USB as a Power Standard

The new IKEA power strip has two USB charging ports.

USB on a power strip is not new. USB power strips have been available, if you knew where to look, for at least four years. Remodeled offices place USB charging ports on desks as a matter of course. But IKEA’s minimalist approach to merchandising means that it sells only one model of full-size power strip. Buy a power strip at IKEA in North America this year, and you will get USB ports. It is a measure of how far USB power has come. USB power is a standard part of our power supply environment now.

power strip

To put this in context, it is important to remember that the world operates on at least five AC power outlet standards. The North American 3-prong outlet is found in only a few countries in the world. World travelers who want to charge their phones and shavers have to buy power adapters suited to their destinations. By contrast, USB power is the same everywhere in the world.

USB power runs small devices that plug into computers, such as scanners and microphones. In the last few years, you can get desk-scale versions of lights, fans, and other miniature appliances that run on USB power.

Now that USB power has become this easy to come by, though, I believe we will see many more devices that run on or are compatible with USB power. There will be things like doorbells and answering machines, but also, as time goes on, room lights and pro audio devices.

It will take some redesign to get some of these things to work well with USB power. Thousands of pro audio devices and electronic musical instruments work with external 9-volt power supplies — made from components that are compatible with a well-known battery standard. The devices burn as much as 8 watts. They will have to be scaled down, literally, to work with half as much electricity. But that can certainly be done if the reward for the manufacturer is to be able to offer a product that works with a standard power connection and no longer requires a custom adapter. The redesign may save $10 to $30 per unit in manufacturing costs. On top of that, the electric power savings are big enough to matter, a few watts per device times a billion devices.

Room lighting would seem a little more tricky. Shouldn’t a ceiling light use 11 watts of power? LED lighting efficiency keeps inching upward, though, and designers say having more LED lights, each with lower power, would help improve efficiency. Beyond lighting, it is hard to imagine USB power driving an appliance or tool that requires movement on a large scale, or that generates heat. The USB power standard was created to run computer peripherals and recharge mobile phones, and given its built-in limitations, it can be stretched only so far. Kitchen and bathroom appliances will still need AC power, and so will laser printers. In audio, USB power can operate a microphone and headphones but not a room-scale loudspeaker. Still, it’s not hard to imagine that half of the devices that plug in to a power supply at home could be redesigned to work on USB power. No one knows how far this trend can go, but now that USB power connections are so easy to come by, expect to see more devices and gadgets that rely on this style of power.

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