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We hear a lot these days about how a little action by each of us can go a long way in helping preserve the environment for all of us, and that extends to the use of technology as well. By selecting certain types of components and utilizing certain practices we can reduce energy consumption and hazardous materials, thus doing a small part in the larger campaign for a greener tomorrow.

An organization taking the lead on this front is the Green Electronics Council (GEC, www.greenelectronicscouncil.org), a nonprofit organization formed to identify what companies and individuals can do in the design, manufacture and use of technology to create a more healthy environment.

One of the big programs that the GEC has started is the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), which is “designed to help institutional purchasers in the public and private sectors evaluate, compare and select desktop computers, notebook computers and monitors based on their environmental attributes.”

EPEAT evaluates products on a three-tier level based on the reduction or elimination of environmentally sensitive materials, materials selection, design for end of life, product longevity/life-cycle extension, energy conservation, end-of-life management, corporate performance and packaging, according to the GEC.

These products are then given a bronze, silver or gold seal, showing the level of compliance the product has attained.

The IEEE Standards Association, a worldwide standards-setting organization, has also adopted IEEE 1680, “Standard for Environmental Assessment of Personal Computer Products,” in conjunction with EPEAT.

But from a practical standpoint, what can an individual do other than look for machines that carry these ratings? Dell, one of the leading manufacturers of computers, has posted on its Web site ( www.dell.com) a series of tips designed to provide consumers with guidance on the efficient use of computers.

Among the tips, Dell is suggesting the following, although I have some concerns about some of them, as I’ve pointed out:

Buy a computer that grows with you. In other words, don’t buy a supercomputer if you don’t need all of that power.

Buy refurbished products. Refurbished computers save on resources, and can also be purchased at discount. Personally, I don’t like refurbished products, as there is usually a reason the product failed in the first place. But for the most part refurbished products from reputable manufacturers have undergone strict testing and have a full warranty.

Use Energy Star-compliant computers and monitors. These products have been designed to reduce energy use when dormant.

Turn it off. Dell suggests turning off the machine when not in use. I may be old-fashioned, but I don’t like this suggestion. The environmental impact for turning the machine off is obvious, but I prefer to keep my PCs running continuously, as I have a lot less problems. My current PC has been on for almost three years. I would suggest turning off to avoid overheating.

Enable power management. Personally, I don’t like this feature either, as I have found problems resuming from hibernation, but it’s a good feature to use for a laptop that is on battery.

Skip the screen saver. Screen savers don’t save any energy. I would just turn the monitor off when not in use.

Be a smart printer. Edit on-screen, or use the flip side of paper for drafts.

Extend your computer’s life: Dell suggests donating it to a nonprofit organization, reusing the computer’s parts in a different machine, or taking it to a recycling center. Dell now offers free recycling of old Dell computers, or any brand with the purchase of a new Dell computer.

Besides the ratings mentioned above, there are a few other things to consider when purchasing a new computer. Laptops can consume up to five-times less power than a desktop machine, and most laptops these days rival the power and features that desktops have. (Prices are still somewhat higher, though.)

If a laptop is not practical, then a small form factor (SFF) computer can still help cut down on electricity usage. SFF PCs often use some components originally intended for laptops. The one negative on SFFs are that the expandability is limited, so you may not be able to add additional graphics cards, additional memory or additional hard drives.

The monitor you choose can also help in the reduction of energy. The old standard cathode ray tube monitors, while less expensive, can use up to three-times the power of an LCD monitor.

And if you are very serious about power consumption, consider the kit from Solatron Technologies ( http://www.solatrontechnologies.com), which will power your computer, monitor and printer running only on solar power. While not cheap, at close to $4,000, the energy savings over the years will eventually pay for itself, as well as give you a clear conscience.

BRIAN R. HARRIS is the director of information technology for the ALM Pennsylvania division and the former editor in chief of The Legal Intelligencer . Technology questions can be sent to Harris at [email protected].

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