By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine
As a survey reveals two-thirds of Britons say they don't have enough plug sockets in their homes, what's the answer: messy multi-plug extension boards, more outlets, wireless electricity even?
There's the telly. And the set-top box. The DVD player - although not the little-used video recorder, which now gathers dust in the attic - and the stereo and table lamp... that's at least five plugs clustered in one corner of a living room, and just a double socket to feed them all.
The solution? Increasingly, these days, it's a multi-plug extension board. These rat's nests of converging cables can be found around the home. Got a computer? That's a plug needed for (deep breath) the monitor, hard drive, printer, speakers, scanner and router.
This hi-tech tangle is a bug bear of domestic life, especially for those living in Britain's vast stock of Victorian and Edwardian homes, when even the radio had yet to be invented.
A three-bedroom house built today must have at least 38 sockets, more than twice as many as 30 years ago. This is set by the National House Building Council's technical standards - revised up last year from 21 sockets - which cover more than 80% of new homes built in the UK.
SOCKETS IN NEW-BUILD HOMES
Four each in kitchen and utility room
Four in living room, eight in living/family room with two near TV aerial
Six in main bedroom, four in other bedrooms
But new-builds account for just 160,000 houses a year of the UK's 25 million existing homes. In a survey for Energy Experience, an online education resource, 92% of respondents said their household used an average of three extension boards.
Furniture makers do their best to help out, with holes in the back and sides of TV tables and cabinets through which to feed cables in one tidy bundle. For those fond of vintage pieces, even these are sold with neat holes punched in the back.
But where does it stop? Is our need for plug sockets insatiable? Is it inevitable that our houses will have more plug sockets in more places to cater for our appetite for appliances and gadgets? Not necessarily. That was the solution for homes built in the 80s and 90s, but today the focus is switching to more eco-friendly options.
"There's a big push to reach zero carbon emissions - should we actually be encouraging people to plug more and more things in?" asks Dave Mitchell, of the Home Builders Federation.
THEN AND NOW
Heat maps of teenager's gadgets in 70s (top) and today
70s teen has lamp, record player and model racing track
88% of today's teens have own TV, 90% use games console
93% have mobile phone, 69% an MP3 player
Almost half have their own PC
Source: BBC/Childwise figures
He points to "smart" extension plugs that cut the power to all the devices running off them as soon as one is switched off. "When you turn off your computer, for instance, it cuts the power to the associated devices such as the printer, saving the power lost when these are on standby."
And landmark housing developments are starting to include energy-saving features that Mr Mitchell says will come as standard within five years.
"On your way out the front door, you'll hit a switch that will turn off everything it's programmed to switch off, leaving essentials like the fridge on. I also expect to see skirting boards that you can plug in wherever you want."
But hi-tech solutions can be quickly superseded. Homeowners who ripped their walls apart to thread in ethernet wiring a few years ago, may now be wishing they'd waited for wireless.
And centuries-old physics is said to hold the promise of wireless power. Last November researchers in the United States outlined a system that used the resonance of electromagnetic waves to deliver power to gadgets without wires.
Although the team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology has not built and tested the system, computer models and mathematics suggest it will work. Resonance is a phenomenon that causes an object to vibrate when energy of a certain frequency is applied to it.
"You're not talking next year with that sort of thing in the home," says Mr Mitchell. "That's almost science fiction."
HOW WIRELESS POWER COULD WORK
1: Power from mains to antenna, which is made of copper
2: Antenna resonates at a frequency of 6.4MHz, emitting electromagnetic waves
3: 'Tails' of energy from antenna 'tunnel' up to 5m (16.4ft)
4: Electricity picked up by laptop's antenna, which must also be resonating at 6.4MHz. Energy used to re-charge device
5: Energy not transferred to laptop re-absorbed by source antenna. People/other objects not affected as not resonating at 6.4MHz
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A friend of mine is renovating his house and has put in over 100 sockets in it. There are about 20 in the living room - perhaps it could double up as a call centre, I said. Then 6 in the dining room - presumably to plug in electric fondue sets. They're expecting a baby soon though, so now have to fork out for 100 socket covers.
Serena, Suffolk, England
I've got 32 sockets in my garden shed because the previous owner built model railways and had one socket for each of his power tools! Means I have lots of choice when I want to plug in the lawnmower.
Chris Whiley, Chelmsford, England
I have recently built a house in which we installed a "power strip" running above the skirting board in every room. All appliances have special plugs wired to them that can be plugged into this strip at any point on it. The house therefore has an infinite number of power sockets.
Jonathan, London, England
Time for some action on the plethora of low voltage transformers that come with everything. It might make more sense to give the green house of the future a 12v DC ring main and start dispensing with annoying transformers that have to be unplugged to be switched off and are rarely interchangeable.
Wireless electricity transmission over short distances would be very practical if there were no adverse effects on living creatures. This should be rigorously tested before being developed further for consumers. It could also lead to energy hijacking; I can imagine running an appliance off your neighbour's energy antenna simply by putting your device close to it. Perhaps the resonance could be encoded with a signal to allow only permissible devices to receive energy.
Jeremy Mason, London
"You're not talking next year with that sort of thing in the home," says Mr Mitchell. "That's almost science fiction." Er, Nikola Tesla was playing with this over 100 years ago, I think it's about time the world recognised him for the genius he was.
He was attempting to transmit power across the Atlantic wirelessly at a time when people were just getting used to light bulbs.
Paul Saunders, London
When I was a student in Glasgow in the 90s I lived in a Victorian tenement building which had one socket in a huge room. Under my bed I had extensions coming out of extensions to fuel the beside lamp, desk light, stereo, alarm clock, lava lamp (seemed cool at the time) and essential heater (the flat not only lacked sockets but central heating). I'm sure it was a fire risk. This was the days before home computers so I dread to think of the average student bedroom now.
When setting up my flat in 2002, my electrician chuckled when I asked him for 10 sockets in the living room. Five years later, I have a multi-socket extension in every single one.
Rob Stradling, Cardiff
The politics driving the energy saving debate need an injection of science. What is the point of banning dimmer switchers and halogen bulbs when there is not yet a practical alternative, and then allowing the sale of plasma TVs which take up to four times the power of existing CRT TVs. LCD TVs are the only efficient solution at the moment. Why ban remote standby mode on TV sets, when a simple circuit redesign could reduce the off current demand to zero. If the new data over the mains standard is adopted then we will all want our electrical devices plugged in all the time, since this will allow power usage to be monitored and controlled, with lights and TVs automatically switched off when not required.
NJ, Cambridge, England
Environment? Simply buy a cheap timer switch which turns off at preset times during the day/night. Better than leaving everything on standby.
Try four in the living room (all in one corner), four in the kitchen (again, all in one corner, next to the cooker, can you say "melting wires"?), two in the main bedroom, near the door, nowhere near the bed, two in the office, and that's it. I'm constantly tripping over extension leads.
I think I'm right in that in the US the regulations insist on a socket every 6 feet along the wall. We should have similar here, and not just a power socket but an RF socket, a telephone jack, etc. Why should the builders of a house decide where and how we should use our appliances? It should be up to us.
Sion Hughes, Noerthampton, UK
My house has one socket in each room, except the kitchen which has two. Talk about trailing wires, I have multi-socketed extension cords plugged into each other all over the house, it's ludicrous.
Alex Rose, Cardiff, England
I've got four in the bedroom - all inside the built in wardrobe. We have an extension through the wall into the spare room to plug in the bedside lamp and clock.
CB, Milton Keynes, England
I think mine might be worse than yours, Starling - I have two in the living room, one in the kitchen, and one in the bedroom. That's it, for the entire property. It means that when I'm doing the ironing, I can't take a call because my phone is unplugged - and I can't Hoover with the TV on.
Are we really suffering from too few sockets, or is it more a case of too many electronic devices to be plugged in?
Fiona, Eastbourne, UK
We just moved to a two-year-old house, every room has at least six power points, a telephone point and an ariel point (the conservatory has 2 no idea why). Which to be honest is great as that way we have very few four-way blocks populating the house.
Paul, Littlebourne, England
My bedroom has a massive 21 sockets; I have no idea why, and no need for so many, so if any one wants to borrow one go ahead.
Kirsten, Canterbury, England
When I bought my 1930s built house last year as I renovated the kitchen I had loads of new plugs fitted. Four double plugs including one hidden under the sink and the old cooker wall switch was replaced with a new unit. I wish now I'd done the rest of the house because I'm hopelessly short. If it weren't for extension leads I'd been in real trouble.
Steven Wilson, Cambridge
I've got five in the living room (one inaccessible), six in the kitchen (three for appliances), three in one bedroom and two in the other. No shaver socket in the bathroom. Kirsten, can I have some of yours please?
Darren McCormac, London
I have two 6-way extensions in my room, one for the computer and accessories, one for the TV and accessories. Happily the plugs are next to the door so everything just gets switched off when I leave the room.
David Jones, Sheffield
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