When it comes to conserving energy, every little bit helps. Remembering to use your power management features, so your computer sleeps when you're not using it, helps you cut down on wasted kilowatts. And doing things like using a power strip for all your components, unplugging things from the wall when you're not using them, and monitoring your usage -- using both hardware and software utilities -- helps you learn about when you use the most power. In addition to these energy-management techniques, you can resolve to "go green" for any PC purchases you make in the future. Here are a few of the standards you can look for.
1: Do some pre-shopping research
Depending on what you do with computers, you may be attracted to a particular system for a variety of reasons. Maybe you want a superfast machine. Perhaps you want something with high-end graphics for gaming and video. Or maybe a PC with the latest and greatest capabilities or the smallest carbon footprint tops your shopping list.
Whatever system catches your eye -- and for whatever reason -- a little research will help you find out (1) whether the computer is Energy Star rated; (2) how much energy the computer uses; and (3) what kind of options the computer offers for power management. You should be able to find this information on the manufacturer's site. But if not, search for user ratings and reviews and check some of the site recommendations listed later in this article.
2: Detox your computer purchase
The amount of energy your computer consumes is only one aspect of greening your computer purchases. The question of what types of materials and chemicals are used to produce the equipment is also important. Again, you should be able to find some statement -- perhaps called a hazardous material use policy -- on the company's Web site. Generally speaking, avoid devices that include lead. (Most vendors are already addressing this problem metal.) There are many other chemicals and compounds to watch out for, including mercury, Brominated Flame Retardants (BFR), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), cadmium, hexavalent chromium, Polybrominated Biphenyl (PBB), and Pentabromodiphenyl Ether (PBDE). The European Union is several paces ahead of the United States in terms of its Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive. If you're in the U.S., you need to do the research largely on your own.
3: Cut though the greenwashing
One thing we know about anything that captures our attention: Sooner or later, some savvy marketer is going to make a campaign out of it. The green movement is no exception. Over the last few years, companies large and small, selling everything from dish soap to custom built homes, have added some kind of "green" component to their packaging. Suddenly we can get green everything... for a slightly higher cost than the regular bad-for-the-environment purchase. Unfortunately, these marketing-driven campaigns are often just another way to entice customers and have few real benefits for our environment.
When you're considering new computer purchases -- from a drawing tablet to a mouse to a new netbook -- how do you know you're not being greenwashed? First, look at the company overall. Does it have a green statement published on its Web site, explaining its commitment to conserving energy? Is the company offering more than one "green" product? Does it tell you specifically how much energy the product consumes, how you can control the usage, and what materials are used to create the product and the packing materials? Look also for user reviews online to see what kinds of experiences others have had with the product you're considering.
4: Get reliable recommendations
Some companies out there -- usually nonprofit organizations -- make it their mission to evaluate and rate electronic products so consumers like us know the real scoop about how much power we're using and how much power we're saving. When you have a particular computer in mind, do a little more research with an organization like EPEAT, ClimateCounts, or Energy Star to find out what you're really getting, energy-wise, with that particular manufacturer and model.
The EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) registry helps you see what you're getting with products that claim to be green. The tool evaluates the product on a wide set of criteria and assigns a Bronze, Silver, or Gold rating, which can help you in your purchasing decisions. ClimateCounts.org is a nonprofit that scores companies' efforts in the green domain. Businesses can get a rating of Stuck (meaning they haven't gotten far), Starting (they're at least making a green effort), and Striding (showing that they're actually doing some good green work). And Energy Star is nothing new. You've seen this standard on your refrigerator and water heater, and the same energy efficiency standard rating is available for your computer. Not all computers meet Energy Star standards, but you should be able to find any good green computer on the Energy Star list.
5: Look for green buying guides
With just a little online searching, you will run across sites that are more than ready to help you make good, green tech purchasing decisions. A couple of my favorites are the Daily Green and Treehugger. You can also find user ratings and reviews, as well as purchasing advice, on consumer-driven sites like Yahoo Answers, Epinions.com, and even Amazon.com.
Katherine Murray is a technology writer and the author of more than 60 books on a variety of topics, ranging from small business technology to green computing to blogging to Microsoft Office 2010. Her most recent books include Microsoft Office 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), Microsoft Word 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), and Microsoft Word 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press, 2010).