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Is That Old Surge Protector Enough?

written by: •edited by: Christian Cawley•updated: 6/18/2009

With many aging surge protectors lurking under desks, power strips masquerading as surge protectors, and the widening selection of home and small office UPS units, let’s take a look and see if your gear is safe from errant electricity?

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    When Unplugging is Not an Option

    Sure, we should unplug all of our electronic equipment every time we hear thunder in the distance; it is the safest thing to do as even the best surge protection can’t stop damage from a lightning strike if it is close enough. There are problems with this though; a cloud burst can occur very suddenly and a proper shut down takes time. Also, it is just not economically feasible for a lot of users to unplug and sit idle until the storm passes.

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    Big Zap or Little Zaps

    Furthermore, lightening is only one of many reasons that grid conditions can fluctuate, and the others generally come with less warning. Equipment failures, maintenance, and switching operations can have an instantaneous effect from hundreds of kms away. Finally, power is in some ways like water, and your electronic goodies enjoy a smooth, consistent flow. Much like neighbours and family members turning sprinklers and washing machines on and off will make you dodge and lunge for the taps in the shower as pressure and temperature change, possibly falling and injuring yourself in the process, your electronics’ power supply systems will be on the hop as they try to adjust the incoming power. That extra effort can affect the quality of performance and lifespan of your expensive and beloved gear.

    So you obviously need some form of protection, but before moving on to choosing a surge protector, a few notes on power strips, outlet splitters, and extension cords. The latter is a way to move power from point A to point B when you can’t reach an outlet from where you need the power, and an outlet splitter takes one or two outlets and splits them (hence the name) into 3 or more. Neither of them, nor combinations of the two (most common is an extension cord with three outlets) offer any protection against surges, spikes, or line noise. More confusing are power strips: a short extension cord with an outlet splitter is combined with an on/off switch, creating a device that looks a lot like a surge protector, but doesn’t offer any surge protection. These products all have their place when used safely and as intended by their manufacturers but it is important to remember that they are just moving and dividing power, not protecting your gear. The next section explains how to make sure you’re getting what you need when choosing a surge protector.

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    Surging Forward

    The most basic and affordable protection is a surge protector, most commonly offered in the form of a power strip and combining surge protection with a short extension cord and outlet splitting, though other models are available. Surge protectors that make up part of a dwelling’s or office’s wiring are a great first line of defense for your delicate equipment and offer protection to items that are either hard wired (lighting fixtures) or that wouldn’t have a local surge protector (toaster, electric razor, etc).

    These don’t necessarily replace a surge protector for your computer or home theater though, as they don’t protect against all surges depending on from where the surges enter the building, and even ones with good filtering properties allow noise to be reintroduced from other appliances in the building. Finally, these require installation by a qualified electrician, so we’ll focus on the type you can plug in for yourself.

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    Next Page: Choosing a Surge Protector

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    Must Have UL Markings

    When you choose a surge protectotor, the most basic requirement is an Underwriter Laboratories (UL) sticker or other marking referencing a Standard 1449, Transient Voltage Surge Suppressor, its acronym TVSS, or a combination of them. Note that in September 2009, there was a change in terminology as the standard moves forward with ANSI/UL 1449 approved plug-in type surge protectors, referred to as Type 3 Surge Protection Devices (SPD). Furthermore, some manufacturers may adopt the new standard early, so a UL mark referencing a Type 3 SPD is also acceptable. A UL sticker not mentioning those standards might only be approved as an extension cord or outlet splitter, so read carefully.

    The UL marking will also refer to a Clamping or Transfer Voltage, the point at which the surge protection kicks in and begins to send voltage away from your equipment and back through your building’s ground wire. Lower is better, 330 is best and 400 is acceptable. Another part of the UL listing is what kind of surges are dealt with; since surges can occur between any pair of Line, Neutral, and Ground wires, look for a listing that states all three pairs: L-N, L-G and N-G.

    Not part of the UL information, but still important is the joule rating, used to measure how quickly the unit can dissipate unwanted power. You should look for a unit that has about as many joules as the equipment you’re plugging into it has watts… 400 is suitable for a simple PC and peripherals. Another important statistic is response time, or how long the surge protector takes to begin protecting your equipment when the power is too high. Obviously, lower is better, you’ll want something under one nanosecond. Keep in mind that since these aren’t numbers from UL, manufacturers have lots of leeway in how they measure and present these last two numbers, so don’t get too excited about outstanding numbers on a $6 unit from a brand you’ve never heard of.

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    You Need to Replace Surge Protectors

    Surge protectors burn out with time, sacrificing themselves nobly for the good of your more expensive equipment down stream. Since you need to know when this happens so that you can replace the protector before the next surge comes along, get a model with a light that goes off or on (make sure you read the instructions so you know which) when its protection circuitry is burnt out. Note that if you have an older unit with a light indicating when power is on, and this light doesn’t turn on when it should or flickers while it is on, your equipment might be getting power, but it isn’t protected; the surge protection system is burnt out.

    With all of the basic features covered by many units that are widely available for under $20, there is no excuse for not protecting your equipment with a simple surge protector.

    But is there anything to gain from spending more than that? The next article discusses features of more expensive surge protectors as well as looking into Uninterruptible Power Supplies.

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    Sample contents.