Published On: December 10, 2008

Improving The Carbon Footprint of Your Home Theater

Published On: December 10, 2008

Improving The Carbon Footprint of Your Home Theater

When someone inquires, "How green are you?", they are not asking after either your resemblance to Kermit the Frog nor about your bad reaction to lunch. The question is in reference to whether you make lifestyle choices that are friendly to the environment.

al-gore.jpgEveryone currently living on the planet Earth, other than perhaps the executives at Exxon-Mobil and some of the OPEC producers, watched in agony as the cost of oil shot from $50 to $150 per barrel in recent months, causing a gallon of gasoline to cost more that $5 in most parts of the country. While today's post-election price for oil has precipitously fallen below $40 a barrel, none of us missed the not-so-subtle hint that, as a species, we need to stop being such energy pigs. This movement really should start in the United States, where we eat up more than our fair share of power and create tons upon tons of pollutants every year - not that other countries aren't killing the planet, too, but we are just doing it faster than anyone, other than perhaps China. The question for us, the early adopters of the world - those who make new technologies mainstream because we jump on first - is, how can we make a difference? There are a lot of ways that range from big bucks to a couple of bucks and, at this stage of the crisis, any small progress helps.

Today's AV systems have some real power-hog components in them. While not as bad as driving an Escalade or Navigator or flying everywhere by yourself in your trusty old Gulfstream 3, there are some things you can consider to cut back your carbon footprint, starting in your own AV system. One place to start is to look at the way your system actually operates. While power amplifiers tend to sound better "warmed up," could you live through the first few tracks of a listening session if your monoblocks were left 100 percent "off" (not even in standby) before your listening sessions? With the use of 12-volt triggers and/or RS-232 control via very affordable and often DIY control systems, you can reduce your draw from your system when you are not using it. The parts cost couldn't be more than a few hundred dollars at the most, even including a universal remote and some professional installation.

Audiophiles love the warm sound of a true class-A amp, but these amps operate basically with the pedal-to-the-metal all the time when it comes to power use. Tube amps also draw significantly and need hours to warm up to their best sonic performance. Some more green-minded audiophiles are considering moving to class-D "digital" amplifiers, which run cooler and use way less power to create a lot of output that is quiet and clean. Do class-D amps have the same heft or "balls" that more traditional class-AB amps have? Not really, but they are quieter, have more overall power and have their own clean sound that many enjoy better.

Moving past your amp to our beloved flat panel HDTVs - some reports suggest that 60- to 65-inch plasma HDTVs use as much as 795 watts of power, where slightly smaller (52-inch) LCDs use closer to 300 watts of power. While the plasma vs. LCD debate still rages on, signs point to LCD being a little less power-hungry. Add to that the fact that LCDs also tend to look better in ambient light and you might have more of an argument as to which technology to invest in next. Plasma HDTVs still have the best black levels and, if you are going to be in a light-controlled room and want the best image for movies on your flat HDTV that money can buy, don't write off plasmas, but they do use more juice. Most HDTVs report their power consumption in their specs, which you can convert to see how such a set might impact your power bill vs. a different set. There is always the front-projection option, which can be relatively low-power in comparison, while outputting a bigger image than any LCD or plasma.

Another energy concept that gets a lot of talk these days is putting a solar panel system on your roof. I must warn you that this option, despite its political sizzle, is very expensive. I have had my home bid by three reputable firms here in eco-conscious West Los Angeles and what I learned was scary. First of all, beware of the lease options. With zero money down, certain national solar installers will tell you that you can "get off the grid" for easily $150 less than you are paying per month. Before you jump to say "yes," be sure to read all of the fine print. What I found out was that the system that they proposed to me was one-third the size, at best, of what I needed to largely stop using power from the grid. Moreover, the lease that allows the company to depreciate the capital cost of the system can be used by a company but not a residence (hint, hint, Mr. President-Elect and Democratic-controlled Congress), yet the lease cost is basically an interest-only payment that comes with a large balloon payment at the end of 15 years. If you want to sell the house, you need to find someone with good enough credit (720 or higher) to take over the lease or you are stuck with the payment, even if you are not using it anymore. Lastly, the warranty on the system expires long before you are finished paying interest on the system, let alone the balloon payment. The solar system I need will cost me about $70,000 and I will not be able to sell power back into the grid, although I will be able to "give" power back to the DWP. What I am leaning toward doing is putting a small system up to power my home theater and one of my air conditioner units and paying for it in cash at some point in 2009. Who knows what legislation will be signed by the Obama White House regarding solar? President Bush supported legislation that gave any American with a small business the ability to write off the heaviest, most fuel-inefficient SUVs in the early 2000s by calling them "farm vehicles." I would guess that there might be some serious incentives from the Federal Government to get Joe Average to consider easing up on his power grid demands. Tax incentives should be used to promote using less energy, not more.

Other inexpensive tricks that can save power include changing out your light bulbs. Personally, I like the effect of low-voltage lights in an audio or home theater room. A small Lutron dimmer (less than $100 in most cases) or splurging on a Lutron Graphic Eye controller ($600 to $1,000) will allow you to have remote control of your lighting system. You can have low-voltage cans installed in multiple zones and create cool lighting effects for music and movies. MR16 bulbs don't use that much power when compared to other, more traditional lights, and have that million-dollar look when dimmed perfectly. On a very tight budget, even a dimmer lamp from somewhere like Ikea can help cut down on power usage, especially when dimmed. Also, your music sounds better with the lights down.

While saving energy is always the best solution, you can also spend (or donate) a little money to offset your carbon footprint. While Hollywood is in love with everything and anything "green," don't tell that A-list movie star not to fly to Maui in a chartered Gulfstream G-450. Back in the real world, what you can do is buy a carbon credit that is used to actually plant trees to offset the pollutants that you create through the realities of your life and how you use energy. A Google search for "carbon credit" found me a few good sites that predict how much carbon you create and how much you should donate to make things equal out. While I think the calculators are compelling, I will make my donation through a different charity just to make sure I haven't been had online. With my skepticism in check, I can't see anything wrong with paying to plant a few trees in the name of me being an energy pig who is trying to better his behavior going forward.

In the end, all of these tricks can help save a little energy and can even make your AV system a little more slick. As recovering audiophiles and current home theater junkies, we should consider applying the same always-improving-our-systems philoso
phy to the power consumption of our systems, as well as other elements of our life. Just as we lead the way with new technologies like Blu-ray, iPods and HDTV, we the high-tech and high-performance, early-adopter AV enthusiasts of the world should unite to see if we can make even a little difference. I think we can.

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