Rows of desks -- all with colorful screensavers -- running on oversized monitors. This is a common site in many offices today that greets those showing up for work on Monday morning, as the machines -- monitors and all -- were left on over the weekend. Blame it on the IT mantra of the early to mid-1990s that said that shutting down a PC would cause extra wear and tear, and that machines are generally energy-efficient enough that computers can be kept running all the time. The truth is that PCs and monitors account for 40 percent of IT-related emissions, and account for 13 percent of all power consumed in an office environment.

Just turning off the monitor can be a good first step, and this is where programs such as WatchOverEnergy can be a benefit. This freeware program from AKS-Labs runs in the background, and helps users manage stand-by mode and track energy savings. WatchOverEnergy can even shut off the monitor when the PC is inactive for periods of time, such as if a worker forgets to turn it off before heading for lunch or a meeting. It also ensures that other programs that are running, such as e-mail, aren't shut down, or a Word document won’t be lost.

“This is not a problem, as the software turns off the computer monitor, not the computer,” says Bob Elliot of AKS-Labs. And while the savings are small per machine, those savings can add up. “If we talk about one computer, you will not be able to save hundreds of dollars. But if you're running a company network, you will be able to save much more.”

Power saving programs

Green IT software is also a growing sector with numerous companies providing programs that allow users to track, manage and even save some energy. And while the savings aren’t likely going to be huge, they could be noticeable. “Anything you do to be more green will also save you money,” says Richard Hodges, principal of GreenIT in Sonoma, Calif. “In California, there is a leading edge program, where PG&E will rebate you the cost of the power management software. So it costs you nothing.”

One of the programs in the energy management space is Verdiem’s SURVEYOR, which includes options for a system to turn on/wake on-demand to tackle scheduled tasks, including software and security updates. This can come in handy for businesses that might need to send e-mail overnight, update Web pages, or run other tasks at times when employees are at home asleep.

“The machine can start up at 1 a.m. to download updates and shut down at 2 a.m., with a full reboot,” explains Bruce Twito, chief technology officer and vice president of product development for Verdiem. “The machine can also be put into standby while programs such as virus scan can run, and then can be a shut down afterward.”

Most of these energy saving programs are also not system hogs. After all, it wouldn’t offer much good if the program ate up valuable hard drive space or required businesses to upgrade machines to get the application to run. “The application uses fewer resources than e-mail, Excel, or Word,” says Twito. The agent runs on the machine, but most of the time takes very little system resources. “It is there to enforce the policies but it is hardly noticeable.”

Green to the core

It might seem obvious, but one area where businesses can get the most out of their software is through software updates. And while video drivers, security patches and other updates of applications are common; the core of the system isn’t typically addressed.

“This is the way that AMD and Intel can help you with the frequency throttling through the chipsets,” says Matthew Wilkins principal analyst, compute platforms research for iSuppli Corporation. He says that people seldom update the BIOS. “Sometimes there are several later versions. But think of all the things on the motherboard, and we tend to neglect it," Wilkins says. "We update all the various other drivers. But the BIOS helps with optimization of the operating system.”

Wilkins adds that this is important to consider, especially given that the CPU architecture is no longer just built around high clock speeds. “It is not about the clock speed race that it once was.”

For this reason businesses may even hang on to PCs longer. This certainly means a savings, as even budget-priced machines can still be close to $1,000 today.

But, more importantly, says Hodges is to look at ways to do more with the machines you have. “One PC by itself doesn’t use a lot of electricity, but all the systems together do add up.” Small to medium businesses should also find ways to do more with fewer applications, and that every time a program is added the costs increase. “Reducing the number of applications will simplify the computing costs and the amount of equipment needed and the energy used,” Hodges says.

Of course, that savings can be as free and as easy as pushing a button. “If you are a small business you could also just tell people to turn off the machines," Hodges says. "Turning computers off on weekends and evenings will save you money.”