Here’s why you need a reliable surge protector in your home.

The typical home in the Pittsburgh area has a variety of electronic devices that embody a hefty financial investment for those homeowners. Lightning strikes offer a severe risk to these devices, and most home insurance policies don’t cover appliances damaged due to lightning or another type of power surge. Many homeowners, therefore, attempt to protect their equipment by providing surge protection to their homes.
Here’s how surge protectors work to safeguard your appliances and how you should use them safely.

To begin, what is a power surge?

To better understand how surge protectors work, you need to understand what power surges really are.

A power surge is simply an increase in the amount of voltage flowing through electrical devices that exceeds the standard voltage level of 120 volts. Surges can be caused by many things, such as high-powered devices, bad wiring, or a problem with your utility company’s equipment.
You may not realize a power surge has happened until a device suddenly stops working. In fact, your home may experience hundreds of electrical surges every year, often without any damage.
Everyday causes of power surges and spikes can consist of restoration of power after an outage, downed power lines, electrical grid failures or accidents, on/off cycling of large appliances, wiring faults, tripped circuit breakers, and lightning strikes.

However, unusually large surges, which are triggered principally by lightning and temporary interruptions resulting from storm damage, are the most dangerous and result in the most amount of damage.

The added voltage in both surges and spikes produces additional heat that can badly damage or totally destroy the circuit boards and other crucial components in electronic equipment. Power surges can also heat up wires and components in your electronics, similar to a light bulb filament, and cause them to burn out. Even when surges do not destroy an electronic device, they can place added strain on internal components and cause them to fail earlier than anticipated.

What basically is the danger of a power surge?

Generally, your electronic home devices are designed to handle 120 volts of AC power. The reason is that regular outlets supply that amount of energy. But with a power surge, the voltage can be without limits. It’s only natural for electronic devices to get damaged if they receive such a high amount of current.

If this spike isn’t contained, it can form a dangerous arch. This high voltage arch can cause heating, melting, and eroding of other appliances, plus wiring. In a worst-case scenario, they might even catch fire.

The fact is, most power surges are relatively minor. But lightning strikes and downed power lines are examples of external events that can create major power surges that can devastate your electronic equipment.

This is where a surge protector comes to the rescue!

What exactly is a surge protector?

A surge protector, also known as a surge suppressor, is a device that safeguards electronic equipment from unwelcome power surges or “spikes.”

Generally speaking, surge protectors identify when a surge of excess electricity takes place and sidetracks this excess current to a property’s grounding path. As noted above, if a surge happens and there’s no surge protector in place, this excess current can cause electrical lines and appliances to burn up and can even, in some instances, trigger an electrical fire. Surge protectors protect both your home and your appliances from damage and danger.

How are surge protectors and joule ratings related?

You’ll note that surge protectors have an amount of protection measured in joules. This joule rating indicates how much energy the surge protector can absorb before failing. This may well be the most important factor in choosing a surge protector –the higher the joule rating, the greater the level of protection it can offer by handling a single large power surge or several smaller surges.

For small electronics, such as clocks and lamps, up to 1.000 joules is fine. Power tools and printers need something between 1,000 and 2,000, while computers and TVs will require a rating of 2,000 joules or more.

When should I use a surge protector?

Whether or not you require a surge protector depends on the specific devices you’re plugging in. For example, there’s no purpose in plugging a lamp into a surge protector because the only thing a power surge running through a lamp may possibly do is burn out its lightbulb.

Conversely, it’s critical to use a surge protector with your computer. Laptops and desktop computers are equipped with voltage-sensitive components that a power surge could damage. Minus a surge protector, a power strike or power surge could reduce the life of your computer, remove all of your data, or even totally fry the device.

Any electrical device with a microprocessor, such as PCs, dishwashers, and some refrigerators, is at serious risk of damage if a surge protector does not protect them.

How does a surge protector work?

Electricians use an everyday analogy to illustrate surge protection to a layperson. Think of the electrical wiring in your home as a water hose. Voltage is the equal of water pressure in that hose, and amperage is the equivalent of the flow rate – the amount of water passing through the hose. Too much pressure in the hose can cause it to burst. Such bursts – or power surges – can result in cumulative damage to your electronic devices and even outright destroy them if the surge is powerful enough. A surge protector detects this excess pressure and diverts it.

A surge protector can very well be compared to a type of pressure-reducing valve. It bleeds excess voltage “pressure” into the ground.

Will a surge protector stop lightning?

This is perhaps one of the most asked questions. When lightning hits the earth, a power line or a building, nearly all the energy flashes to the ground or is shunted through utility surge arrestors. The residual energy that goes into the building’s AC power system is termed surge current. When connected to a properly grounded AC outlet, a surge protector can stop surge current from damaging connected equipment by redirecting surplus voltage to the ground. If the surge is large enough to damage the surge protector’s internal protection circuitry, it may need replacement.

Direct lightning strikes are rare. If they cause unease, a lightning arrestor can offer added protection against this type of event. However, when all is said and done, the best protection against thunderstorms: unplug your electronics.

What about line noise?

Surge protectors also protect against line noise. Line noise is caused by electromagnetic interference (EMI) and/or radio frequency interference (RFI), usually created by running other equipment on the same electrical system.

For example, line noise may arise from turning on fluorescent lights or a laser printer or using a generator or large appliance. People may identify this as audio static or video snow.

Why should you look for a whole-house surge protector?

When most of us think of a surge protector, we think of a point-of-use surge protector. These units are power strips that plug into a wall outlet and through which you can plug multiple other devices and appliances depending on how large the surge protector is. These types of surge protectors are okay for smaller appliances and such.

However, to obtain the level of protection required for a typical home during a lightning strike or downed power lines, you need to consider investing in a whole-house surge protector.

Here’s why. Not long ago, an electrical contractor in Massachusetts was halfway through the job of totally rewiring a 3,200-square-foot house when the owners opted to save a few bucks and not install whole house surge protection against surges from lightning and downed power lines. They deemed the power strip surge protectors to be more than enough.

Sure enough, soon after the rewiring job was completed, the contractor got a phone call from the distraught owners: Lightning had struck a utility pole near their house, sending a tidal wave of voltage through the wires, past the main breaker, and into the house.

Exclaimed the homeowner, “It burned out the motherboard in the refrigerator, fried the temperature controls in the oven, killed six dimmers, two computers, and every GFCI plug in the house!”

The fact is, not all surge protectors live up to their name; some are a bit more than glorified extension cords. Second, a surge will follow any wire into a house and threaten televisions, satellite systems, computers, fax and answering machines, plus much more.

A whole-house surge protector instantly blocks the surge from entering home circuits to provide more comprehensive lightning protection. Installed by a qualified professional electrician at your main electrical panel, it continuously “sniffs” incoming electricity before it enters household circuits. If it detects a surge, the device automatically diverts the dangerous high voltage into the ground rather than letting it enter the houses’ circuits.

One more thing: Any type of surge protection is only as useful as the grounding to which it has access. The vast majority of modern homes are well-grounded and can easily put in whole-house surge protection.

However, if you reside in an older home that lacks proper grounding or has inadequate wiring, you will most likely need to upgrade those home characteristics before any surge protection is effective.

Companies that install whole-house surge protection often will complete a wide-ranging electrical inspection first. They can then discuss any inadequacies that must be corrected before moving forward with the homeowner.

How do I choose the right surge protector?

Since we’ve discussed the science behind surge protection, it’s also essential that you recognize what you should be looking for when purchasing a surge protector. Consider the following points and ask yourself:

  • Does it have a UL seal? This means that the item was tested by Underwriter Laboratories agreeing to nationally acclaimed safety standards, and it is categorized as a transient voltage protector.
  • What is the clamping voltage and energy absorption rating? This is the level of energy a surge protector can handle before failing. You want that number to be at least 600-700 joules. This clamping voltage is how much voltage it takes to trigger the MOV. You’re going to want this to be at most 400 volts.
  • What are the warranty details?
  • Does the device have an indicator light?

Okay, there are many various types of surge protectors. And they vary in price, style, phone line protection, and voltage handling capacities. Whichever one you do choose, you must be sure that the surge protector has been tested and listed for the stringent requirements of UL 1449, the standard for transient voltage surge protectors.

Your local surge protection experts in Pittsburgh

Phillips Heating & Air Conditioning has served the Pittsburgh region for over 40 years. Our team of professionals installs leading-edge surge protection systems and can tailor your equipment to your particular home. We also offer a wide variety of other electrical services related to whole-house backup generators, electrical panels, electrical repair, and lighting installation, among other services.

Contact us online or call us today to learn about our many electrical services.