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Surge Protectors - The Ins and Outs

By Matt Pecharich | August 8th, 2019/Home Audio and Video

If you have ever had any major electronics in your home, chances are you’ve used some form of surge protection. These essential pieces of equipment help protect your sensitive electronics from various forms electrical phenomena. However, we find that a lot of consumers don’t completely understand how surge protectors actually work. 

Here at Stereo and Video Center we suggest and/or include a surge protector in almost every quote we send out. Real surge protectors are not cheap, so we also have a lot of customers ask why they need it or why we can’t just use one they already have. This short article aims to explain why and go over the differences, as well as a basic understanding of how they work.

Distribution VS. Protection

Regular power strip

This is a power strip. It is NOT a surge protector.

We get this a lot more than most people would think. A customer will decline the $100 surge protector in our quote because they can go get one for $10 at the local store. When we show up to do the job they have purchased a power strip for us to use. 

A power strip (like the one pictured above) does nothing for actual “surge” protection. They very simply distribute power between components. If it gets hit hard by a huge surge or if a component plugged into the strip starts shorting out it may trip and turn off. This only offers very minimal protection though (mostly for the extremes, if even that). It’s not even recommended to plug small space heaters into them because they can’t handle the current and will MELT or cause a fire before they trip to turn off. 

For distributing power between a couple of appliances, phone chargers, lamps, etc.. they work fine. Sensitive electronic components (especially expensive ones) and anything with a high current draw should not be powered by these. They not only won’t protect anything, it can be dangerous as well.

Real Surge Protection: Why do you need it?

All of the surge protectors that WattBox has to offer.

Our WattBox line of surge protection has kept our customers safe for years.

When most people think of a power surge, the first thing that jumps to mind is lightning and severe storms. Of course these are the causes for a lot of the major surges we are accustomed to having. But it’s still only a part of the bigger picture.

Have you ever been sitting in your home and something that draws a lot of current kicks on? Likely culprits are air conditioning and heating units. When these kick on, you may have experienced the lights dimming for a moment in your home. Sometimes, especially in rural homes, the lights will stay dimmed until what is drawing so much current turns off. So this could last a few moments, or worse, minutes. 

This is essentially a localized “brownout” or “sag” where you have a reduction in the available power. Something else is drawing so much current it leaves the rest of the home lacking what it needs. Localized meaning it’s just your home, as opposed to an entire neighborhood or city experiencing brownouts and sags due to heavy use on the power grid (which is very common).

Brownouts and sags are double edged swords. Voltage dropping, especially on a daily basis, can wear out electronics prematurely. But when they are over and the voltage returns to normal there is a risk of the power spiking back up for a moment (a surge) before leveling off. It’s like a rubber band snapping back after being pulled. 

So not only is the initial drop hurting your electronics, the return to normal can hurt as well.

It must be said that the spike is more immediately dangerous than the drop, and is also easier to protect against with a good surge protector. They will also protect against what is known as “dirty power”. We won’t get into the technical aspects of what dirty power is, but a good analogy is just like we need clean drinking water your electronics need clean power. There are a lot of causes for it, especially in older homes. Bad grounding, bad wiring, old circuit breakers being overloaded, etc.. can all be causes.

This is why most good surge protectors also label themselves as power conditioners. 

But what about the brownouts and sags? Will a surge protector work for those? No, but we have you covered there as well.

Uninterruptible Power Supply: Your Best Protection

WattBox UPS surge protector.

WattBox offers several levels of UPS type surge protection and battery back ups.

Uninterruptible power supply (UPS) surge protectors offer all around protection. They keep the voltage powering your electronics from dropping during brownouts or sags by storing the power needed to maintain normal levels. The amount of time they can maintain the proper levels is indefinite, of course. Performance can vary depending on different applications and how much load is put on the UPS. 

There is also a difference in cost between a UPS and a standard surge protector. A more basic UPS (like the one pictured above) simply stores power to regulate proper voltage to your equipment. If you experience a complete power outage, there’s enough stored to give your equipment what we call a “soft” shut down. This is similar to why you go to “Shut Down” on your computer, not just pull the plug to turn it off. 

Electronics don’t like it.

A full battery backup type UPS will actually keep your electronics running. How long will depend on how much you have plugged into it and how much power each component draws. A bigger battery backup can keep a computer running for hours. While smaller ones may have enough juice to charge a phone up and keep your WiFi going for a while. 

For most applications, unless we know a customer suffers from a lot of brownouts, we suggest a good WattBox surge protector. Any installation we do involving our Control4 home automation or whole house networking however will require at least some level of UPS or battery backup. These components are much more sensitive to power fluctuations.

Can I reuse my surge protector?

600 series WattBox surge protector with OvrC.

The 600 series by WattBox offers 6480 joules of protection and OvrC control.

We have a lot of customers who have spent a lot of money on home entertainment over the years. Of course, to save money, some of them want to reuse what they spent so much money on. We are not against this, as long as it makes sense. But there is certain equipment that you really, really do not want to reuse. Surge protectors are one of them.

Here’s why..

Surge protectors come with an initial rating. This rating comes in the form of a unit of energy called a joule. A joule is equal to the energy transferred to an object when a force of one newton acts on that object in the direction of the force's motion through a distance of one metre.

….we’re smart here at Stereo and Video Center but we’re not confident we understand that either.

Dumbed down for all of us, even the one writing this, is that a joule is the measurement used to rate how big of a spike a surge protector can handle. The higher the joule rating, the bigger the surge you’re protected against. 

HOWEVER.. this is also incredibly misleading.

A surge protector is a piece of electronic equipment, and is therefore susceptible to the same thing it’s protecting you against. Except it’s the shield taking the constant battering while all of your electronics stay safely behind it. The joule rating doesn’t mean it just sits there waiting for a lightning strike so it can go out a hero in a blaze of glory protecting everything. It starts taking damage as soon as you plug it into the wall. Every small surge, brownout, and sag wears it down over time.

Now, there is no way to predict the life expectancy of a surge protector. Every home, location, and setup is different. You won’t even know it’s not protecting anymore. It will still work, but is basically turned into a simple power strip. So you need to replace them every now and then in order to be safe, and you definitely do not want to reuse one when buying new equipment.

Writer speaking here:

No surge protector no matter how expensive is going to protect against something like a direct or close to direct lightning strike. A bolt of lightning can have up to one billion volts of electricity and electricity follows the path of least resistance. Having multiple surge protectors throughout the home can help absorb and lessen the impact/damage, but there is never a guarantee when dealing with something that powerful.

Surges can travel through any wiring in your home. Electrical wiring, coaxial cable, ethernet (Cat6 or Cat5e) are all capable of carrying a surge that can damage equipment. Better surge protectors have connections to protect all of these. 

$200 to Protect $3000

Here at Stereo and Video Center we put a surge protector in almost every quote not to make you spend more money, but so you can enjoy the money you spend longer. We don’t suggest ever reusing surge protectors for the same reason. It’s one of the most important things to protect your investment.

As always, if you have questions or need a quote/consult, feel free to give us a call or contact us through the website! One of our experts will be happy to help.

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