What's the most environmentally friendly television?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Jan. 27 2009 7:00 AM

Green Screens

What's the most environmentally friendly television?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

I'm thinking of getting a big, new flat-screen TV so that my friends and I can watch the Steelers pummel the Cardinals in this Sunday's Super Bowl. But then I read that the EU wants to ban big plasma televisions because they drain so much energy. How do I choose a TV that won't kill the planet?

First off, it's a myth that the EU is "banning" plasmas—it's working on stricter energy regulations for all TV types. But, yes, TVs are getting thirstier, and the biggest, least-efficient plasmas can potentiallyuse as much electricity as a refrigerator—traditionally the most power-hungry appliance in your house. But those are the sets at the extreme end of the market. If you shop carefully, you can get any kind of fancy new TV you want without dramatically increasing your energy consumption.

Let's first go over some terminology. There are four basic kinds of televisions. Cathode-ray tube, or CRT, televisions are the bulky machines you grew up with. CRTs are on their way out: Most major manufacturers don't even bother making them anymore. If you're looking for an upgrade, then, your options are liquid crystal displays, plasmas, and rear-projection microdisplays. Each uses a different method to produce images, with varying aesthetic results. The term flat screen simply refers to the size and shape of the machine; flat screens can be either LCD or plasma. (Rear-projection TVs, which are generally only available in very large sizes, are flatter than old-fashioned TVs but too heavy to hang on a wall.)

On average, plasma screens use the most energy—nearly three times as much per square inch as rear-projection TVs and roughly 20 percent more than LCDs. This rule of thumb isn't foolproof, though, because screen size and resolution are also major factors. CRT screens, for example, use about as much energy per inch as plasma screens—that's why a clunky CRT computer monitor is less efficient than a sleek, similarly sized LCD model.

Ten years ago, the average American color TV used 137 kilowatt hours per year, assuming seven hours of average daily use. An energy-efficient 42-inch LCD might require roughly double that amount—this Phillips model, which received the best energy rating in its category in CNET's extensive testing, clocks in at 233 kilowatt hours per year. A gain of 100 kilowatt hours isn't worth too much hand-wringing, considering that the average American household uses about 10,000 kilowatt hours annually. On the other hand, choose the least-efficient LCD on CNET's list—this 65-inch Sharp—and you're looking at a much uglier 1,491 kilowatt hours a year, or about 1.1 metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

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So where does this leave you, sports fan, standing there clueless in your local Best Buy? If your happiness truly depends on getting a massive TV—55 inches or larger—a rear-projection unit is the way to go. This 61-inch Samsung model will use a relatively dainty 437 kilowatt hours a year, assuming seven hours of daily use. Since rear-projection TVs are being pushed out of the market by plasmas and LCDs, now's the time to get one. By next year, they might be gone.

Otherwise, the Green Lantern suggests buying the smallest, lowest-resolution LCD you can live with—and keeping it for as long as possible. Because televisions last for about 10 years, the most significant environmental costs stem from electricity use on the consumer end rather than on the manufacturing end. But if you trade up at every Super Bowl, you'll quickly negate the benefits of choosing an energy-efficient model. So be realistic about your techno-lust: Don't scrimp on inches or clarity if it means you'll be back in the store in two years.

In choosing your specific TV, consult CNET's consumption ratings and look for models that meet the latest Energy Star 3.0 specifications. And when you do choose your new set, make sure you recycle the old one.

Of course, you can easily blow all that work if you get the thing home and then don't use it properly. Don't leave the set on in the background all day—that will double its electrical diet. And don't forget the energy costs associated with your components, like cable boxes and video game consoles, which many people forget to turn off when not in use. Your PlayStation 3 will guzzle about as much energy as this 46-inch LCD while you're dodging cops in Grand Theft Auto; if you leave the device on after switching the TV off, it'll continue to use the same amount. You should also keep your peripherals plugged into a single power strip, so you can turn them all off with one click—and that will have the side benefit of keeping your media center from sucking out too much standby power when its components are turned off but still plugged in.

You also need to consider the picture setting. Most high-definition televisions offer at least two options: a super-bright setting for electronics-store showrooms ("retail" or sometimes "dynamic" or "vivid") and a dimmer one for standard home use. The difference between the two can be huge—CNET found that this 50-inch Panasonic plasma used almost three times as much energy in "vivid" mode as it did in standard: 1,366 kilowatt hours a year versus 488 kilowatt hours a year. While you can't expect to get such extreme savings with every set, it's always worth adjusting this setting.

Finally, lots of recent press reports have focused on the use of nitrogen triflouride (NF3), a highly potent greenhouse gas, in the manufacture of "flat-screen TVs." (Actually, they're only used in making LCDs.) The Green Lantern agrees that NF3 deserves more monitoring, especially now that greater amounts of it have been discovered in the atmosphere than previously estimated. But according to the University of California report that prompted the coverage, even if all the NF3 produced annually escaped into the atmosphere, it would have only 0.44 percent as much impact on global warming as carbon dioxide does each year. Plus, NF3 is used in all kinds of electronics; only a fraction goes toward televisions. So at least for now, the Green Lantern doesn't think NF3 is a reason to avoid upgrading.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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