How to Get the Right Surge Protector for Electronics

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Save your sensitive electronics from damage with the right equipment

A lot of electronics requires a lot of outlets. With a basic desktop computer, for example, you need an outlet for the monitor, CPU, speakers, wireless router, modem, printer, and any other gadgets you may wish to connect. Home theaters, too, can require multiple outlets.

While the typical solution is to get either a surge protector or power strip, these options have important differences to consider. Most surge protectors are also power strips, but power strips are not necessarily surge protectors. You’ll often find them in the same aisle at the hardware or store. But you should know the difference before buying.

While power strips are basically multi-plug extension cords, surge protectors are designed to keep electronic equipment safe from electrical surges or spikes.

Surge protectors work by diverting excess voltage into the grounding port of a wall outlet. Without this feature, the excess voltage would flow through all connected power cables and cause permanent damage to connected devices.

The effect of excess voltage can be obvious, like when a light bulb blinks out, or it can be more discreet, gradually weakening circuitry over time. Sophisticated gaming rigs with complex microprocessors may result in terminal failure if power surges or spikes are permitted.

An extreme example of excess voltage is a lightning strike. But you’re more likely to experience electrical surges and spikes when the local utility company switches power grids or has equipment problems. Even though they try to maintain a steady flow of electricity throughout, disruptions sometimes occur.

The most common instance of excess voltage is when there’s a shift in energy demand, especially if the building has old or bad electrical wiring. Ever notice lights flickering or going dim whenever the refrigerator, air conditioner, hair dryer, or other powerful appliance turns on? That sudden energy draw can cause a momentary surge to the demanding circuit and affect all connected outlets. In North America, anything above the standard voltage of 120V is considered excess. Smaller surges can happen anytime without signs or warning, yet still surpass a product’s normal operating voltage.

Surge protectors come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some attach directly to the wall and work like a surge protector outlet. Most others are equipped with a cable that can be anywhere between one to 12 feet in length. When choosing the right surge protector, you’ll want to make sure it has:

You won’t be doing yourself any favors by purchasing a six-outlet surge protector when you have 10 devices to plug in. The last thing you want to do is daisy chain another surge protector or power strip to make up the difference. That increases the risk of overloading the electrical circuit and it voids the warranty. If you’re uncertain as to the exact number of outlets you need, it's better to overestimate rather than underestimate.

Not all surge protectors are designed with power bricks in mind. Some power bricks are so bulky that they can block a free outlet (or two or three) when plugged in. Even if your current equipment uses standard two-prong plugs, it’s worth choosing a surge protector that has some outlets spaced apart. You’ll still be able to use them all now, yet retain the flexibility to handle any power bricks in the future.

A surge protector won’t do much good if it can’t reach the closest wall socket. Sure, you could use an extension cord, but doing so doesn’t guarantee full protection and often voids the product warranty. So when in doubt, choose surge protectors with the longest length power cable.

Product packaging is designed to attract attention while conveying information. This can seem confusing, what with all the specs and features. Focus on these ones first:

Many surge protectors offer an array of extra features. While nice to have, they can also bump the purchase price. More expensive doesn’t automatically mean better. Focus on needs first and make sure you don’t overlook the aforementioned performance ratings. It’s up to each buyer to decide whether or not these extras are useful:

As with most consumer electronics, surge protectors come with a manufacturer’s warranty that covers connected equipment up to a specified maximum dollar amount (which varies from product to product). Hopefully, you’ll never have to use it, but it’s always best to be prepared. Make sure you thoroughly read the fine print regarding the warranty coverage. Some claims require the surge protector, all the equipment connected to the surge protector (even if it wasn't damaged), and original receipts to be honored.

There’s usually a lot of exclusions, conditions, and limitations that need to be met before you’d see a dime, and full reimbursements are never guaranteed. You can also expect claims to take three or more months to process.

You should plan on replacing a surge protector every three to five years. You should do so sooner if it starts behaving erratically, or your house has major power issues.

Whole-house surge protectors go by the meter outside the house or at the circuit box on the inside. If you aren't sure how to install one, it's best to hire a licensed electrician, but generally speaking, they go between the main line coming into the house and the breaker panel that sends it throughout the building.

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