Looking for a creative way to save energy? Don't forget about your cable box. The television might not be the first device most people think of when it comes to energy conservation, but that's about to change. A voluntary agreement among manufacturers, cable providers and the federal government calls for big efficiency overhauls in the set-top boxes that bring cable and satellite signals into consumers' homes.

Meeting Efficiency Goals

Certain cable boxes can use half as much electricity as a refrigerator, according to the Energy Collective, so there's a lot of room to conserve. And a full 85 percent of American households have some kind of set-top box, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Consumer Electronics Association. In households with multiple set-top boxes in different rooms, there may be a shocking amount of electricity consumed merely by piping in everyone’s favorite shows.

Set-top boxes don't have minimum federal standards, so the voluntary agreement is an alternative way to bring all the products up to a certain energy conservation threshold. Since technology changes so quickly in telecommunications, and the federal regulatory process is so cumbersome and slow, voluntary compliance allows stakeholders to advance efficiency goals without waiting for new regulations that might be outdated by the time they are enacted.

The agreement was put into place last year and should save consumers $168 million in electricity bills annually, according to the NCTA annual report on the program. Even more stringent voluntary standards will kick in in 2017.

Cutting-Edge Efficiency

The highest standards are found in the federal Energy Star program, which certifies set-top boxes that are 40 percent more efficient than average models. If every cable box hit the Energy Star benchmark, the program claims, consumers would save a total of $1 billion annually and reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking two million cars off the road.

Most boxes are always drawing power, even when they’re in standby mode. One way in which more advanced models save energy is through deep sleep mode, which consumes a maximum of 15 percent of the power used during active mode. Automatic power-down is another feature that many new boxes include.

Providers are also offering “thin client” boxes for homes with multiple televisions. Under this arrangement, the main cable box may use a fair amount of electricity, but the additional boxes would consume considerably less.

Of course, most people don't buy their own cable boxes, so to make sure you’re getting an efficient model, remember to ask your cable provider. Your cable company may also be willing to upgrade your existing box or swap it out for a more advanced model.