Archive for March 13, 2009

How green is that gadget?

Recycle-Bin-ElectronicsMotorola announces "the world's first green phone." Dell has set out to be the "greenest technology company on the planet.” Apple claims to have the "world's greenest family of notebooks" with its latest MacBooks.

It all sounds good, but how can you really tell how green an electronic product is?

The truth is, there isn't any one approach. But at this month's Greener Gadgets conference in New York City, panelists, who were mainly industry representatives, highlighted some of the latest ways in which manufacturers and regulators are trying to define the environmental aspects of the electronics gear we buy and use.

Here are some of the topics that came up:

Voluntary eco-labels. One common way panelists said the industry is communicating the eco-friendliness of their products is with eco-labels. Both Energy Star and EPEAT (Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool) were noted. Both labels indicate energy efficiency, but the EPEAT standard also covers toxic materials, longevity and recyclability, among other things, and offers three tiers of environmental performance: bronze, silver and gold. However, as when we last reported on the program, EPEAT still only applies to computers and monitors. However, standards for printers and imaging devices are underway, and a TV standard is under discussion.

The reduction of hazardous substances. Representatives from Dell and Intel noted the fact that electronics can also be judged by what they don't contain. Certain toxins, including lead, mercury, and cadmium, among others, are now restricted in electronics in the European Union as well as the state of California by laws known as "RoHS," or the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances. A representative of Dell I spoke with said all of the company’s products sold worldwide are 'RoHS-compliant."

Packaging & materials. There was general agreement among panelists that less is more when it comes to packaging and materials. Representatives of both Dell and Panasonic said their companies are working toward reducing materials and implementing more environmentally friendly packaging options.

Products that last. Panelists acknowledged that making electronics that are built to last or upgradeable can be kinder to the environment, though a Panasonic representative also acknowledged that's a difficult question to grapple with as a manufacturer. But he stressed that Panasonic makes plasma TVs that last longer than CRTs. ConsumerReports.org subscribers can find out which brands perform best over time by checking out our reliability data on electronics, including TVs, laptops, desktops comuters, digital cameras, and camcorders.

Producer-responsibility recycling programs. Both Dell and Panasonic representatives talked about the importance of taking responsibility for electronics at the end of their useful lives and highlighted their companies’ commitments to recycling. Dell offers free recycling by mail.

Panasonic, in partnership with Toshiba and Sharp, has a limited, but growing number of dropoff sites for recycling. Both manufacturers claimed to carry out responsible recycling programs and to not ship hazardous products to developing countries. However, none of the three companies happened to be among those who received high marks on a recent scoring of TV recycling plans from a non-profit advocacy group.

What lies ahead? Panelists seemed to think that carbon legislation, either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program, is a real possibility that could eventually help consumers choose the most energy-efficient electronics by opting for the cheapest ones; electronics produced with less energy, or carbon, would presumably cost less to produce and could be sold at lower prices.

The possibility of developing a "carbon footprint" label based on how much carbon electronics require to manufacture was also raised. But the idea of carbon-footprint labeling didn't resonate as a very viable or desirable tool for manufacturers.

GreenerChoices.org, the environmental web site for Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, see credits as a small but potentially helpful way to cut carbon emissions. However, they also urge that before buying any product on the basis of a carbon-offset program, be sure to read the fine print, since there are no federal guidelines for specific carbon offsets.

—Kristi Wiedemann

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Nobody told me…..

Early on in this series of posts on digital TV, I mentioned the diverse calls and emails I receive daily from viewers with and without problems. I must say I have talked with some of the nicest people in the last year that I’d love to just sit and talk at their kitchen table for a few hours, and then there’s a few that. . .

The problem is that most people aren’t antenna specialists or RF System Engineers. When normal people get frustrated, they get angry and may throw a hissy fit. Like I have posted in my bio, I learned at an early age to turn the antenna with a pipe wrench and tune in different stations, as well as many years of study in the “School of Hard Knocks”. Some things make sense, and other’s just don’t. Digital TV falls into the nonsense category more than the sensible category. People expect a better signal with higher transmitter power, but actually less is more with DTV. You can easily overdrive your receiver with too much signal. But the “Cliff Effect” is a real thing to consider, but it is basically somewhere 80 miles plus from the transmitter. If you’re within that 80 mile circle and having trouble, then your antenna is not up to par. Simply replacing the antenna does not cure everything either. It has to be the right type, and all your distribution wires and splitters have to be correct. I only recommend newer splitters rated up to 1 G Hz. If it says 900 MHz or less on it, get rid of it and replace it. Also keep in mind the less is more, the less times you split the signal the better. Get a 4-way splitter instead of a couple of 2-way splitters. Each split reduces the signal by as much as one half, and some even more than that.

Finding experts to consult is also a difficult thing even in the YahGoggle search age. More often than not, you’re on your own with this.

Reality only gets real when it strikes you. There are some locations that will loose all over the air signals. There’s also areas that will get them for the first time ever. It’s a little weird how RF travels in the air, and what the terrain does to it. I’ll just say that hindsight is usually 20/20, and when you get your antenna right, you’ll say “oh yeah!”. But sitting there in the den thinking about it will not get your signal dependable. Sometimes it takes hands on experimenting and a little blind luck.

When the weather decides to stabilize, get out there and tweak those antennas!

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More than 600 stations have already gone to all-digital broadcasts, but the bulk of the nation's nearly 1,800 stations have yet to cut their analog signals. The deadline for the end of analog broadcasts is now June 12.

—Eileen McCooey

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