Should computers be powered down for the holidays?

With the holidays approaching, many of us are going to be taking some extended time away from our offices. So I am starting to get that age-old question: “Should I turn off my system while I’m gone?”

The answer is that you should be turning off your system a lot more often than just over the year-end holiday.

The debate over power consumption has been going on for as long as computers have been around, it seems. In one camp, you have the “computers should be powered up all the time” people. In the other camp, you have the people who turn off their computers when they will be away from them for an extended period of time.

Personally, I’ve always been one to turn my systems off when they were not in use, and I’ve gotten a lot of flak from other techies over the years for this stance. But I think I’m right.

According to the Energy Department, which should still exist unless Rick Perry gets elected president, monitors should be turned off if you plan to be away from them for longer than 20 minutes, and CPUs should be turned off if you will be away for more than two hours.

The power-saving functions of modern systems do help somewhat but, as DOE notes, a system in sleep mode still consumes a fair amount of power when looked at over the course of the year. And screen savers often consume more power when running than not, especially these days when monitor burn-in is mostly a thing of the past and screen savers are simply cosmetic entertainment shows.

The argument for keeping systems running all the time is that the boot-up and shutdown process is somehow hard on a computer. Personally, I think this is mechanical systems logic being improperly applied to electrical systems.

Other than a tiny bit of probably microscopic damage due to expanding and contracting of components, computers don’t suffer any more when turned on and off than at any other time. Some huge mechanical systems like a tractor-trailer rig might suffer more stress when cranking on, but your netbook won’t.

On the flip side, the only force working against your computer in terms of longevity is heat. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need cooling fans and heat sinks or extra air conditioning for your office, and I wouldn’t be writing about scientists putting computers under water to try to keep them from overheating.

And heat is only generated when your computer is powered up. Think about this in terms of other appliances, and you will see that it makes sense. Do you leave your television on 24-hours a day, even when you are not at home? Even something like your refrigerator only powers up long enough to bring its contents down to a target temperature, and then turns off until needed.

It’s one thing if your computer is acting as a server, or doing something important such as the desktop SETI program. If that’s the case, feel free to use your system. It’s a tool, after all.

But if you want your computer to last for a long time, do yourself a favor and shut it down if you plan to be away for a few hours. Boot-up times are pretty quick these days, and it’s good to give some sloppily programmed software programs in your memory a reset (the subject of a whole other column) from time to time.

So the answer to those of you who’ve asked is, yes. Give your computer a break over the holidays. Enjoy some eggnog and holiday cheer. You system will be ready for you when you get back, and will probably survive to see many holidays moving forward.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Mon, Dec 12, 2011

Last I heard, hard drives have motors that spin - hence the caution on turning off and on. I can say from experience that most of my hard drive problems I've ever experienced has been after a power shutdown where the drive never comes back up. perhaps when we go to solid state drives, it will be a different story.


Geez, I thought the article was going to be about not taking work home with you over the holidays and not power consumption issues... Monitors and computers have got a lot more efficient, but as stated, there are a lot of mandatory guidance in effect whether at federal agencies or DoD mandates that require they stay on for virus and system updates. Even if those mandates were not in place, it becomes very difficult to manage the updates if systems become out of date due to not receiving regular updates. Your office or organization may end up spending more on IT support hours to fix all of the problems than just paying the additional energy costs of maintaining the systems 24/7.

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 Federal Gov't

I will try to make very simple. Okay, you have shut down your computer for your extended holiday vacation. Before you left a virus mades it way into the agency network undetected. A few days after you departed the virus is detected and a massive push is on to eradicate the virus from the network. This includes a security patch to all networked PCs. This action can take a week or more. But, guess what?!?! Your computer has the virus too and it is shut down. Guess what happens when you get back to turn on your PC? It ain't going to be pretty! Ask me how I know.

Thu, Dec 8, 2011 The Shrimper

From the wide variation of views on this subject, (I'm not a 24/7'er either) the true answer reall;y is, "it depends". Of course, it is not logical or appropriate to shut down servers after short (20 min+/-)periods of non0use. These systems must be available at any time, all the time. However, if as is the case at my house.... I prefer to shut down at night; after all the kids are done homework , we're thru' emailing, net-surfing, etc. The first to need it powers up and off we go. It has actually gone a full day or more without use ... powering off in this case, makes clear sense. The "patch" issue is unfortunate but necessary, so the CPU must remain on 24/7. I ALWAYS turn OFF the monitor.... that's the easiest and most practical "off-when-not-in-use" compromise. and it of course is more economical; multiply the "watts-not-used" by two or three thousand machines, over the course of a month, .. well. Ultimately, moderation and reason in all things.

Wed, Dec 7, 2011 BaltFEd

[rant] Unless I take it home to do work at night or over the weekend, I leave my laptop on overnight and over the weekend when it's in its docking station at work. It can take 20 minutes or more to boot up, apply Global Settings, Personal Settings, security updates, map drives, synchronize Outlook with Exchange (which is off-site, requiring WAN resources to communicate) and do God-only-knows-what-else the damn thing goes through when it starts up. The cost of the idle time involved for anyone over a GS-5 is far more than the cost of the energy needed to keep things running over that time, especially when the hard drive and monitor go into sleep mode. Multiply that figure by 5,000 or so employees and contractors here, and you have an idea of what it costs in time to save some small amount energy at our HQ. [/rant]

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