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Energy Efficiency

Green PCs and Optimizing their Lifecycle

Home Computer of 2004!Let me be the first to confess: I love my laptop. I spend more time with it than most people in my life, including family, room mates, and boyfriend. I might even go so far as to admit an unhealthy infatuation with the Internet, writing, and a handful of computer games. Yet as an aspiring environmentalist, my electronic sidekick poses an uneasy paradox. How do I lay claim to “green” (whatever that really means) when I spend so much of my time plugged in?

Computers aren’t very environmentally friendly. They contain lead, mercury, cadmium, lots of plastic, and they thirst for electricity. Most people don’t realize that most of a computer can be recycled, so most discarded computers head to the landfill where the heavy metals can contaminate local water and air. Computers and electronics have become disposable in our culture, so the amount of electronic waste generated each year is astounding. Fortunately these are not problems without solutions. Starting from the beginning of a computer’s life to its demise, it can be easy to optimize everything about your PC.

Buying, Building, and Design

With the new popularity of green, critics have been quick to turn on companies like Apple for pumping out so many gadgets. The good news is that companies have been quick to respond with energy-efficient models, recycling programs, and improved design. Many “green” initiatives focus on energy efficiency but ignore manufacturing or end-life issues, so be wary of their “environmental” credentials. If you find a product or company that can vouch for the creation, use, and disposal of their products, you’ve struck gold. The good news is that newer models use fewer harmful chemicals and metals, require less energy, and improve performance. Lean, and mean is the angle many companies are aiming for with “green” patched on to sell. Laptops are the best example of this trend as they become smaller and more powerful simultaneously. So rest easy knowing that if you must buy a new computer, it will probably be more efficient than your old one… assuming you don’t hook a brand new 60-inch flat screen to it.

If you’re extra-nerdy and decide to build your own computer, odds are you’ll know exactly what you want. And you can design with efficiency in mind. This article is particularly helpful along these lines, as the author sets out to build an efficient beast. There’s also the question of the type of PC. If you want the Gamer’s Holy Grail, it’s going to be much harder to keep power usage down. High-end graphics cards and custom cooling systems will give you the best in gaming experience, but you’ll pay on your electric bill and your carbon footprint. (See Using Tips below)

Of course you don’t want to just throw out a computer or gadget that still works. Most of the energy consumed in a computer’s lifetime occurs during production – before you ever buy it. So the longer someone uses it, the better. (See below for donating and recycling programs.)

For a green buying guide, check out iYogi or Computer Shopper

  • Laptop use half as much energy as most desktops. Nowadays, they can be just as powerful.

Using Tips

So you have a computer and you want to improve its energy efficiency. Great! New or old, odds are you can optimize your energy usage and save money at the same time. I’d start with the most neglected aspect of computer maintenance: clear the vents. All computers generate heat and heat can damage components or reduces their operating efficiency – they slow down . So computers use fans to cool themselves, and slits in the plastic casing allow ventilation. These vents tend to collect dust and get clogged. To clean the vents, first turn off your computer. If you have a laptop, wipe off the excess dust with a damp cloth. Since you shouldn’t crack open your laptop, you might blow hard into the vents and you’re done. For a desktop, you can open the case (be gentle – don’t force it open) and use that cloth to collect dust bunnies. Ground yourself by touching the metal side. Don’t scrub the hardware. Do this twice a year to be safe.

The life of your computer depends on how long it remains useful to you. So if you take good care of your computer’s software, you might be surprised at how much performance you can recover. Cleaning out your cookies, temp. files, etc. etc. really go a long way. Also, avoid loading lots of little programs all over your computer. That cute little application might amuse you, but it might also come with malicious programs that clutter and slow down your computer. Delete all programs that you don’t use regularly. And with laptops, turn them off before carrying them around. Here’s a handy check list.

Other efficient practices are easy and straight forward: If you’re not using your computer, turn it off. In the old days there was a debate about which was more energy efficient – leaving your computer running or turning it on and off. With the old technology, it was a viable debate. Today the verdict is in: Turn It Off. If you’re only stepping away for a few minutes, set your settings so the monitor automatically turns off (only the oldest monitors need a screen saver) or the hard drive slows down. A lot of people and businesses have downloaded UniBlue’s Local Cooling free program to save money. It easily lets you customize your computer’s power settings, and it calculates how much energy, water, and pollution you prevent. Best of all, you can’t forget if it does it for you.

For printing you might consider GreenPrint (also free) to make printing web pages, documents, etc. more efficient. This program lets you highlight exactly what you want to print – and eliminate the rest of the unwanted page(s). And you can print to PDF, which carries more space-saving options. The program automatically tracks how much paper and money you save along the way.

If you have a desktop with lots of peripherals – monitor, speakers, printer, etc. – an easy tip is to plug them all into a single surge protector. Then in the evening, after you turn everything off, switch off the surge protector. This prevents electronic vampires, machines that use energy even when they’re turned off. It’s more common than you think, and it can really add up. I just reach down with my toe and hit the switch before going to bed.

For a quick glance at your PC energy needs, take this quiz.

RIP, The End for Your PC

Despite our best design, usage, prevention and repair efforts, there will come a day when your computer, cell phone or electronic gadget will die. It might legitimately die – the way my brother’s cell phone met its end in the toilet – or maybe you need to upgrade. I still have two old computers I need to recycle. Where I can take these beasts to greener pastures? Where can you donate or recycle an old electronic device?

  • If there’s a used computer store in town, they might buy it from you, even if it doesn’t work. Check the phone book.
  • Find local and national donation or recycling resources from the EPA.
  • If you work with a large business that regularly disposes of e-waste, try a disposal service.
  • You can also take old phones, electronics and batteries to any Staples store, and Best Buy has a less-direct service.

(Image courtesy of addison.l.s.)

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Written By

is an environmentalist who loves to write. She grew up across the southeastern USA and especially love the Appalachian mountains. She went to school in the northeast USA in part to witness different mindsets and lifestyles than those of my southern stomping grounds. She majored in English Lit. and Anthropology. She has worked as a whitewater rafting guide, which introduced her to a wilderness and the complex issues at play in the places where relatively few people go. She also taught English in South Korea for a year, which taught her to take nothing for granted.


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