Last Updated on April 19, 2023 by Dave Farquhar
My home office doubles as the home for most of my retro computers. That means at any given time I have up to five computers set up in there. These means I need lots of power strips. Or is it surge protectors I need? Let’s look at the question of surge protector vs power strip, because there really is a difference. And that difference can cost you money. Sometimes a lot of money.
A power strip just extends your outlet so you can plug more stuff into it. A surge protector lets you plug in more stuff, but it also provides protection for what you plug into it, though the amount of protection varies.
Surge protector vs power strip: Pricing
Power strips are cheap. You can get a two-pack at your nearest big box store for $10. Surge protectors are more expensive. The cheapest surge protector I could find cost $7 and only had four outlets. The power strips in that two-pack had six. That means you pay $1.20 per outlet to get a power strip, and $1.75 per outlet to get a surge protector. And that’s minimum. The cheap power strips and surge protectors are on the bottom shelf at my local big box store, out of sight and out of mind. The surge protectors at eye level cost real money. We’re talking prices like $23, $37, $49. So there’s a big difference in price.
Buying the wrong thing costs you something. The question is when.
I can tell from what’s on the shelf at my nearest big box store what most people buy. They can hardly keep the $10 power strip 2-pack and the $20 surge protector on the shelf. It’s pretty brilliant marketing. But there’s more to the surge protector vs power strip question than just marketing.
When to use a surge protector vs when to use a power strip
When to use a surge protector vs power strip really comes down to what you’re plugging into it. In my garage, where I’m just using my power to run corded tools, light up the area, charge batteries, and power my garage door opener, I don’t really need a surge protector. Corded power tools aren’t especially sensitive to fluctuations in electrical power, plus, I’m not using them during times that are most susceptible to those fluctuations anyway. During a thunderstorm or when it’s 110 degrees out, the last thing I want to be doing is cutting up lumber in my garage with my miter saw.
Arguably the battery chargers could benefit from surge protection, but battery chargers aren’t super expensive. If I had a fancy $300 DeWalt charger, then sure, it’s worth at least $7 to plug it into something with surge protection. I’ve never used surge protection with my consumer-grade Ryobi gear and I’ve never had a problem in 10 years, and I have spare chargers if I ever do.
There are other times when a cheap power strip is perfectly acceptable. You don’t really need a surge protector for your Christmas decorations. In theory your lights will last a little longer if you do use one, but you can totally get away with the cheap $7 surge protector in that case.
It’s when you have expensive electronics that you really need to use a surge protector. I’m talking your living room television here. And if you have a home office or a home theater, you definitely want one there.
But don’t get the wrong idea about protection. A surge protector doesn’t make daisy chaining any safer. Also be careful about any power strip that offers GFCI or AFCI protection. It’s often an either/or thing, where you get the safety of GFCI or surge protection, but not both. If you want both, read the box carefully.
Why you need a surge protector for your home office or theater
Electronics are sensitive to power fluctuations. Any electronics worth having will have good power filtering inside them, but the more you do to make their lives easier, the longer those electronics will last. A surge protector has circuitry inside that is specifically designed to absorb and/or dissipate excess power to protect the devices plugged into it. A good one will even sacrifice itself to save whatever is plugged into it.
It’s a pain to have to replace a $50 surge protector, but it costs a lot more than $50 to repair anything you have plugged into it.
The amount of protection a surge protector offers is measured in joules. A cheap one offers 450 joules of protection. That’s not a lot. The old rule of thumb was that you wanted at least 750-1,000 joules. But 450 is better than zero.
How much you spend on protection depends on what you have plugged into it. Your $100 TV probably doesn’t deserve a $50 surge protector. It’s worth the $7 surge protector on the bottom shelf though.
Spending $50 to protect my work computer probably isn’t out of line. My employer is three states away, so they can’t get me a replacement the same day. An unplanned day off will throw off the rest of my week. If I bought a $50 surge protector, I could probably talk them into letting me expense it. But even if I’m spending my own money, I can see the benefit. I may have just talked myself into it, in fact.
And if you have a fancy home theater setup or a nice gaming computer, you want to protect it. That way your neighbor’s arc welding projects that cause the lights to dim over the whole neighborhood don’t take out your expensive equipment. They just wear out your surge protector instead.
And while that $60 surge protector isn’t glamorous, its price compared to the cost of a home theater or a gaming computer is comparable to protecting a cheap TV with a $7 surge protector. You can easily spend $2,500 on those types of setups. A $60 surge protector is just 2.5 percent of that.
A good surge protector has some kind of indicator telling you when it’s no longer protecting you. Usually it’s an LED with a clear label. Be sure the one you buy has one, and be sure to check it from time to time. When that light goes out, you can still use it as a power strip, but it’s not protecting you anymore.
Mounting your surge protector or power strip out of sight
It’s a good idea to mount your surge protector or power strip to the back of your desk or entertainment center. This keeps it off the floor, so you don’t accidentally turn everything off when you bump it. It also makes you less likely to step on the cord and wear the cord out. And it looks better.
Since you’re working blind, mounting them can be a project. Here’s how to mount a surge protector or power strip very easily.
What about workshop surge protectors?
I told you that you don’t really need a surge protector for your garage, but home improvement stores sell surge protectors for your workshop. Why?
Well, some of them aren’t really surge protectors. Some of them offer GFCI protection instead of surge protection. GFCI is a useful safety feature. In the event of an electrical fault on a cement floor, it prevents you from becoming electricity’s easiest path to ground, which can easily save your life.
A GFCI power strip is certainly the easiest way to get GFCI protection in a garage or basement workshop that doesn’t have GFCI. But I prefer to put GFCI outlets in. They take 30 minutes to install even if you’ve never done it before. And that way, if your GFCI power strip wanders off, you’re still protected. And believe me, your power strips will wander off when you’re not using them.
Power saving surge protectors
These can be hard to find, but I really like power saving surge protectors. This feature has 1-2 outlets for a TV or a computer, and additional switched outlets. When you turn off the device plugged into that main outlet, it cuts all power to the additional outlets. Many devices still consume power even when they’re off. But you won’t be using your game console when your TV is off, or your monitor when your computer is off. A power saving surge protector cuts this vampire power draw, which cuts your power usage and saves you money. It’s good for your wallet and it’s good for the environment while having zero impact on your quality of life. That’s a win all around.
But when you buy these, make sure it’s actually offering surge protection, and isn’t just a green power strip. You want both.
Where to buy surge protectors
The best place to buy a surge protector may not be immediately obvious. For my retro gear that I don’t use a lot, I was thinking I’d go to Harbor Freight. But the closest Harbor Freight is nearly a 30-minute drive, so I don’t go there to just buy one thing. Finally I thought to check Home Depot, and I found the price wasn’t much different, and the selection was better. On some items, Home Depot even had the better price. When they didn’t, we were talking a difference of around a dollar. It wasn’t worth the drive in this case.
You’d also think you could get a better surge protector at a consumer electronics or office supply store, but not necessarily. I found a 2,880-joule surge protector at Best Buy for $100. But I also found a 2,880-joule surge protector at Home Depot for $60. The $60 unit from Home Depot has more outlets, and protects your coax and network ports too. So it’s the better unit for less money.
When you need GFCI, go to the home center. But when you need surge protection, don’t forget the home center. You may be able to get something just as good there for less money. Here are some tips on what to look for, especially when faced with a wall full of confusing selections.
As for green power saving surge protectors, I rarely see those in stores. I usually have to order those online. I hope that changes.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.