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Nine things you need to know about surge protectors

Aug 01, 2014 03:44AM ● By Paul Spear

Being clear about what is and isn't a surge protector is the first step to ensuring the safety of your electronics and electrical devices. First you need to know that a surge protector is not a power stripalthough a low-end model may look like a power strip. A power strip just provides extra spots to plug in your appliances. A surge protector gives you protection against power spikes and much more. However. Not all surge protectors are the same,

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 the following before you buy!

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.
1a. Some even come with “Green” features now. This “Green” Feature can save you over $100’s a year. Any appliance plugged into an outlet is still using or drawing a small amount of current even if turned off 24 hours a day. However, most “Green” surge protectors are designed to turn off the electricity to that device when it is turned off. It won’t make you rich but it does add up over a period of time and is worth looking into.
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 the protection you get.
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 for your trips.
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
If you live in a house built more than 20 years ago, the wiring will be old and a surge protectors are strongly recommended. Have you ever plugged in two appliances and the same time and blow a fuse, you need surge protection. 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 if you nut the correct product.  It’s like changing the oil in your car, if you don’t plan on owning it long who cares, but if you are looking at making it a long term investment, I strongly recommend getting a good one. Later on we will talk about UPSs (Uninterruptible power supplies) but that is for another day.

Lastly, where you buy this equipment can save you a lot of money!  Find the surge protector you want or maybe a choice of 2 or 3 to consider. Pick them and then go out and do your price shopping. It can save you a fair amount and make your research well paid for!



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