Know what to look for when choosing a good surge protector

By JAMES & MORRIS CAREY For AP Newsfeatures
Friday August 31, 2001

Back in the ’80s we built a 4,200-plus square-foot home for our cousin. It had every imaginable feature and convenience: Multiple furnaces, a 400-amp main electrical service, a built-in intercom system, built-in ice maker, indoor barbecue, upscale everything. You name it, this house had it. About five years ago lightning struck, and everything in this magnificent home got cooked: televisions, radios, the computer and appliances — even the built-in intercom system. 

There are things that you can do to help prevent the same thing from happening to you. Lightning isn’t the only form of electricity that can damage appliances and electronics. Blackouts, brownouts and surges of power associated with them can be equally devastating. Even small surges or spikes eventually can destroy or affect the performance of expensive electronic equipment such as computers, phones, faxes, television sets, VCRs, stereos and microwaves. 

Damage can occur instantaneously or over time; smaller surges cause the gradual deterioration of sensitive circuitry. The common use of microprocessor chips has increased the need for surge protection because these chips generally are highly susceptible to voltage fluctuations. 

Surges and spikes result from an increase in “normal” electrical line voltage. This often is caused by a sudden change in or demand for more electricity, such as turning on a large appliance, garbage disposal, a/c, washer/dryer, etc. A surge typically measures less than 500 volts and lasts less than two seconds. A spike, on the other hand, is much shorter in duration — less than one-1000th of a second — but can measure into thousands of volts. 

Either event can damage electronics beyond repair. Besides change in demand for electricity, everyday electric utility company switching and maintenance can produce damaging electrical surges on your power line. Lighting, blackouts and brownouts are only part of the problem. 

Surge protectors act like an electrical sponge, absorbing dangerous excess voltage and preventing most of it from reaching your sensitive equipment. And like a sponge, surge protectors have a limited capacity. Once the capacity is reached, the unit no longer is protecting your equipment and it should be replaced. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) rates surge protectors by amount of voltage protection. The lower the rating, the better the protection. The lowest UL rating for this voltage known as “clamping voltage” is 330 volts. 

A few things to look for — and look out for — when purchasing a surge protector: 

• Three-line protection — Surges can occur between hot, neutral and ground lines. Choose a unit that protects along all three lines. 

• A fuse or circuit breaker — Stops the flow of electricity when a circuit is overloaded. and is not related to surges or spikes. 

• Cheaper surge protectors are not designed to handle the higher voltage variety of spikes. 

• Response time — Find out how fast the surge suppressor can react. The faster the better. 

• Cable line protection — Coaxial cable lines can carry surges and spikes. For complete protection of your television/VCR, you should protect the cable line as well as the power line. To protect this equipment, select a surge protector with coax line protection. 

• Digital satellite line protection — Digital satellite lines can also carry surges and spikes. These lines, however, cannot be connected to standard coax cable jacks. Choose a surge protector with specially designed digital satellite jacks. 

• Phone line protection — Surges can occur on telephone lines. Phones, answering machines, fax machines and modems can be damaged from surges on phone lines. To protect this equipment, select a surge protector with phone-line protection. 

A joule is a measurement of energy. The joule rating on a surge protector indicates the amount of energy or “over voltage” that that device is capable of handling. The higher the joule rating, the better the unit and the longer it will last. The joule rating is determined by the total number of MOVs (metal oxide varistor). An MOV is a component in surge protectors that absorbs excess electrical energy and holds the voltage to a safe level. The more MOVs the better. 

As computers get smaller and electronics become more pervasive in our homes, the need for spike and surge protection increases exponentially. Whether it’s lighting or a glitch at the power plant, you don’t want outside forces damaging your property. 

For more home improvement tips and information visit our Web site at www.onthehouse.com. 


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