My college roommate would often frustrate me to no end when, during an approaching thunderstorm, he would hastily run around our dorm room and unplug the television, stereo, and computer. An electrical engineering student, he advised me on the myriad of damage that could engulf our technology-enhanced room should lightning strike nearby.
It wasn’t until last year, however, that I realized just how prescient his advice was. The unlikely occurrence of two lightning strikes befell a neighboring condo building, and each time, residents hauled out a veritable mountain of televisions, computers and appliances to the curb.
Most people don’t realize the prevalence of power surges in our electrical system. A typical home will receive over 2,000 transient electrical surges every year, and most of them are from everything but lightning. Accidents, nosy animals, and human error account for more, but the biggest culprit is actually inherent in the power grid itself.
A Brief Lesson in Electricity
Almost all of what we know as the creature comforts of home (here in North America) rely on exactly 120 Volts of electricity to operate. That electricity is generated at a plant often dozens of miles away, sent out in higher voltage amounts, then reduced and routed different ways until it reaches our house. The system, though largely reliable, is still a delicate one. Though our modern machinery can produce relatively consistent output, little variances do occur, and the process of switching power stations can easily alter output. Imagine riding a bicycle and having to constantly produce exactly 120 revolutions per minute, and then switching off with a different cyclist periodically.
Before calling and complaining to your local electric company, however, you should know that this is the way it has been since Westinghouse first strung wires across the country, and it’s the way it will be for quite some time. The reason it is now more of a concern is because the equipment we need electricity to run has become more complex and fragile. As microprocessors and circuit boards have gotten smaller and more intricate, they have also become more susceptible to what is known in the industry as “transient surges.”
Surge Protection- an Insider’s Perspective
For years, outlet strip surge protectors have been the primary defense against transient surges. Ranging in price from $5 up to $200, the old adage “you get what you pay for” generally holds true. Surge protectors utilize various methods to discharge the extra voltage, most of which result in the surplus being diverted to the ground wire (the third prong on heavy-duty electrical plugs), which is why clipping off or otherwise subverting that third prong is quite dangerous. Some also include fuses that act as a backup. As can be expected, the more complex the surge protector, the more expensive it will be, but the more protection it will provide.
Most outlet strip surge protectors are limited in their capabilities, and therefore are really only ideal for protecting against very minor surges, like ones that originate from inside your home. Larger appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners that periodically turn on and off create unexpected load needs on your home’s electric system. Though the surges they cause are typically minor, over time they can cause damage to sensitive electronic equipment, especially computers. Outlet strip surge protectors are invaluable for this purpose.
When shopping for an outlet strip surge protector, be sure it is UL (Underwriters Laboratories) listed as a “transient voltage surge suppressor.” Though this will not guarantee a certain level of performance, it does guarantee the device does function as a surge suppressor and operates safely. The UL listing is often found on the box and as a sticker or tag on the device.
The Big Picture
Even with a complete lineup of outlet strip surge protectors, all of your hardwired appliances such as ovens, dishwashers, air conditioners and dryers are vulnerable to higher surges. Surge arrestors, installed next to the home’s circuit breaker, provide protection for all of the electric lines in the home. These devices have the added benefit of protecting everything in the house, from the bathroom night light to the widescreen plasma television. Recently, competition among the home protection market has heated up and prices have come down. Intermatic, known for industrial quality surge suppression systems, offers a PanelGuardâ protector installed for as little as $150. Additional models offer protection for coax cable lines and telephone lines, which can also transmit electrical surges into the home and damage equipment.
When shopping for a surge arrestor, ensure it is UL1449 listed (Underwriters Laboratories’ certification of safety for surge suppression systems), and choose a manufacturer that backs up their product with a warranty on the equipment connected to their surge arrestor. This indicates a commitment to their product and its reliability.
Though some skeptics might counter that their home insurance policy will cover any losses, be sure to factor in any deductible you would pay in the event of damage. Additionally, the repeated barrage of small surges, though proven to shorten the life of electronic equipment, is hard to prove to an insurance company and will likely be tossed out, along with your broken television and computer.
For about $500, a home can be protected from virtually everything but a direct lightning strike (most consumer protectors max out at about 6,000 to 20,000 volts while a bolt of lightning generates millions of volts). A surge arrestor placed next to the circuit panel will protect the entire house from external surges while outlet strip surge protectors for computer and entertainment equipment will offer added protection from internal surges caused by other appliances.
For 100% protection, however, the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) recommends unplugging the most sensitive appliances and electronic equipment during a thunderstorm, proving that some of the most applicable knowledge gained through my collegiate career originated in my own surge-protected dorm room.