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Updated by James Frew on 06/22/2017
Back when I didn’t know any better, I thought “surge protector” was synonymous with “power strip,” and I thought “power strip” was just a fancy multi-plug extension cord. Learn from my mistakes: they are not the same things! A surge protector is more than just an apparatus for turning one outlet into six — it plays an important role in electronic device maintenance, such as protecting your laptop.
Why are surge protectors so important and how do you know if you need one? There are a lot of options out there so it’s important to know what a surge protector does and how it works.
How Surge Protectors Work
Before we can define how a surge protector works, we need to define an electrical surge. Think of the flow of electricity as the flow of water running through a pipe. Water moves from one end of a pipe to the other end due to water pressure – water moves from high pressure to low pressure. Electricity operates in a similar way, moving from areas of high electric potential energy to areas of low electric potential energy. In this case, it’s from one end of a wire to the other end.
Voltage is a measure of this electric potential energy – more specifically, the difference in electric potential energy. When the voltage increases above the norm for at least 3 nanoseconds, it’s called a surge. If the voltage of the wire is too great – meaning the difference in electric potential energy from one end to the other is too high – then the electricity will surge through. This heats up the wire, and if hot enough it can burn, rendering it useless.
The surge protector has one job: detect excess voltage and divert the extra electricity into the grounding wire. This is why all surge protectors will have a grounding pin (the third prong on a plug) and all surge protectors must be plugged into a properly grounded outlet for them to work as intended.
What Is an Electrical Surge?
So what causes an electrical surge? Most people think that the main culprit of electrical surging is lightning, but that’s not true at all. Yes, lightning can and does cause electrical surges, but the voltage of lightning is so great that most surge protectors won’t be able to withstand their power. During a lightning storm, the only way to be absolutely sure that your devices won’t be surged is to unplug them.
The main culprit of electrical surges? Electrical devices that require lots of power to operate. Depending on the wiring of your home, you may notice at times that your lights flicker when powerful devices turn on and off, e.g. your air conditioner. If these devices are switched on, they demand a lot of electricity, which puts a lot of strain on the grid and can cause surges.
When to Use a Surge Protector
When should you use a surge protector? All the time. The real question is really which devices you should connect to a surge protector. You don’t need a surge protector for your desk lamp or your standing fan, but you do want a surge protector for expensive devices that have intricate microprocessors, like computers, televisions, stereo systems, and media centers.
Think of it this way: if there was an electrical surge that destroyed all of the devices connected to your outlets, which lost devices would pain you the most? Plug those into a surge protector. It’s better to be safe than sorry. On an offbeat note, surge protectors can be useful for reducing cable clutter and improving organization with your electronics. All of the cables end up being directed to the same destination, making it much easier for you to handle them all neatly.
Choosing the Right Surge Protector
It can be difficult finding the right surge protector for your needs at a good value, mostly because people don’t talk about it very often. What makes a surge protector good? And why are some surge protectors much more expensive than others? Are there any features you should be looking out for?
Surge protectors only have a limited lifespan depending on how often they are put to work. Even when the surge protector properly diverts a surge so your electronics aren’t damaged, the protector itself can be damaged in the process. One of the most important features then is an indicator light. An indicator light will let you know that your surge protector is working fine. Is the indicator light not working? Time to buy a new surge protector.
As for protection power, good surge protectors will come with a UL rating, a rating put out by the independent Underwriters Laboratories that tests the safety of electronic devices. Don’t bother with a surge protector that doesn’t have a UL rating. Also make sure that the product is a “transient voltage surge suppressor” as many UL-rated power strips still might not offer surge protection.
The clamping voltage is the measurement that prompts the surge protector to start redirecting the excess electricity away from the plugged-in devices. In other words, a surge protector with a lower clamping voltage will trigger earlier, thus better protecting your devices. Any surge protector with a clamping voltage below 400 volts should be good enough for home use.
This is the maximum amount of energy the surge protector can absorb. If the surge breaches this maximum, the surge protector will be rendered useless. The higher the joule rating, the more energy can be absorbed by the surge protector, so a higher joule rating will often indicate a longer lifespan for the product. For best household protection, you’ll want a surge protector with a joule rating of at least 600.
The response time is how long it takes for the surge protector to detect a surge in electricity. A lower value means a faster response. This reduces the time that your plugged-in devices are exposed to the surge, thus protecting them better. Ideally, you’ll want a surge protector with a response time of 1 nanosecond or faster.
Recommended Surge Protectors
If you need some help getting started with finding a good surge protector, here are some that we recommend. All of these have a UL rating of 1449, which is what you should be looking for.
Belkin’s 12 outlet surge protector comes equipped with an indicator light, a clamping voltage of 500V, a joule rating of 3940, and a response time below 1 nanosecond. It even comes with in-built cable management and Blockspace Outlets for oversized adaptors.
Another strong surge protector with 6 outlets, an indicator light, a clamping voltage of 150V, a joule rating of 790, and a response time below 1 nanosecond.
Here’s an interesting surge protector with only 1 outlet. It has two indicator lights — one for grounded, one for protected. It has a clamping voltage of 150V, a joule rating of 600, and a response time below 1 nanosecond.
Defending Against the Surge
The take-away? All electrical grids experience electrical surges, some more than others. These surges can damage electronics and surge protectors are there to keep those surges under control as much as possible. You’ll want to use surge protectors for complex and valuable electronics, such as computers, appliances, and media centers. Keep in mind that it’s not enough to have a surge protector; you need one that’s properly rated for your needs.
Do you use surge protectors? If not, why not? Have any interesting electrical surge stories to tell? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments!