9 things you should know about surge protectors

9 things you should know about surge protectors


March 25, 2015
by Geoffrey Morrison

Surge protectors are an inexpensive way to protect your gear against random power spike damage. They're not all the same. Here are a few tips before you start shopping.

Whether you're just looking to add more outlets, or want to add a layer of protection between your gear and the outside world, you'll eventually want to buy a surge protector.

With an incredible range of prices and features, not to mention a barrage of questionable marketing promises, it's hard to figure out what's worth the money, and what's nonsense.

To help you sort through it all, here are nine things you should know about surge protectors.

For a little background, check out what makes a good surge protector. This article is the spiritual successor to that piece, though we'll cover some similar ground.

1. Not all are the same.

Power strips and surge protectors (also called surge suppressors) are different. Typically, power strips are cheap, multi-outlet products that are merely an expansion of a wall outlet. These usually have a circuit breaker of some sort, but most don't offer any real "protection" from electrical issues. Some might have the barest level of protection, but they're all pretty much just like plugging into the wall direct.

Surge protectors offer some level of protection against power spikes. How much and how well varies considerably.

2. It's all about the joules.

Surge protectors offer protection in amounts called joules. Think of this like a reservoir of protection. If a product has 1,000 joules of protection, that means it can take ten 100 joule hits, or one 1,000 joule hit. Generally, the more joules the better.

How do you know how many joules a protectors has left, or if the rating is even accurate? Well, you don't. The Wirecutter did a massive test on surge protectors, essentially blowing them up to see how well they worked, to see if they could answer this question.

3. A warranty...on your stuff.

Some surge protectors offer a warranty (up to a certain amount) on the gear connected to the protector. For example, in the US, one Belkin model has a $300,000 Connected Equipment Warranty, and states: "If your electronic equipment is damaged by a surge, spike, or lightning strike while properly connected to this power strip, we will repair or replace it, up to $300,000."

You'll probably never need it, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have it. Belkin has similar warranties in effect for other products, but they vary by region.

Edit 7/31: As some readers mention in the comments below, just because the warranty exists, doesn't mean you'll ever see a dime from it. A good point.

4. A power "conditioner."

There are a number of products on the market that claim to "condition" the power from the wall, promising improved performance in your gear. Here's the dirty little secret: your gear already does this. All electronics have a power supply that takes the incoming wall current (110v in the US), filters it for noise, and converts it into whatever the device needs. Almost nothing actually runs on 110 volts (or alternating current, for that matter), so unless you've got some really wacky (or cheap) gear, and live in an area with bizarrely inadequate power, a power conditioner isn't something you need.

5. Always get more outlets than you need.

You're always going to need more outlets. You'll undoubtedly add more gear, without necessarily getting rid of your current gear. I'm not saying that if you think you need 4 outlets get a 12, but a 6 is probably a good investment.

6. Power spikes can come over any wire.

If you want total protection, consider that phone and cable lines can carry power spikes too. Some surge protectors have connectors for these as well.

7. USB is great, but check the amps.

Many surge protectors come with USB connections, so you can charge your mobile devices. Handy, for sure, but check what the output amp rating is. Generally, this is either 1 or 2 amps (often labeled 1A or 2A). This is how much flow you can get through the pipe, so to speak. For a mobile phone, 1 amp is enough, but for a tablet, you'll want 2 amps for quicker charging.

8. Get a portable power strip.

While not offering much protection, a portable power strip might prevent marital friction, and/or invoke bliss from travel companions. Most hotels and hostels have few accessible outlets, yet everyone has multiple devices that need recharging. Most portable power strips add two to three additional outlets, plus offer direct USB charging (see number 7!).

9. They don't last forever.

Remember the joule rating we discussed earlier? Well, it means that over time, a surge protector is going to wear out. Some will give you a warning when they do. Many won't. If you know you've had a serious electrical event (like lighting blew out a transformer down the street), it's probably worth replacing your surge protector just in case.
Bottom Line

There really is no reason not to get a surge protector. How much you need it will vary. If you live in an area with lots of thunderstorms, your gear is probably more likely to experience power surges. Even if you live in the desert, your A/C or refrigerator could kick power spikes back down the lines to your A/V gear.

Since most surge protectors are cheap, they're worth getting just in case.

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NEMA Surge Protection Podcast Series

The NEMA Surge Protection Institute (NSPI) is an educational outreach effort initiated by the Low Voltage Surge Protective Devices Section of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), a not-for-profit trade association. Our mission is to heighten awareness of the benefits of surge protection to all users of low voltage electrical systems in North America for the purpose of promoting proper application and usage.

This podcast series focused on low voltage surge protective devices:

Part 1: What is a surge protective device and how does it work?

Joining us today to discuss how these devices work is Jennifer Friedline, Associate Product Manager–Surge Protection Devices, with Thomas & Betts.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

Part 2: How does surge protection differ in residential, commercial, and industrial settings?

This is the second of a podcast series focused on NEMA’s Low Voltage Surge Protective Devices Section. Today we’re chatting with NEMA Northeast Field Rep Jack Lyons about why surge protection is important in settings other than residential. We’ll also discuss what a surge is and how it damages equipment.

Click here to listen to the podcast.


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Uninterruptible Power Supplies and Your Data Center

uninterruptible power lights

What exactly is an uninterrupted power supply? How do you know which UPS is right for your data center? These two questions prove to be pivotal when setting up a data center or a data room that will service the needs of your organization. When you use technology, the most important part of the equation is power. With out power or a steady stream of power, it can be impossible to deliver services reliably through out your organization.

Even computer hobbyists could gain from using a UPS in their environment. Servers, computers and most other electronic equipment thrive off an uninterrupted power source. Data centers are the number one customers for UPS devices. Why? Electricity delivered from utility companies doesn’t remain constant. A slight power surge, power sag or outage could be detrimental to your organization’s objectives.

Infrastructure equipment works best when it gets a steady, regulated source of power. This helps ensure the longevity of the equipment you are using within your data center. When devices such as SANs or other types of storage appliances receive inconsistent power, you are directly putting the integrity of your organizations data at risk. Having a UPS within your onsite data center is easily one of the first things a data center architect should look at implementing within the facility.

How can you determine the best UPS for your needs?

You must first determine what you actually have. UPS devices come in large, small and modular designs that will fit inside of racks or as a standalone appliance within a data center. You should research the specifications of the specific UPS device you are interested in purchasing so that you can gather enough information which will enable you to make an educated decision.

Another factor you should consider is whether or not your site has a generator that could kick in during an outage. Most UPS devices use lead batteries to keep devices running during a power outage. If you do not have a generator onsite, you may want a more robust UPS solution. If you have a generator on site and you know that the generator will repower your facility within 60 seconds, having a super robust UPS could be overkill.

Uninterrupted Power Supplies sometimes comes with a flywheel design versus the traditional lead battery model. There are pros and cons and many organizations only utilize the flywheel design based on space constraints or green energy endeavors. The flywheel spins and when power loss is detected, the energy generated from the wheels motion is used by the data center’s equipment. The fly wheel slows down thus indicating that the perpetual motion that keeps the flywheel moving is waning. The flywheel design is gaining more popularity because it leaves a much smaller environmental impact than the traditional UPS systems, especially within green data centers of the future.


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NEMA Launches Updated NEMA Surge Protection Institute Website


The website, home to the NEMA Surge Protection Institute, provides information and resources to residential, commercial, and industrial consumers related to surge protection.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association’s (NEMA) Low Voltage Surge Protective Devices Section has launched an updated version of its website, The website, home to the NEMA Surge Protection Institute, provides information and resources to residential, commercial, and industrial consumers related to surge protection.

Citing a recent survey conducted by the section in which 71% of respondents indicated that they purchased surge protection after surge damage occurred, the section’s Industry Development Committee launched a campaign to inform property owners about protecting their electronic devices from lightning or voltage surges.

According to Committee Chairman Tom Colcombe, the mission behind the website is to raise awareness of the benefits of surge protection to all users of low voltage electrical systems in North America. Educating users about proper application and usage is paramount to protecting these electrical systems.

The NEMA Low Voltage Surge Protective Devices Section encourages homeowners, building owners, business owners to use, and to share with others information learned about surge protection.


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KCP&L plans to install 1,001 more chargers for electric cars

SV green sign

KCP&L announced Monday that with one jolt it’s going to make the area one of the best places in the nation to drive an electric car.

The utility said it plans to install 1,001 public electric chargers in its Missouri and Kansas service territories — a 2,400 percent boost from the roughly 40 units now available. Each charger will be able to charge two cars at a time.

Public chargers are crucial to the success of electric cars because of “range anxiety,” the fear that a car’s battery power will be exhausted before reaching a destination. The chargers resemble a gasoline fuel pump but instead of hoses and nozzles, they have a cord and plug on each side

It will cost about $20 million to build the system, to be called the Clean Charge Network. KCP&L will ask state regulators to let it to recover the cost through its rates. If regulators agree, residential customers would pay an extra $1 to $2 a year.

But KCP&L noted that the extra revenue it would get from selling electricity for cars, which is also typically done when demand is off-peak, could eventually put downward pressure on rates.

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An electric car and charger were displayed Monday as KCP&L announced the Clean Charge Network of charging stations. A few of the chargers have already been installed in the KC area, and the entire network should be deployed by summer.

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A few of the chargers have already been installed in the Kansas City area, and the ambitious plan calls for the entire network to be deployed by summer.

Those able to take advantage of the program will get free charges for at least two years. For that period, the cost of the electricity itself will be shouldered by “hosts” such as movie theaters, shopping centers, grocery stores, restaurants and large employers where the chargers will be installed. The hosts will also provide space for the chargers.

The automaker Nissan has agreed to pay the tab over two years for 16 super-fast chargers that will be part of the network.

The Clean Charge Network will focus on the Kansas City area, where the bulk of the utility’s customers live. But the utility isn’t ignoring the rest of its territory. Clinton, St. Joseph and Sedalia are among other communities that will get the chargers.

“Wherever they live in our service territory they’ll be able to access this,” said Chuck Caisley, a spokesman for Kansas City Power & Light.

The plan also calls for building the electric infrastructure needed to supply the 1,001 chargers, which will allow the number of chargers to be easily doubled in the future if needed.

The only other state to have more than 1,000 public charging stations installed is California which has nearly 2,000, said Kelly Gilbert, transportation director at the Metropolitan Energy Center, using federal statistics. The only other state with more than 500 is Texas.

“This project will make Kansas City one of the best-equipped metropolitan areas in the nation to serve an electrified vehicle fleet, and sets us up to be a nationwide leader,” she said.

Terry Bassham, the president and CEO of KCP&L, said consideration about building the network began around six months ago after discussions about the low number of electric cars in the region. There are 260,000 plug-in electric cars in the U.S., and less than 1 percent are in this area.

“We are here to change that,” he said.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James and Ashok Gupta, program director for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, also spoke and praised the move. Gupta said electric cars are a definite boost for the environment.

Representatives from five automakers who sell electric cars also attended the announcement Monday. Automakers are eager to boost electric car sales because they will be increasingly needed to meet tougher fuel economy standards.

David Peterson, manager of electric vehicle infrastructure and business development for Nissan North America, said that because of the Clean Charge Network, electric car sales will rise here even with gas prices down. Though gasoline prices are about $1.75 a gallon in the Kansas City area, an equivalent amount of electricity is about 70 cents.

“We’re so impressed with KCP&L,” he said.

Nissan’s Leaf is the first plug-in electric car to top 30,000 in sales in the United States. Last year 30,200 were sold, a 23 percent jump over 2013. The Chevrolet Volt, Ford Focus, BMW i3 and high-end Tesla S are among the other plug-in models available, some with backup gasoline engines.

KCP&L is buying the chargers from ChargePoint, which will also manage the network. The California company manages 20,000 charging spots in what it calls the world’s largest and most open charging network.

Pasquale Romano, ChargePoint’s president and CEO, said the network in the area would be convenient and effective. A mobile app, for example, will locate the nearest chargers and their availability. The chargers will work on all electric cars sold in the U.S.

“It should be a big jump start for electric cars in the area,” he said.

The Clean Energy Network will have three to five chargers at each location — enough to fuel 6 to 10 cars — to help ensure one will be available when needed. Many locations have already been selected, although most have not been publicly disclosed.

At the news conference, there were hints that Harrah’s Casino, Starbucks and the Kansas City Chief will be partners in the project. It was confirmed that four Hy-Vee food stores in the Kansas City area will host chargers.

Some are already mulling the overall impact that Clean Charge will have on the area. Bob Marcusse, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council, said it is huge and as important as Google’s decision to bring its high-speed Internet service here.

“This sends the signal that Kansas City is on the cutting edge of technology,” he said.

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