So you're beginning your collection of effects pedals and are wondering if it's okay to leave them turned on when they're not in use.
Is it bad/damaging to keep effects pedals on when not in use? Keeping an effects pedal on/powered when it's not in use is typically safe, though it may decrease its overall longevity. If batteries are used for power, they'll be drained. If a power block or daisy chain is used for power, random/accidental power surges increase the risk of damage.
In this article, we'll discuss the multiple reasons why leaving effects pedals powered/on isn't optimal. Though the focus will be on the overall lifespan of the pedals, I'll briefly touch on the slight but notable economic and environmental impacts. With that, let's get into this article to help you take better care of your music and audio equipment.
A Primer On Effects Pedals & Power
Before we begin our discussion on keeping pedals powered when they're not in use, let's briefly go over why effects pedals need power in the first place.
Please feel free to skip ahead to the section Why Leaving Effects Pedals On/Powered Is A Bad Idea if you wish.
Put simply; effects pedals require power for their active components. Active components range from transistors, operational amplifiers, integrated circuit chips and diodes to the LED indicator lights that tell us whether the pedal is on or off.
These active components are required to effectively produce the effect(s) the pedal is designed for. They also help route the signal, buffer it (adjust impedance) and otherwise maintain adequate signal strength.
Note that there are some passive pedals on the market, but they are rare. In the vast majority of cases, pedals will require power.
Most pedals require 9V (9-volt) power, hence why many pedals have 9V battery compartments. 12V, 18V and 24V are other voltage requirements you may encounter. It's important that we power these pedals with proper power supplies/adapters (wall warts, power blocks, etc.) that match their voltage requirements.
Similarly, pedals will draw a defined amount of electrical current (measured in milliamps “mA”). We must ensure that the power supply can provide as much or more current for the pedal. A battery will cover these bases, as will the proper adapter for a given pedal. If you decide to daisy chain pedals together, ensure there's enough current to cover all the pedals' current needs.
Additionally, it's worth noting the polarity of the pedal. This refers to whether the centre pin of the pedal's power input is positive or negative. Most guitar pedals will have a negative center pin, but it's worth double-checking to ensure the polarity of the pedal and power source match.
Pedals will draw power when effectively “plugged in,” either via the audio input and/or output connection. Power must be drawn while the pedal is turned on, but it's also necessary when the pedal is bypassed (in true and buffered bypass designs).
To learn more about true and buffered bypass, check out my article What Does ‘True Bypass’ Mean In A Guitar Pedal?
If not, the momentary power-up time as a pedal is switched on/off will have ill effects on the pedal's performance, including short-lived silence, distortion, and even transient clips/pops in the guitar signal. Having constant power is essential for smooth transitions between engaging and disengaging the pedal.
Before we wrap this primer up, let's consider the common methods for powering effects pedals:
Powering Effects Pedals With Batteries
Many pedals can be powered by batteries. These pedals will have battery compartments built into their housing. Most often, these will be 9V batteries (since 9V is such a common voltage requirement among pedals). Some pedals will have alternate battery requirements (the Line 6 DL4 takes four DD batteries, for example). Some smaller pedals may not have an option for batteries whatsoever.
In most designs, the battery will be tapped into so long as the audio input (1/4″ jack) is plugged into. Other designs require the output or both the input and output to be connected. In many designs, the battery will be disengaged once the power input is plugged into.
Note that batteries corrode over time, and I wouldn't recommend storing pedals for any length of time with batteries. I had issues with my own DL4 (mentioned above) after storing it for a few months with corroding DD batteries.
Line 6 is featured in My New Microphone's Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use.
Powering Effects Pedals With DC Adapter
Many pedals will come with their own dedicated DC adapter, commonly referred to as a “wall-wart.” These adapters connect to the wall sockets and adapt the power mains (in voltage and current) for their particular pedal. Their polarity is, of course, matched to the pedal's polarity design.
These adapters are great for a pedal or two but become cumbersome when dealing with multiple pedals due to the need for an individual socket for each pedal.
Powering Effects Pedals With Daisy Chaining
Daisy-chaining allows one wall-wart to power multiple pedals in a row. This takes up less space and requires fewer wall sockets to get power to the pedals.
All the pedals within a single daisy chain must have the same voltage requirements to work together. Additionally, the power source must supply enough current to power all pedals. Remember that each pedal will draw its own current, so the power source of a daisy chain must be able to supply as much or more current as the sum of all the pedals' current requirements.
Powering Effects Pedals With Dedicated Power Supply
Dedicated pedal power supplies/blocks have isolated connections. Essentially, each DC output of a power block is its own circuit. This cleans up noise between pedals in the power circuit (though there will likely still be noise in the audio signal chain). It also allows a single power supply unit to power pedals with various power requirements.
With that long primer, let's get into the main part of the article.
Why Leaving Effects Pedals On/Powered Is A Bad Idea
Leaving pedals on when not in use isn't ideal. However, it's not the end of the world if you forget to turn them off now and again. That being said, turning pedals off (unplugging them) is generally a good habit to develop.
Note that, by “on/powered,” I mean the pedal is drawing power. As mentioned above, most pedals will draw power so long as their audio input jack is plugged into. Pedals do not only draw power when they are engaged!
There are three primary reasons why leaving effects pedals on isn't ideal:
So long as the pedal is plugged in and relying on batteries for its power, the batteries will be draining.
Remember that, for most pedals, the pedal draws power as soon as the audio input is plugged into. If the pedal isn't connected to a dedicated adapter-type power source, it will draw power from the battery.
So then, keeping a pedal powered will drain its battery. There's no need to continue draining the battery when the pedal isn't in use, so unplugging the pedal is a good idea.
Furthermore, as batteries drain, their voltage slowly drops. There will, of course, be a point where the voltage is too low to power the pedal. However, there will also be a range in which the battery underpowers the pedal, thereby causing the pedal to work at a limited capacity. This will likely alter the signal strength and the actual intended effect of the pedal.
Potential Power Surges
Electrical surges, outages, and brown-outs will cause abrupt disengagement of power and large transient spikes as the power is restored. These occurrences are risky and could cause significant damage to the circuitry of the effects pedals if they're connected to the power mains (via their power adapters).
If the pedals are disconnected from power (or powered via batteries), power surges will not have this damaging effect. Avoid this potential issue by disconnecting pedals when they're not in use.
Of course, power surges can happen when the pedals are in use as well. This is a risk we take regularly. Many dedicated pedal power supplies offer surge protection to add an additional layer of safety for their connected pedals.
Heat is another concern when powering effects pedals—leaving pedals on while not in use keeps them heated. Furthermore, you even prevent them from cooling after each use which could help protect their circuits.
Of course, pedals are built tough (they're known as “stompboxes,” after all). They're often resistant to physical abuse, humidity and heat. However, running electronics hot can potentially reduce their lifespan.
It Is Bad For Your Pocket
Second in line, after being bad for the pedals themselves, is that leaving pedals powered/on is also bad for your wallet. Though electricity is relatively affordable in most places, it still costs money. Leaving devices on will increase the power bill. Some gear consumes more electric power than others, but they all do when left on.
Idle Power Consumption Is An Issue Worth Addressing
According to a recent study by the Stanford Sustainable Systems Lab, the idle load of homes constitutes 32% of the entire household electricity consumption in the US. That's a lot of wasted energy.
Expanding further, we could save the planet some electricity-generating efforts with simple everyday changes like disconnecting our pedals when they're not in use. All the idle power being wasted must be generated by some other means, some of which are unsustainable.
Leaving effects pedals on when not in use might seem insignificant, but it does add to the bigger picture. For starters, it reduces the lifespan of your gear with heat and hours of use. Secondly, it hurts your pocket because you'll have to replace the equipment sooner and pay for extra electricity.
So, now you know, disconnect your pedals from power before you walk out of the practice space. Even better, consider powering down all the other audio equipment that doesn't absolutely need to be on.
Choosing the right effects pedals for your applications and budget can be a challenging task. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Effects Pedal Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next pedal/stompbox purchase.