Christmas is now past, and as the new year rolls in, it’s good to think about practical matters, such as protecting all the electronic equipment you just purchased. The reality is that every electronic device is at risk of damage through the very thing that powers it — electricity. Surge protectors can save your expensive electronics and appliances from electrical surges that will outright destroy the device or decrease its lifespan.
What is a Power Surge?
A surge means that the electrical voltage (the pressure behind the electrons) suddenly increases in the circuit. Think of it like plumbing: the electrons are the water molecules, the voltage is the pressure behind the water, and the circuit is the plumbing system as a whole.
In a plumbing system, the more pressure there is behind the water, the faster the water moves through the pipes and out your faucet. Likewise, the more voltage there is in an electric circuit, the “faster” (or more violently) the electrons move; the electrons have more force.
During a power surge, the voltage spikes for a short time — thousandths or millionths of a second. The surge can carry tens of thousands of volts. That high voltage (“pressure”) will damage electronics.
A large voltage spike will fry circuit boards, crash hard drives, and ruin electrical equipment of any size. A spike can even damage equipment when the equipment is not powered on but just plugged in. Smaller spikes do permanent, sometimes invisible damage to electronics by degrading performance and shortening their lifespan.
What Causes Voltage Spikes
Voltage spikes occur when power suddenly drops and spikes. These drops and spikes occur for many reasons, both inside and outside the house.
Power outages are one source for voltage spikes. The spikes occur as electricity cuts out and then suddenly returns. 58 percent of blackouts occur due to nature, with 27 percent from severe weather, 20 percent from fallen trees, and 11 percent from animals.
Specific sources for spikes include:
- Short circuits
- Tripped circuit breakers
- An appliance (such as dryers, air conditioners, etc.) turning on/off
- Lightning storms (within a mile)
- Damaged power lines
- Winds that cause power lines to touch
- Branches or animals that conduct energy between power lines
- Rolling blackouts
- A nearby factory suddenly increasing/decreasing power consumption
Surge Protectors vs. Power Strips vs. Circuit Breakers
Before going further, you should understand that surge protectors should not be confused with power strips. Power strips simply extend an outlet to provide additional plug ins for devices. They do not protect devices from voltage spikes.
You also should not confuse surge protectors with circuit breakers. Circuit breakers stop the flow of electricity through your home’s circuits when the amperage — not the voltage — increases. Amperage refers to the electrical current flowing through a wire. (If voltage is the pressure in a plumbing system, amperage is the flow of water.) Problems that cause the amperage to increase typically include overloaded circuits (too many appliances pulling electricity in one circuit), short circuits, and ground faults.
True surge protectors work by keeping voltage spikes from reaching the electronics they protect. When a spike reaches a surge protector, the device redirects electricity to the ground wire, which then directs the electricity to the ground, away from the circuit.
Types of Surge Protectors
There are several kinds of surge protectors. Each protects your home at different levels and offers different levels of protection. Whole-home surge protectors are the first type. They’re located between the power grid and your home. They protect your home from voltage spikes originating outside your house.
The second type is a surge protector that provides whole house protection but which is located between your meter box and breaker box. It likewise protects your home from outside spikes.
The third type of surge protector is a point-of-use protector. These protectors are the kind you’re most likely familiar with. They are located between wall outlets and your devices, and they offer protection from voltage originating both inside and outside your home.
When choosing specific surge protectors, know that not all surge protectors are created equal. Different models deliver different levels of protection. You can learn how well a specific model will protect your electrical systems by looking at its rating, measured in Joules (a unit of energy). A quality point-of-use surge protector will provide at least 1,200 Joules of protection. To protect higher-end devices, we recommend you look for a surge protector that’s rated for at least 2,000 Joules.
Besides the Joules rating, also look at a unit’s voltage clamping. Voltage clamping refers to the voltage at which the surge protector begins directing electricity to the ground wire. We suggest looking for a device with voltage clamping of 400 volts or less.
Also worth considering is a UPS. UPS stands for universal power source. A UPS surge protector provides a battery backup if the power goes out. The battery allows for safe shutdown and data backup. This type of protector is useful for computers and equipment that requires a shutdown procedure in the workplace.
Replacing Surge Protectors
Because surge protectors take the brunt of voltage spikes, they will not last forever. Whether a voltage spike damages a surge protector depends on how intense the spike is. The higher a surge protector’s Joule rating, the less likely a spike will damage it. But even small spikes will damage surge protectors over time.
Quality surge protectors have diagnostic lights that will let you know whether the surge protector can still offer protection or not. Depending on the model, a surge protector with diagnostic lights will tell you specific problems the unit encounters. Some protectors will also emit an audible sound when their components have been compromised.
If you own a surge protector without lights and which doesn’t emit a sound, you will want to replace it after a few voltage spikes to make sure the unit provides adequate protection.
It’s important to note, too, that your surge protector is as only as good as its grounding. Surge protectors work by shedding electricity. So, if your house does not have ground wiring, surge protectors cannot work. This is one among other reasons we suggest upgrading two-prong outlets in your home.
Surge Protector Cost
In 2016, insurers paid $825 million in lightning claims alone. Each of these claims averaged more than $7,500. Many of the claims, unfortunately, could have been avoided had the home or business owner installed adequate surge protectors.
These statistics highlight the cost of not protecting your electronics and appliances. Consider: a high-end surge protector costs less than $100 and can last years. A new Ultra HD TV costs hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
Also consider whole-house surge protectors. These units typically cost less than $300. Appliances they protect easily cost twice that, if not more.
If you want whole-house protection against voltage spikes that can cause thousands of dollars in damage, White’s Electrical can help. Our team of qualified, highly trained electricians can handle anything with electricity running through it, including your house. We’ll help keep your electronics safe. Contact us today with any of your electrical concerns.