When should I use a power strip / surge suppressor?

Posted on 2011-10-25
Medium Priority
Last Modified: 2012-05-12

Outside the convenience of having multiple outlets from a single outlet, when would you use a power strip?  Surge suppressor?  What devices need protection over others?  And why wouldn't a home or office have built-in surge suppression from the power company?

Question by:epichero22
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Expert Comment

ID: 37026546
nearly anything can be damaged by voltage changes, particularly surges.

The more sophisticated the device the more sensitive they tend to be.

Your tv, stereo, computer  - more sensitive because they have more electronics

Toaster, dishwasher, refrigerator - less sensitive although modern devices have a TON of electronics in them and hence are more sensitive than older devices
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Expert Comment

by:Gary Coltharp
ID: 37026550
Only use surge suppressors on the things you want to keep. :)

The power company doesnt go to any such lengths to protect your equipment. Anything considered sensitive (or expensive) that plugs in to the wall should be on surge suppression. It doesnt always save the device but it will certainly help.

I use personal battery backup surge suppressors on my home computers to help protect the filesystems in a brown out as well.  A little more expensive but well worth it.
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Expert Comment

ID: 37026556
Anything that is expensive and sensitive to power fluctuations.  Mostly only electronics such as TVs, Computers, audio/video equipment, game consoles, etc.  Things like appliances, lamps, and such usually don't need one.

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LVL 74

Expert Comment

ID: 37026569
also,  by using a power strip to add more devices to a single outlet you're adding more load to that line.  This can itself cause problems if you exceed capacity by plugging in too many things.

Check your amperage and make sure you don't have more plugged in than the line and breaker can service.

Household lines are generally 15 or 20 amps (15 more common, at least in areas i've been)
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Expert Comment

by:Lee W, MVP
ID: 37026573
when would you use a power strip?  Surge suppressor?  What devices need protection over others?
Whenever the cost of an attached device exceeds the cost of the power strip.  These devices are designed to protect equipment from power surges.  If your alarm clock is worth more than the powerstrip, I'd plug that in.  

And why wouldn't a home or office have built-in surge suppression from the power company?
They do.  They are called fuses and circuit breakers.  But sometimes they can't react fast enough and even a split second surge can fry equipment...
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Expert Comment

ID: 37026574
surge suppressors are so cheap now days that I use them for all appliances worth more that the surge suppressor strips
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Expert Comment

by:Dave Baldwin
ID: 37026648
I wouldn't consider 'surge suppressor' power strip to be 'serious' power protection.  I do use them and they do provide some over-voltage spike protection though I wonder if they ever get tested.  They don't provide any protection for any other power variations and definitely not for brownouts.  The next better step is the battery-backup units which will keep your equipment running thru short term power problems.  Phone companies use massive battery banks to power their equipment so that AC power gets filtered thru them.

Real serious power control and protection would be the motor generator units with fly-wheels.  They don't allow Any power variations through but they're expensive and take up a fair amount of room.  The fly-wheel is driven by external power and drives a generator that is connected to the equipment to be protected.  The mass of the fly-wheel prevents it from responding to fast changes in the incoming power.  And a generator is auto-started on failure of incoming power.
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Expert Comment

ID: 37028307
why wouldn't a home or office have built-in surge suppression from the power company?

Mostly because not many know it can be done or the power company won't do it or because it can cost money.

We had a whole-house protector installed by our power company at home. Can't recall actual cost, but it wouldn't have been more than a couple hundred (US) dollars. It is built into the meter, and that's what they replaced.

I also have a UPS for one of my servers and use a couple PC- size battery units for a couple PCs. And I use some simple power-strips with surge protectors at some outlets and plain power strips at some others.

As for why surge protectors wouldn't be used, one rare possibility other than small cost might be that some equipment is (was) built with surge protection included. Under some circumstances, plugging those into at least some earlier surge-protectors could apparently result in a kind of feedback or other problem that could damage the equipment. Early IBM PS/2s actually included a warning in the user guides that using external surge protectors could void your warranty (though I never heard of any problem actually happening.)

There are probably as many reasons as there are for people to think up reasons.

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Expert Comment

ID: 37028693
Surge suppression needs to be done close to the equipment that is to be protected, because surges can be induced in wires by a close lightning strikes, for example.

Some devices are more sensitive to surges than others - electronics, for example, as opposed to refrigerators.

Why shouldn't you use them?  Power strips have no indicator to tell you when they are about to fail; they have a limited capacity to absorb surges, and after that, they fail completely.  A UPS is a better solution for protection, though nothing is going to protect against a lightning strike.

Accepted Solution

gismo51 earned 2000 total points
ID: 37034006
Outside the convenience of having multiple outlets from a single outlet, when would you use a power strip?

A strip with a switch can be used to turn multiple devices on and off.  They are also handy when attached to a workbench or similar surface to eliminate crawling under said surface when temporarily plugging things in.  Other than that the primary use is extending the number of outlets.  FWIW, these days one of the most common such uses would be connecting wall warts (AC adapters, phone chargers, etc.) and with those there's no issue of overloading but orientation may be a problem  At one time virtually all strips had the slots parallel to the strip's long dimension because that arrangement was easier to wire/construct.  Similarly most wall warts had their long dimension parallel to the prongs so they tended to cover multiple sockets.  Some strip manufacturers started producing designs with the slots perpendicular to the long dimension so that the adapters would fit side by side.  Unfortunately at about the same time many of the adapters were redesigned with the same modification so it's still about 50/50 whether or not you can use all the sockets on a strip for adapters.

Surge suppressor?

Surge suppressors offer significant but not infallible protection from voltage spikes which could otherwise damage almost any electronic device.  Spikes generally come from two potential sources, lightning and load dumps.   A direct lighting strike on the lines feeding your building can pretty easily overcome the protection of most if not all "surge suppressors but indirect strikes and hits on the high voltage powerlines generally impart less energy on the building wiring and are more easily handled by surge protectors.

A load dump transient is a brief increase in the voltage that occurs when a significant load is turned off.  When that happens the generation capacity of the power grid exceeds the demand and the voltage surges until the system can adjust.  AFaIK this doesn't happen much outside of industrial areas where extremely high power devices are used.  I heard of one instance where one of the big wind tunnels at NASA Lewis Center in Cleveland OH (one has electric motors totaling 89,000 horsepower) had to do an emergency stop and the resulting surge blew out half the incandescent lamps that were on at the time in the Cleveland area.

What devices need protection over others?

Any electronic device, particularly ones left on much of the time (or ones that employ electronic power control like TVs and stereos) can benefit.  I'd make my choice based on the value of the device vs the cost and inconvenience of adding protection.  Also many high end surge protectors come with a warranty that is supposed to pay for repairs to any device that was powered through the surge protector.  I've never made a claim against such a warranty so I can't vouch for their value but such a warranty sounds worthwhile if you're shopping for surge protection.

And why wouldn't a home or office have built-in surge suppression from the power company?

Probably because they cost money and not everyone needs them.  Also if the power company provided one and your TV died they wouldn't likely want to be on the hook for fixing it just because you thought it failed as a result of a voltage transient.

There are a couple forms of "Whole House" surge protectors.  I have one that's wired into the main service panel and it sits right underneath the panel (short wires are a must).  More recently surge protectors have become available that plug directly into a circuit breaker panel where a  (double wide) slot for a circuit breaker would go.  I suspect that most high-end new construction homes are so equipped these days.  A single unit at the service panel can provide decent protection against transients coming from the power lines but a lightning strike on or right next to your house can still induce damaging voltages in the wiring near the strike so individual protection would still be useful, especially for expensive electronics.
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Expert Comment

ID: 37053644
Basic info you can also read here:

" What devices need protection over others?  And why wouldn't a home or office have built-in surge suppression from the power company?"

Many electronic devices have all kind of protections inside their circuit: for input and output.
These types of protections are sometimes very specific for each application, circuit. And these are from simple fuse (sometimes fast fuse) or circuit breakers or thermal cutoff (fuse) up to dedicated filters (as for instance 1X and 2Y capacitors) depending what we want to protect and against what.

The electrical company that provides electrical energy cannot imagine what kind of application  are you going to use.
Big power applications or those that have not a good EMC filtering can influence other devices on the same line. It is not their business as energy provider to prevent bad circuits or systems  designs.
Even more, if you disturb their line with your device you will pay for it.
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Expert Comment

ID: 37063287
I burned up a surge protector, by trying to use it on a power hand saw.
I had an extension cord but it was 2 feet short so I added the surge protector, and the surge, ruined the surge protector.

Inside the house, I had a surge protector that powered my computer, monitor, etc.
I plugged a small electric heater into it and it tripped the surge protector.

My experiences are surge protectors are for low voltage, computer related devices.

For my two uses above I needed power strips
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Expert Comment

by:Gary Coltharp
ID: 37063366
@nickg5 - Hence the reason that power strips and surge protectors (and all electrical devices for that matter) specifiy a current rating. Your typical power strip or surge can only handle about 15 amps... your saw spikes current at spinup to around 30 amps....your heater.... wow. Electric heaters are the worst since it is basically a controlled short.
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Expert Comment

ID: 37063403
Yes, that is true.

The top comment mentions refrigerators, toaster, dishwasher.
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Author Closing Comment

ID: 37086648
There were more answers that I liked, but this person answered it the best.

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