by machines that can save power, but dont. At least part of that, he adds, is due to confusing power controls.

Most office electronics use the universal power symbol: a vertical line inside a circle. But on some, the line pops through the top. Some buttons are illuminated, some not. Some share real estate with indicator lights. Some foreswear the circle-and-line altogether for a picture of a plug, or a lightning bolt. And most look completely different from the indicator icons in software that increasingly control networked office equipment.

Most of the diversity in the controls serves no useful or intentional purpose, Nordman says. Turning things on or off, or having them go to sleep, is not the function of the devicein other words, printers exist to print, copiers to copy and computers to computeso designers would pay less attention to it.”

Nordman first noticed the problem five years ago, he says, when researching why office buildings were using far more power than projected. He would go into buildings at nightsometimes as late as 2:00 a.m.and note whether each piece of office equipment was on, off or in an energy saving low-power mode. The first thing he noticed, he recalls, is how much variation there was between devices. It was quite confusing to keep track of, he says, even for somebody whose job it was to do so.

Around the same time, Nordman attended an Energy Star meeting for PC makers and copier manufacturers. Discussions were thrown into disarray, Nordman recalls, when a speaker began talking about standby modea term computer makers use for low-power sleep mode, and copier makers use for equipment that is ready to go. This solidified my idea that this was a bad scene, he says.

This spring, Nordman came up with a solutionbased, he says, on the best ideas already in use. He recommends one power symbol for all office equipment: the open circle, with a vertical line projecting through the top. For sleep mode, he recommends an indicator light shaped like a crescent moon. Other ideas in use, such as three Zs, dont translate well, he says. He authored one paper devoted entirely to the question of adoption in Islamic countries, where the crescent moon is a religious symbol. His conclusion: no offense meant, no offense taken.

The biggest obstacle facing Nordman is industry inertia; the electronics industry is so far from standardization that even within the same company, different product lines may use different power indicators. And even if he succeeds, legacy equipment will delay the benefits of standardization for years to come. As a lone wolf, Nordman seems quixotic in his questbut so did another product of the Environmental Energy Technologies lab: Energy Star, which today saves homes and businesses an estimated 5 billion dollars annually.

Now, hes also looking for a standards organization to take control of his standard for the long term. This summer, Nordman plans to visit large hardware and software manufacturers and convince them of the wisdom of a universal power control. To convince the world, hes going to need a lot of energy. But thats his specialty.

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