‘Plugging in’ on surge protectors vs. power strips

Authored By Ashley Hopkins

With all the electronic equipment available in most homes and the fact that lots of it is concentrated together, most people need power strips, surge protectors or other devices for turning one electric outlet into a source for multiple plugs. It’s easy enough to run into a store and throw the cheapest multioutlet strip into your cart, but the decision should entail more careful consideration.

“Power surges have always existed. Appliances and products going into our homes, however, have changed,” said John Watts, senior supervisor of energy and communication services at EPB. “Sensitive electronic circuitry is appearing in more and more appliances in the typical American home. Also, the amount of electronic equipment in the home is increasing-DVD players, satellite TV, video games, stereo systems and personal computers are becoming commonplace.”

The cost for devices to handle this influx of equipment can range from $10 for basic power strips to over $100 for better-quality surge protection devices. Which one is right for you depends on what you’re plugging into them.

All this needs to be considered when choosing a new outlet device in order to avoid risk of ruined equipment, fire, blown breakers and more.

“Understanding the problem or need and knowing what options are available puts you ahead in the protection of your property,” Watts said.

Primary differences
A power strip is a block of sockets that allows multiple electrical devices to be powered from a single electrical socket.

“Power strips are often used when many electrical devices are in proximity, such as for audio, video, computer systems, appliances, power tools and lighting,” Watts said.

They are traditionally used to expand the number of electric outlets in a home, but the convenience of using them often encourages people to leave things plugged in all the time-so remember that lots of electronic devices draw energy even when not being used.

“Printers, DVD players, computers and plasma TVs are all examples of products with standby modes that make them convenient, but they consume power on the sly,” Watts said. “This so-called ‘phantom power’ drain costs you money, wastes electricity and ups your carbon output.”

Smart power strips shut down products such as these that go into standby mode, so they can save you serious cash over time. Experts estimate that standby power consumption in most homes ranges from 5 to 10 percent, which you could combat by unplugging gadgets-but if you buy a smart power strip, you don’t have to worry with that step. Also, smart power strips contain one or two outlets to plug in items that always need power, such as an alarm or cordless phone system.

Surge protectors are devices that protect the electrical devices plugged into them from voltage spikes. When voltage rises too high, surge protectors keep what is plugged into them from being destroyed.

“A surge protector attempts to limit the voltage supplied to an electric device by either blocking or by shorting to ground any unwanted voltages above a safe threshold,” Watts said. “The best application for a surge protector would be to have a whole house system installed at the main service panel and then add additional units at feeder panels downstream or at each plug device that needs protection.”

Making the choice
Before deciding between a power strip and a surge protector, or deciding between a more or less expensive surge protector, consider what you’re going to plug into it.

“You can just go all out and buy the best you can afford, but you’ll save some money by buying a surge protector appropriate for the equipment that you’ll use it with,” Watts said.

You’ll want a different amount of protection, and will probably spend a different amount of money, when choosing a device for relatively inexpensive items that are frequently and easily replaced, such as chargers.

And if a surge protector is what you need, make sure that’s what you’re buying. Power strips and surge protectors look alike, and that’s why a lot of people don’t realize the devices are different. Check for the UL seal on either device. 

“Make sure you’re informed before you buy, and read the back of the box or the product details,” Watts said. “You don’t want to invest in a surge protector only to find out that it’s far too weak to protect your devices.”

With a surge protector, you need an absorption rating of 600­­-700 joules or higher (the higher, the better) and a clamping voltage (which triggers when the protection kicks in) of 400 volts or less (the lower, the better). Also, see if the response time is included in the product description.

Why do you need to be concerned?
Every year, we see more and more “must-have” electronic devices introduced, so it stands to reason that the number of electronic and smart appliances in the home will continue to increase. Although it’s fine to plug some of the least expensive of these into power strips, surge protectors are definitely needed for your pricier items.

Power cords aren’t the only items that need surge protection-communication and data cables can carry surges, as well. For complete protection, look for a surge protector that includes inputs/outputs for each power/communications line leading to your electronic devices.

“The electronic circuitry is getting more dense and compact, making the circuitry more vulnerable to damage from power surges,” Watts said. “Equipment and appliances are becoming more interconnected with one another, and more connections will be made with phone lines and coax cable lines.”

This basically means that the costs associated with damage from power surges will continue to rise in the future-and it’s not absorbed solely by insurance companies, as the damage incurred is not always enough for them to step in, or the damage isn’t covered or has coverage limitations in most policies. Surge protection plans are often sold separately-and should be considered, according to Watts.

Some surge protectors do offer warranties in the unlikely event that a power surge does get through, so check to see if the one you are thinking of purchasing does and what is or isn’t covered.

John Pless is the public relations coordinator at EPB.

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