Reader Question (George): David, between my personal and work technology needs, I’ve got some pretty expensive computer equipment at home. How important is it that I use a surge protector rather than just plugging everything into a standard wall socket?
David Bodner Answers: Most people don’t think twice before plugging in their computers or other expensive electronic hardware directly into a power socket. Others might use a power strip if only for the sake of convenience, but these are not always the same thing as a surge protector. However, you should always get into the habit of using a proper surge protector to keep your electronic equipment safe, and the following explains why this is the case.
What Are the Risks?
All of the power outlets in your home or office are designed to provide a consistent current and voltage of electricity, and anything which you plug into them relies on this fact. Power surges can happen in any country, although they more often happen in places with less reliable electrical grids. When a power surge happens, the voltage can suddenly increase. In many cases, a power surge is completely beyond the control of the electricity grid.
Power surges often happen during lightning storms, although they may also be down to electrical faults in the region. When a power surge or spike occurs, any electrical equipment connected directly to a power outlet may be instantly fried by the excess voltage. Some electrical items, such as kitchen and bathroom utilities, are quite resilient and will rarely be damaged by such power surges. However, more delicate electrical equipment, such as computers and home entertainment systems, are often far more sensitive. While your home insurance might cover you for such an eventuality, you could still find yourself with a completely dead computer along with a fried hard disk which once contained all of your files. For this reason, you should take extra care to minimize the risk of this happening.
Why Surge Protectors Help
Most power outlets do not provide any protection against power surges. A cheap power strip, which provides you with the convenience of being able to connect multiple items to one power outlet, is also not likely to have a surge protection facility. When shopping around for a surge protector, be sure to review its specifications to determine whether or not it actually provides protection against unforeseen voltage increases.
A surge protector works rather like a fuse. When the current running through it surpasses the safe maximum, it will protect your equipment by diverting the power elsewhere. However, unlike a fuse, a surge protector should generally not break during a typical power spike. There are also smaller surge protectors available designed for those travelling with laptops, phones or tablet computers.
You should be prepared to spend a bit of money on a decent quality surge protector, since cheaper ones from lesser known companies are often not likely to provide adequate protection. A suitable surge protector should also come with a warranty which guarantees that you will be covered in the event that any electrical item connected to it is still damaged or destroyed by a power surge. Reputable manufacturers often cover you for several thousand dollars of damage, and the only reason they are prepared to offer such generous warranties is that the devices virtually never fail without warning.
Replacing Surge Protectors
Surge protectors have their lifespans reduced during power surges, although they should not actually stop working for quite some time. When the components which protect your electronic hardware eventually wear down, the surge protector will no longer be as effective. If you live in an area which is particularly prone to power surges, you will need to replace your surge protectors more frequently. Most surge protectors provide lights or even alarms which indicate whether or not your electrical items are still protected. This will tell you when you need to replace the device.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell how long a surge protector will last, particularly if it provides no indication as to when it ceases protecting your hardware. Most surge protectors are guaranteed for a certain amount of time, though it is still good practice to replace them after a particularly severe power spike, such as those caused by a major lightning storm.
The opinions expressed above are solely those of David Bodner.
Questions and Answers: Once every few weeks (or months!), David answers reader questions from the David Bodner Product Reviews mailbox. Readers can send questions via social media or by emailing David directly.