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What are Surge Protectors and Power Strips

Surge protectors are technology designed to protect devices receiving power from electrical harm. The consumer electronics most likely to receive electrical damages are the personal computer (PC), the television (TV), and the videocassette recorder (VCR). Fancy telephones and accessories such as answering machines with their own power cord may also become damaged.

Types of harm that can occur are electrical surges, brownouts, and spikes. Surges are temporary raises in voltage that may be out of the consumption range of the device using the power. Brownouts are drops in voltage that reduce the voltage available to the device. Spikes, normally called “power spikes,” are rapid rises and descent of voltage that can also harm or burn out the device consuming power. Lightning can induce a surge or spike on electrical lines and other wiring as well.

Power strips are simply metallic-based or plastic and rubber-based covers that give access to extra electrical outlets. Extra outlets means the ability to temporarily plug in more devices for electrical power, keeping them ready for use at a moment’s notice. Power strips are usually in “strip” form, with multiple electrical outlets provided in a single line, contained in a metallic or plastic/rubber enclosure shaped like a thin rectangle box. Power strips are meant for temporary installation only and it is usually recommended to install more permanent electrical wiring where power strips are commonly required.

Surge protectors may also have the same appearance as a power strip in design. But you can usually distinguish a surge protector by special lights to indicate whether electrical grounding is properly connected and whether surge protection is still active before burning out. Another way to distinguish a surge protector is a shape entirely different from power strips, which may be much larger or fatter than a normal power strip might be. Yet another way is to observe other connections on a surge protector than normal electrical outlets. Surge protectors may have connections for F-type coaxial connectors, such as used in cable television connections, and RJ-type connectors for use with telephones.

More valuable and effective surge protectors will have connections for alternating current electrical outlets, cable television cable, and even telephone lines. This type of surge protector is more valuable and effective because it can be deployed to prevent harmful effects of lightning strikes and electrical surges coming in to the facility from different services such as electrical utility, cable television utility, and telephone utility. However, a competent electrician or engineer with training in lightning and surge protection would be most useful to install the surge protector properly to take advantage of its features. The secret to such a surge protection device is that it electrically bonds and grounds multiple systems together and adds more protection to a valuable consumer electronic device such as a PC, VCR, or TV.

The surge protector is supposed to take the damage from surges and spikes and protect the device consuming the electrical power. But, surge protectors cannot protect forever, as they are weakened over time by the damage they take from electrical spikes and surges. Electrical brownouts may not cause a surge protector to do anything special. Surge protectors are measured, rated, and promoted based on how much energy they can safely dissipate. The reading most common to the surge protector is the Joule. More Joules of energy that can be diverted, or arrested, by the surge protector means more time before the device will wear out and require replacement.

Usually, surge protectors take the damage (extra voltage and amperage) in special circuits that divert the excess current and voltage to ground. A strong electrical bonding and grounding system should be in place to support a surge protector. Many models of protector even have extra bonding points provided on them to ensure electrical continuity at the point of use.

A good reference for more information on this topic is published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST Special Publication 960-6, entitled “Surges Happen!” is available for free online in both color and black and white to explain surge protection and how to take advantage of it in more detail for consumers and the professional people who deploy surge protection. The Pueblo Colorado website of the Federal Citizen Information Center and the NIST website offer this document online to the general public.

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