By Christopher Walsh
Dennis Bohn had a vexing problem. "We brought out a 1U, 4-channel, 100-watt amplifier a number of years ago,” says the Rane Corporation CTO. “Very efficient, very smart-designed, for commercial installations. The reps, contactors and some of our dealers said, 'We hear about this Energy Star thing, people are saying they're interested. Can you get an Energy Star rating on this?'
“At that time, we knew hardly anything about Energy Star, other than you see it on refrigerators, washing machines, things like that. So we asked.”
Energy Star, a program managed jointly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, replied: “At this time, 4-channel audio amplifier for commercial use do not fall under any of the existing product categories eligible for the Energy Star that are listed at www.energystar.gov/products, nor does it fall under those being considered by EPA during this fiscal year."
Thus began a long and frustrating effort to have the Rane MA 4 recognized for its low energy consumption which, by extension, would maintain a level playing field among Rane and competing manufacturers that are modifying their products to meet emerging “green” standards in building design and systems installation.
"It kind of died down," Bohn continues. "Then LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] started gaining momentum. Our people said, 'This LEED thing is catching on, we'd really like the MA 4 in there.' It turns out that the LEED people said, 'If you use Energy Star-rated equipment, you get [LEED] points.' Our industry--reps, dealers, contractors--are saying, 'We'd like to bid the audio equipment on this building that's to be LEED, but the guy is not going to get any points unless it's Energy Star-rated.' They started coming back to us saying 'Why can't you get this Energy Star rated?' So we tried again, [and] got the same answer from the Energy Star people."
Bohn’s experience demonstrates that, while government guidelines and mandates for reducing energy consumption and eliminating polluting materials are a positive development, new regulations have also created confusion and some friction. The pace of government action will require patience, and participation, from the private sector as audio products are assessed, examined and categorized.
The experience, Bohn notes, also exposed a contradiction between LEED commercial buildings giving points for Energy Star ratings for consumer amplifiers--which are not designed for the rigors of commercial use--while not allowing commercial power amplifiers, which are.
In a separate development, several of Biamp Systems' amplifiers were designated Energy Star-qualified in 2008. In December, however, Energy Star abruptly reversed course. In a communication to Energy Star Audio/Video partners, the agency stated, in part, that "professional audio/DVD products are by definition ineligible to qualify for the Energy Star...The testing protocol and levels developed for this specification were based on consumer grade products and it is not clear that they are appropriate for professional grade products."
Kathleen Vokes of the EPA's Energy Star program tells Pro Sound News that, "When we put together the specification, which was around 2000, we only gathered information on products that were intended for the consumer market, so that's what we based our spec on."
Energy Star has, however, announced the revision of the audio/video specification. "As part of that revision," Vokes explains, "we're opening it up to include more products than before, to consider things that weren't considered before as well as new products that weren't even around when we did the specification in 2000.
"As part of that review--whether to include professional products or not--we'll have to gather information on how much they are differentiated, what the market looks like, where you can draw clean lines," Vokes continues. "At a minimum, we'll be much clearer about definitions than we are in this current one."
“If you had somebody like an Energy Star that had a well set-up category,” Bohn muses, “I don't know what the numbers would be, but they would be figuring out ‘what's a reasonable efficiency that is so much better than what we've been doing for 100 years, and that if these products can meet the efficiency requirement, we're going to give them this rating.’ That lets people specifying buildings--schools, churches and everything else--know that, 'if you buy this product, you're going to save money. If you buy this CFC light bulb, you're going to save money.'
"Ultimately," he adds, "I think they'll straighten it out and add some efficiency requirements. Right now, [Energy Star doesn't] know how to test it, they don't have anywhere to test it. They understand large machines--washing machines and dryers--and are good at measuring how much electricity they're using. I see this as frustrating but, relatively speaking, very short-term. If you give them another two years, they'll probably straighten this out.”
Chuck Gollnick, Biamp Systems’ Hardware Development Manager and Chair, Environmental Compliance Committee, issued a statement addressing Energy Star’s listing, and subsequent de-listing, of Biamp products:
"Biamp Systems is strongly committed to environmental protection and policies. Our Environmental Compliance Committee oversees and initiates environmentally conscious programs. As A/V systems can be big energy consumers, one of the tactics within our environmental program was applying for Energy Star.
“Currently, Energy Star does not have a category for Commercial Pro A/V equipment. Biamp and some other A/V equipment manufacturers have sought Energy Star qualification under the ‘Home Audio’ category, which is not unreasonable since Pro A/V equipment is sometimes installed in residential systems, especially in high-end homes.
“For some types of products, Energy Star is concerned about how much power the product uses in its ‘active’ operation. Take an air conditioner for example, Energy Star does require a minimum BTUs of cooling per Watt of energy consumed. However regarding Home Audio equipment, Energy Star does not concern itself with the ‘active’ mode, but focuses on the ‘standby mode’ energy consumption, how much power the device continues to consume when it's supposedly turned off, the so-called ‘vampire effect’ wherein the product continues to suck energy out of the wall outlet even when it's supposedly ‘off.’ Most consumer A/V equipment doesn't actually turn off; instead, it goes into a ‘standby mode’ in which its major functions, the audio output or the video display, turns off but some functions remain active. Those ‘keep alive’ functions typically include time-of-day clock, an infrared receiver to receive turn-on commands from an IR remote control, and pre-programmed ‘wake up’ to, for example, record a TV program at a preset time.
“Older CRT-based television sets took a minute or two to warm up before they displayed an acceptable picture. But, newer CRT-based sets often feature ‘instant-on’ which meant they showed a picture within seconds of being turned on. This is accomplished by leaving the CRT heaters energized at all times. But, this can consume tens of Watts of energy 24/7. While modern TVs don't do this anymore, just keeping the time-of-day and an IR receiver running can, if it's not designed with energy-efficiency in mind--which is just about always more expensive--consume ten Watts constantly. A home entertainment system may have six or eight such devices. If each device consumes ten Watts in standby mode, then the system as a whole may consume eighty Watts 24/7, which is a substantial waste of energy.
“For Home Audio Equipment, Energy Star requires that the equipment have a mode in which it consumes less than one Watt. The devices Biamp has sought Energy Star qualification for satisfy this requirement.
“Biamp believes that the Energy Star Home Audio requirements will reduce energy wastage by A/V systems. And we look forward to working with Energy Star to create even better, more appropriate, standards for professionally installed Pro A/V equipment, which will lead to better business practices for our industry."