Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Dear Umbra,

I recently spent several months in New Zealand and was impressed with the simple energy-saving electrical outlets they used. Every outlet is equipped with a small switch allowing you to “turn off at the wall” whatever device you have plugged in. I want to replace my current outlets with ones such as those in NZ but I’ve never seen anything similar being used in the States and cannot find a retailer. I’m sure they have to be out there somewhere — any ideas?

Casey F.
Austin, Tex.

A. Dearest Casey,

outletsNo outlet?Since telling Jonathan he might kill himself by using GFCI breaker buttons for this very purpose, I have been gripped by a small obsession with plugs. Not only does New Zealand appear to have these sensible switch-off buttons on outlets, other fine nations such as Australia, Fiji, perhaps the U.K., and more I have not yet discovered do as well.

I can’t find any outlets with on-off switches for the U.S. either. I have found a series of devices which are almost such a thing but not quite, and we will see if any of them sound useful.

Currently our two mainstream choices for avoiding phantom power draw from overeager appliances are power strips and manually unplugging the appliance. Each of these has an unwieldiness and cord-tangling potential that makes it a wee bit annoying. Ideal substitutes would be on-off switches at each individual outlet, a master switch that turns off multiple outlets in a room, or, of course, devices without a standby mode. (Or how about less stuff?)

It is possible to buy a two-prong plug with an on-off switch (here is one such; there are others out there), which is itself plugged into the wall outlet and receives the plug of a two-pronged device such as a coffee maker or wall wart. A variety of these are available for under $10. I’ve never used and do not endorse them, but they seem straightforward.

At the next level are a series of similar interlocutor plugs which are wired to turn off the outlet through remote control. You plug them into the outlet, plug the appliance into them, then sit back and impress friends and visitors with a wave of your wireless remote. One product provides multiple wireless plugs with a programmable remote, so that with a series of masterful clicks you can turn off power to multiple outlets. The remote requires a battery, but to me the more daunting requirement is keeping track of yet another vital small object in the home. I’m kind of losing it already with just my car keys and a few pacifiers.

Yet another step up from these mere over-the-counter objects is a whole-home system you can hire a company (GreenSwitch and perhaps others) to install. It, too, is a wireless system with a remote, and some master wall switches as well. This is far from an endorsement, just something I found that might work.

My current residence is wired in a way that I have found annoying up to now: in some rooms, wall switches control the power to the outlets. It can be a little confusing if you forget which switch is which and accidentally turn off an appliance you are using. But now that I pause to think, this system could be used as a way around power strips. Something to consider next time we have to rewire our homes.

Shockingly,
Umbra