Home & Garden

Plug in to surge protection

Maybe Santa was good to you this year. You and your family are enjoying a new computer, home theater or gaming system. Or perhaps the family splurged on kitchen upgrades, including a new oven, microwave and dishwasher.

If so, don’t scrimp on surge protection.

Electrical surges and spikes can damage electronic equipment throughout your house. Damage can occur over time or – zap! – all at once. Most of us know to protect computers and flat-screen TVs. Even small appliances have microprocessors, though. And surges can be sneaky.

“It seems most surges come in through the phone lines, cable lines and Internet lines,” said Rusty Stevens, president of Advanced Tech Systems and Automation in Locust.

So, consider surge protection for your cables and phone lines, too.

What the terms mean

First, even if you’re not a techie, you need to learn a bit of the language.

Surge protectors work by absorbing energy like a sponge, and the joule rating tells you how much energy a protector can soak up. The higher the joule rating, the more protection the device provides.

Underwriters Laboratories tests home surge protectors and rates what’s known as the clamping voltage. Lower is better. The lowest UL rating for clamping voltage is 330 volts. When buying a plug-in protector, look for a device that meets UL Standard 1449 (second edition). Other types of protectors, such as whole-house or those for industrial use, undergo different testing.

What to look for

Plug-in surge protectors come in all sizes, from those that will fit into a pocket or briefcase to models with a dozen or more outlets. Plug-in models start at about $15 and go up.

How many computer or home entertainment components do you plan to plug into the surge protector? Be sure you’ll have enough receptacles – with a few to spare for future components.

Also, said Will Dixson of Carolina Audio Video, be sure the receptacles are far enough apart to accommodate everything you plan to plug in. Some electronic devices have power supplies or transformers that take up extra space.

When shopping, take Stevens’ advice, and consider models that protect coaxial cable and telephone lines. Some models, including the Belkin Mini designed for travel, also have USB ports for charging your tablet and smartphone.

Several makers offer models with receptacles that swivel, or rotate. Plug in your TV or DVR, then swivel the receptacle so the cord is parallel to the wall. The plug and cord won’t protrude from the wall, making it easier to slide the TV cabinet against the wall.

Look for models that have lights to tell you when the device is grounded and when it’s protecting your electronics properly. Surge protectors have limited capacity to absorb energy. A protection light will tell you when the device is working and when it’s time to replace it.

Choose a surge protector with a cord that’s long enough. You don’t want to come up a foot short of your TV cabinet or home office desk – and you don’t want to use an extension cord.

Dixson installs home theater systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars and typically uses surge protectors from APC or Panamax. Stevens also recommends those brands for high-end installations. Some pricier models offer features such as power filtering to eliminate noise from such things as fan motors and fluorescent lights. Some incorporate uninterpretable power supply or battery backup so you won’t lose data or have to reboot everything.

The models Dixson uses most often cost up to about $200. “Two hundred dollars is not much compared to a $100,000 A/V system,” he said.

What needs protection

Your computers and flat-screen TVs aren’t the only expensive items at risk from power surges. Appliances in your home are, too.

“We do recommend (surge protection)” said Jim Sellers of Plaza Appliance Mart in Huntersville. “Ovens and ranges are susceptible. Some washing machines. Even washing machines have motherboards these days.”

Some appliances can be protected with plug-in surge protectors. For others, consider a whole-house model. “Personally, that’s what I would recommend,” Sellers said.

Whole-house models start at less than $100. Some models will plug right into your circuit breaker box if there’s room. But be sure to get one that’s compatible with your service, and get it installed by a licensed electrician.

Roby Electric has installed whole-house surge protectors in 300 to 400 homes over the past couple of years – usually after the homeowner or someone in the neighborhood suffers a powerful spike or lightening strike. The devices are easy to install, said Patrick MacIsaac, the company’s general manager. But it’s better to add the protection before you get slammed.

Most of the whole-house protectors Roby installs plug directly into the electrical panel. Roby charges $329 for a basic whole-house protector and $599 for an upgraded system that protects phone and cable, too.

MacIsaac, cautions that no device offers absolute protection. You’ll still need plug-in protection for your most vulnerable electronics.

And, Stevens said, no combination offers absolute protection: “A big enough hit can take out anything.”

More SmarterLiving: www.charlotteobserver.com/smarterliving.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer