If you own a home computer, it’s probably plugged into a surge protector right now — or at least it should be. But what exactly is it protecting you from?
Surge protection is what stands between your electronics and a power surge — a sudden spike in the electrical current flowing through your home’s circuits. Power surges are more common than you might think, occurring dozens of times per day in most homes. Most of those surges are too small to cause immediate damage to electronics and appliances, but that doesn’t mean that damage isn’t taking place.
Where Do Power Surges Come From?
Most power surges originate within your own home. When a large appliance like your air conditioner or refrigerator kicks on, it draws a quick burst of electricity before settling at a lower wattage. That burst can continue to flow through the circuit and into other appliances and electronics plugged in throughout your home.
Power surges can also come from the electrical lines leading into your home, and these surges are often more powerful. They can occur as the result of faulty transformers, downed power lines or lightning strikes. Power surge damage from lightning is one of the rarest sources but also the most damaging, as lightning strikes can transmit millions of volts into nearby power lines.
How Does Power Surge Damage Occur?
When a surge of electricity enters an appliance or device, it generates heat in electrical components. Large power surges can produce arcing electricity inside a device, which not only produces intense heat but can instantly scorch circuit boards and other sensitive electronics. Even if a power surge doesn’t cause immediate, noticeable damage, the tiny heat-causing surges can be a source of gradual wear-and-tear on your devices that can shorten their lifespans.
What are the Signs of a Power Surge?
A few signs could mean your appliance or device experienced a power surge:
- The device’s clock or lights are flashing
- The device is off and/or will not turn on
- There is an acrid, burnt odor around the device or power source
- Your surge protector requires resetting
How to Prevent Power Surge Damage
Using surge protection adapters and power strips can be an effective way of safeguarding your most sensitive devices from the everyday surges that occur within your home. But it’s important to keep in mind that not all surge protectors are created equal, and no surge protector lasts forever.
When shopping for a surge protector, pay attention to joule ratings. Weak surge protectors may be rated for 100 joules or less, while the most powerful models are rated for several thousand. Surge protectors with higher joule ratings are more capable of absorbing larger surges, as well as a larger number of smaller surges.
You should also think of joules as being “consumed” by power surges, because even the best surge protectors will be worn down with use and age. A good surge protector will have an expiration date and some type of indicator that shows when it is no longer actively protecting. If the indicator light suddenly goes off after a lightning storm, that’s a strong sign of a power surge — and a sign it’s time to buy a new surge protector.
Using surge protection strips isn’t the optimal strategy, however. Whole-home surge protection, which is installed directly to your circuit panel by an electrician, can protect your appliances and electronics from massive lightning-related surges that would fry most surge protection strips. It will also provide protection to large, 240-volt appliances like your refrigerator, washer and dryer.
If you have a lot of valuable electronics plugged in around your home, whole-home surge protection is the best defense. But if you stick with the power strips, be sure to choose a high joule rating for your most important electronics and replace the strips when they stop providing protection.