What is a Surge Protector and Do I Really Need One?

Do you ever worry about your home appliances and electronics being zapped by a power surge? All of your home’s appliances and electronics are vulnerable to power surges. If large enough, a power surge can cause permanent damage to your personal electronics by frying the circuits or melting the plastic.

Power Surge

What Exactly is a Surge Protector?

A surge protector is a small appliance or device that has two main functions. The first is to provide the ability to plug multiple components into one single power outlet. The second, and the more important function, is to protect your electronic devices such as your TV system or computer from a high-voltage power surge. A power surge or spike is an increase in voltage above the designated level in the flow of electricity.

How Does a Surge Protector Work?

A typical surge protector passes the electrical current along the outlet to number of the devices plugged into the power strip. If the voltage happens to rise above the acceptable level, the protector will divert the extra electricity into the outlets grounding wire. Grounding wires run parallel to the hot and neutral wires. They provide a pathway for electrical current to follow should there be a breakdown in the system of hot and neutral wires that normally carry the current.

What is the Difference Between a Surge and a Spike?

When the voltage increase lasts three nanoseconds or more, it is called a surge. When the voltage increase only lasts for one or two nanoseconds, it is called a spike. That is it, that is the difference. However, those nanoseconds, just billionths of a second, can inflict some major damage on a machine if the surge is high enough.

What Usually Causes a Surge or Spike?

One of the most known causes is lightning although it is very uncommon. More common causes include the operation of high power devices such as air conditioners, elevators and refrigerators. The compressors and motors within them require a lot of energy to switch on and off.
When switching, it creates sudden, brief demands for power thus upsetting the current steady voltage flow. The damage typically occurs in the building’s electrical system and can be immediate if not protected or the damage may occur gradually over time.

Faulty wiring, issues with the utility company’s equipment and downed power lines are among the most common sources of power surges. Within the complex system of transformers and lines that bring electricity to your homes, there are plenty of possible points where an error could cause an uneven power flow resulting in an eventual power surge.

Is There a Difference Between a Power Strip and a Surge Protector?

It is important to note that not all power strips are surge protectors. While they look very similar, the sole purpose of a power strip is to add extra outlet space. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference if it does not come right out and say so. You can look at the packaging when you are figuring out what exactly you are purchasing. A surge protector should have a joules rating on it’s packaging.

Joules are the unit of measurement for energy. They measure how long your appliances will be protected. The numbers or joules work like a reservoir. Whenever the protector does its job, it takes a hit and the joules will diminish over time. Sometimes it can take just one massive surge to exceed it’s limits and sometimes it takes multiple little surges.

How Long do Surge Protectors Last? How do I Know When to Replace Them?

Keeping track of spikes and surges can help in knowing when to purchase a new protector. As mentioned, after a big hit, the amount of joules may be diminished and no longer able to protect your devices. It is also crucial to be aware of when your surge protector was purchased. A good surge protector can sometimes last three to five years (depending on amount/strength of surges). However, a common rule is to replace them every two years. This is because most will continue “working” without providing protection and without your knowledge that your devices are at risk. If you are lucky, your protector will give you some sort of warning or will shut off when their protection drops below a safe level.

Surge Protector

Can I Plug a Surge Protector into an Extension Cord?

Technically, you can, if the cord can handle the same amount of energy as the surge protector or better yet, more. However, you should not because it is a fire hazard. It should be noted that it is against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations as well against the National Electric Code (NEC).

What About Another Surge Protector?

Once again, plugging one surge protector into another is against OSHA and NEC regulations. It also defeats the purpose. The protection capabilities of a surge protector can be interfered with if another is plugged into it, possibly to the point where neither one can perform their job properly. Most warranties will also be voided if it is found out that the cause of the mishap was due to plugging them in on top of each other.

While you do not have to worry about plugging every light into a surge protector, it is a good idea to use them to protect your big, important gadgets from being fried during a power surge. For more information about power surges or surge protectors, please call us at (301) 605-9112.