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Tech Talk: Want to Go Green? Start By Powering Down Your PC

MDNG Primary Care, February 2010, Volume 12, Issue 02

Earth Day (April 24) is coming soon. No matter how you feel about Al Gore, melting ice caps, and baby polar bears, going green can be good for your practice. Being green does not require you to hug a tree or eat tofu; it simply means that you are being efficient, saving money, and reducing your business's carbon footprint.

Earth Day (April 24) is coming soon. No matter how you feel about Al Gore, melting ice caps, and baby polar bears, going green can be good for your practice. Being green does not require you to hug a tree or eat tofu; it simply means that you are being efficient, saving money, and reducing your business’s carbon footprint. Of course, one could argue that it really doesn’t matter since Mother Earth will do just fine in the long run, but assuming you buy into the concept that we have some obligation to our fellow humans and the rest of the planet to minimize our impact on the environment, here are a couple of easy steps you can take.

Let’s start with the most obvious change you can make‑‑turning off your computers and other peripheral office devices at night and on the weekends. A recent study found that nearly half of US workers who use a PC at their job do not shut it down at night. As a result, US organizations “waste $2.8 billion a year to power 108 million unused machines. In 2009, these unused PCs are expected to emit approximately 20 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, roughly the equivalent impact of 4 million cars.”

You may have heard that “hibernate” or “sleep” modes of operation will save similar amounts of energy as a full power down. This is untrue. Your computer uses zero energy only if it is unplugged. Otherwise, even an offline PC utilizes “flea power,” or about 2.3 watts, to maintain network connectivity, among other things. In “hibernate” mode, your PC uses the same 2.3 watts; in “sleep” mode, your PC uses about 3.1 watts. Monitors do use zero energy when turned off (providing they don’t have any LEDs on the controls just pleading to be pressed).

According to the Microsoft Small Business Center website, companies can save as much as $90 per computer, per year by simply setting their PCs to “hibernate” at the end of the day. But there are other good reasons to turn off your PC, besides energy cost savings. Computers connected to the Internet via DSL or cable modem are vulnerable to hacking. Turning off the computer secures it. The second good reason to power down every night is that it gives the Windows operating system and device drivers a chance to reset, which in my experience seems to result in fewer crashes.

It is a myth that turning your PC off uses more energy than leaving it on. The small surge of power you use when turning it on is still much smaller than the amount you use in keeping it on for lengthy periods. Another myth is that turning your PC on and off wears it out. Today’s PCs and modern hard drives “are designed to handle 40,000 on/off cycles before a failure, a number you likely won’t reach during the computer’s five-to-seven-year life span." Also, remember that screen savers do not save energy—they simply prevent screen image burn-in. In fact, screen savers with 3-D graphics can be power hogs, with some using over 100 watts. So turn off those monitors, too.

While we’re walking around the office turning off computers at night and on the weekends, we should also turn off copiers and set fax machines and printers for sleep mode. Multiple users can share one network printer for additional power savings.

Other ways to be green around the office include paying and submitting bills and invoices online whenever possible, and saving paper by not printing e-mails and other documents that can easily be read on screen. You can also go paperless by adopting an EHR system that replaces your practice’s paper charts.

It can be interesting to calculate your carbon footprint, and there are several online calculators available to help you do so. The calculator at Carbonfootprint.com lets you see how much carbon is generated by your personal lifestyle, or business, or even a specific activity like an airplane flight. The site even offers options for offsetting your emissions, like helping pay to reforest Kenya.

Even if you never choose to become carbon “neutral” through offsets, you can still save lots of money and (depending on your perspective) make the world a better place by implementing these simple, painless, green practices around your office today.

Jonathan Bertman, MD, is Physician Editor-in-Chief of MDNG: Primary Care/Cardiology Edition. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at Brown University and president of AmazingCharts.com, a leading developer of EHR software. He is also the founder and president of AfraidToAsk.com, a consumer website focusing on personal medical topics. He is in private practice in Hope Valley, RI.