Energy Star Certification for TV: How Dim Is Too Dim?

You are, I’m sure, familiar with the Energy Star certification. It’s a little yellow sticker found on all appliances that claim to show you what it will cost per year to run them under average usage. Of course, no one can really determine what average usage is. For a refrigerator, how many times a day do you open it? How full is it? For a washer or dryer, how many loads a day pass through it?

The same for a television, perhaps even more so. How many hours is it on per day? And how is the picture adjusted. New developments, such as HDR, add a whole new layer to this.

Energy Star was initially launched by the EPA, and is now managed and run by them and the Department of Energy. And while Energy Star certification isn’t mandatory, it might as well be. No retailer is going to stock an appliance without being able to point to that little sticker that says it will cost only $100 a year to run it—no matter how inexact that number is for the average consumer.

For testing purposes, the Energy Star rating on a television is normally run on one specific mode among the many picture modes most sets offer, and in that mode’s default settings. That mode is usually the one with the least energy consumption. I’ve experienced sets in which the Energy Star-compliant mode (up to now not always specifically identified) is too dim for human use, though bats and owls might enjoy it. Most users simply set and forget their TV settings, often just leaving them as they are out of the box.

If the Energy Star-compliant mode is the default when the TV is first fired up, consumers averse to getting anywhere near those arcane picture controls may well be tempted to return it to the store, and many of them have done so. The big-box store’s obvious solution to a potential return is to tell the dissatisfied consumer to either change the mode to Vivid or enable Store mode—the torch mode used for in-store demos to attract the most eyeballs. Either way, the picture will then be searingly bright, which most consumers equate with a good picture, but the set will now draw three to four times the power as did in that dim, Energy Star-certified mode.

To get around this, the new, proposed Energy Star requirements appear to be designed to insure that:

A. The user is aware of which picture modes/settings meet the Energy Star certification.

B. In those settings, the picture is bright enough that the average user will not be tempted to change to brighter modes and/or settings that do not meet the Energy Star rating.

C. The user is notified, by an on-screen indication, that in changing or altering that mode and/or setting he or she has left the warmth of the Energy Star cubby and is now in the wild, wild west of the ostracized, energy profligate user (just joking here about the severity in that on-screen notice, but some sort of notice will be mandated nonetheless to keep the Energy Star rating).

All of the energy-saving features in a set, to include any Automatic Brightness Compression (ABC), are included in these restrictions. In any set with less than four picture modes, all but one (or fewer) of those modes must have all of its energy saving features enabled by default. If there are more than four such picture modes, no more than two of the modes (or fewer) may omit these features by default. On initial turn-on, the set must be in one of the Energy Star-certified modes.

To repeat myself (though it’s worth mentioning more than once), the need for Energy Star certification is, at least for now, a recommendation rather than a regulation with the force of law behind it, though the lack of such a certification will likely be commercial suicide for any product not offering it.

A few things about this new proposal aren’t clear to me, at least not from a reading of the nearly impenetrable, lawyer-certified prose used and common to most government documents. Is the above turn-on picture mode requirement only for the first, out-of-the-box meet and greet, or will the set default to an Energy Star-certified mode every time it’s powered up? The latter would require that the user change to his or her desired mode and/or settings (if other than the default), each time the set is turned on. Most users won’t bother with this, but will simply watch the set in all of its energy-frugal, eye-squinting glory. (In politispeak, this is what’s known as the “nudge”—gently but purposefully pushing an individual toward the outcome desired by his or her more “enlightened betters” regardless of his or her personal preference.)

Also at stake here is a clear definition of the term “default.” Default to me, in a television, means pre-established settings that may be changed by the user. The Energy Star document does appear to require that any such change to an Energy Star preset require notifying the viewer, by some sort of on-screen message, that the new setting is no longer Energy Star compliant (a frowning emoji might be just the visual ticket here, or perhaps a gathering of emoji’s carrying torches and pitchforks and chanting “uh, uh, uh”).

But there could be a more ominous definition of “default,” perhaps meaning a setting that can’t be changed either in the user menus or the service menus. This does not appear to be the government-certified definition at present. But I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in the bowels of the Energy Star high-rise there’s a government gnome, slaving away in a cubicle and eyeing one of those corner offices overlooking the Potomac with the Blue Ridge mountains in the distance, who might propose just such a definition, referring to subparagraph B, in Section 2 of the amendment to Appendix IX that allows a sympathetic judge to allow such a loopy interpretation.

No, there’s no such subparagraph, and apologies to hard-working, cubical gnomes (or is that gnomes in cubicles?) everywhere. But the new 13-page Energy Star proposal is opaque enough to send you into a concussion protocol if you try too hard to interpret it. It’s an object lesson in bureaucrat-eze. I still haven’t gotten my head around three equations in the document that define the allowed power consumption of a set, and whether they apply to total allowed power in general (and if so, bye, bye HDR) or only to the default Energy Star mode or modes.

But by all means read the document for yourself, particularly if you’re fond of crossword puzzles:

Version 8.0 Energy Star Product Specification for Televisions

While you’re at it, have a look at the response of the CTA (Consumer Technology Association) to the draft:

CTA Comments