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What to look for in a surge protector

Surge protectors cost a lot less now than they did when I was a kid. That’s probably a good thing. But buying one today is no less confusing than it was in 1985. Here’s what to look for in a surge protector, so you’re getting the protection you think you are, and without sacrificing convenience.

A good surge protector offers an indicator light that tells you it’s working, enough plugs to be useful to you, and at least 1,000 joules of protection. Be sure to look for at least those three things.

Make sure you’re actually buying a surge protector

what to look for in a surge protector

Many stores have a dizzying number of surge protectors for sale, with little to differentiate them. It’s no wonder most people just buy the $20 unit.

There’s a difference between a power strip and a surge protector. A power strip doesn’t offer any protection. It’s just an electrical pass-through. You can get a cheap, basic surge protector for nearly the same price as a power bar, but they may be indistinguishable once you take them out of the packaging.

On a recent trip to Home Depot, I spotted several products on the bottom shelf of the bay where they sell surge protectors. The most basic 4-outlet power strip cost $4. A six-outlet power strip cost $6. And a basic surge protector with four outlets cost $7.

The $7 unit is probably the one you want, at least out of the three. But here’s more on the difference.

More money is usually better

The rule used to be that if you paid less than $100 for a surge protector, you weren’t getting much protection. Fortunately that’s not the case anymore. The cutoff now is probably closer to $20. And I’ve seen $20 units that are almost as good as the $100 units that consumer electronics stores sell in the home theater section. They don’t look high-end, but your surge protector probably won’t be out where people can see it anyway.

There’s definitely a sweet spot. The protection you get from a $7 unit isn’t a lot, but for devices you don’t use a lot, they’re probably fine. Once you hit the $20 mark, you can hit a point of diminishing returns. A more expensive unit may offer more protection, more outlets, and/or more features, but be sure to look.

Be careful not to pay too much

The most expensive unit I found when I went shopping one Saturday cost $100 at Best Buy. I found a completely comparable unit at Home Depot for $60. It was a different brand, but they looked almost alike, offered the same level of protection, and comparable features. The Home Depot unit may have even had an additional feature or two. But both units offered 2,880 joules of protection. Home Depot also sold a more basic-looking unit for $37 that offered 4,200 joules of protection. It’s a better unit. It just doesn’t look quite as nice. But I’d rather have the additional protection and save the money.

And it’s not like the $37 unit looks bad. And it’s not like the $100 unit bowled me over with its looks either. On a scale of 1 to 10, we’re talking a 7 vs an 8 here, at most. Not worth making a big deal about. If you spend more money, make sure you’re getting something tangible in return.

Just like anything, there are boutique surge protectors. And you don’t need that. When looking for a surge protector, get the features you need, and get the maximum number of joules per dollar you can. Don’t assume the more expensive unit is automatically better. And don’t worry about how the thing looks. You can mount it on the back of your desk or entertainment center. Here’s how. And you’ll want to. No matter how good it looks when you start, it’s going to look like Medusa once you plug all your stuff into it.

Number of outlets and placement of outlets

The first thing to look at is the number of outlets and the placement of those outlets. After all, you’re going to plug things into it, so let’s make sure you can plug enough things into it so you don’t have to go buy a second one.

A basic power strip has its outlets spaced apart equally, and the spacing accommodates a standard power plug. If you need to plug in a bulky AC adapter, you can probably only plug it into the lower outlet, or cover multiple outlets with it.

A better surge protector will have some outlets spaced further apart so you can plug bulky things into it without losing outlet space.

Take inventory of what you have and whether any of them use something larger than a standard power plug. Add one or two so you have a spare, and buy accordingly. For our bedroom TV, a 4-outlet model would be plenty, if I can even find one with that few. Normally all we have plugged into it is a Roku, so we just need an outlet for the TV and one for the Roku. And then we have two spares for those rare occasions when I do plug something additional into it.

In the living room, where we have two game consoles, a Roku, a Blu-Ray player, and a network switch to accommodate them all, six outlets is the minimum we need, and I’d rather have eight. And standard spacing isn’t going to be enough.

Cable length

The last of the basic things to look for is the cable length. You don’t get a lot of choices here, but some lengths may be too short. It’s better to have too long of a cable than too little, of course, but the closer you can match the reach you need, the less slack cable you’ll have to deal with.

Type of plug

Some surge protectors advertise having a 45-degree plug. This type of plug sticks out from the wall a bit less than a conventional plug, which provides more clearance in a cramped area and allows you to put your desk or entertainment center closer up against the wall.

This item is minor compared to some of the others, but if you care about getting your desk or entertainment center up against the wall as tightly as possible, this is worth looking for when you buy a surge protector.

Does your surge protector have enough joules?

The amount of energy a surge protector can absorb over its lifetime is measured in joules. It’s just a measure of energy, like calories. It can only use each joule once. Once the surge protector is used up, it’s no longer protecting you. It may stop supplying power, but more likely, it just reverts to being an overpriced power strip at that point.

This is also why I don’t usually buy power strips. When all I need is a power strip, I just use a used-up surge protector instead.

Some examples of how to look for enough joules in a surge protector

A bargain bin surge protector probably only has 450 joules of protection. For something we don’t use all the time, like our bedroom TV, that may be enough. My wife or I have it on for a couple of hours a day, and not necessarily every day. Plus, the TV cost $70 and the Roku cost $50. There’s no point in spending $60 on a surge protector to protect that. If I wanted to be safe, a $20 model with 1,100 joules of protection is probably justifiable, but going much over that starts getting into the realm of ridiculous.

In the living room, I’d want at least 1,100 joules of protection. The TV is 10 years old, but one of the reasons it still works well after 10 years is because I protected it. A comparable TV to replace it would be cheap at this point, but the game consoles connected to it aren’t cheap. A nice $37 unit with 4,200 joules of protection doesn’t necessarily feel like overkill here. It reduces the chance of having to replace either game console, and increases the likelihood those consoles will still work when they turn vintage. If my kids are like me, they’ll appreciate that.

One other place I might consider splurging is on my work computer. I work from home. Now, if something happens to my very overpriced work computer, my employer will replace it and the $2,500 paperweight is their problem, not mine. But they’re three states away so if something happens to it, I can’t work for a day. Can I justify spending $50 to reduce the chances of that happening? It seems reasonable. I used to spend more than that every month commuting.

Look for the number of joules per dollar to measure the value of a surge protector. Buy the one that gives you the most joules per dollar while fitting your budget, especially when you’re facing a wall of choices in the store.

Look for the protection light

what to look for in a surge protector

Even this cheap surge protector has a clearly marked indicator light that tells you it’s working. Look for an indicator light, and if it doesn’t have one, buy a different surge protector.

The other important feature your surge protector had better have is an indicator light that tells you your devices still have protection. Once your joules are used up, they’re used up. Any surge protector worth having has a light that goes out or flickers when you’re not getting protection anymore. A solid light means you’re good. A flickering light or no light means you’re not.

Even the cheap $8 power strip that Home Depot sells has a clearly marked indicator light. Look for the light. And don’t buy a surge protector that doesn’t have one.

Surge protectors typically last several years. You don’t have to check the indicator light monthly or anything. It’s not worth obsessing over. But if your surge protector is a few years old, take a look at it whenever you’re moving stuff around in your setup.

Power reduction

Green or energy saving surge protectors are nice. They’re not always easy to find, but they’re nice. They have 1-2 outlets where you plug in a device like a TV or a computer. These outlets work normally. But when you turn off the device plugged into that outlet, the surge protector cuts the power to the remaining outlets. A game console or a monitor can draw about a watt just sitting there plugged in, whether it’s working or not. Cutting that power saves you money.

I have one of these in the living room. I paid considerably more for it to get power reduction in addition to about 1,100 joules of protection, but it cuts my power draw. My power usage could be ridiculous, given the amount of electronics we have in the house. It’s not, partly because I do things like use green surge protectors.

Supplemental connectors on a surge protector

Power surges don’t just come in over your electrical power. A surge can also come in through a coax connection or even a network connection. It’s not a bad idea to get a surge protector with a coax connector for your TV, if you use cable or satellite TV. I’d even consider it if I had an outside antenna. (More on that in a minute.) And if you use wired connections instead of wireless, especially if your devices are plugged straight into an all-in-one modem/router/switch and not into an external switch, the network connection provides additional protection.

Damage comes over these connections more often than you’d think, especially during storms. So these connectors are worth paying a little extra for, regardless of whether you get more joules in the process. If you’re buying anything but a basic surge protector, look for these.

Protection guarantees

Some surge protectors, especially the ones that cost over $30, come with a protection guarantee. That can be worth looking for. If your device gets damaged while being plugged into one of these surge protectors, you’re eligible to be reimbursed up to a certain dollar amount. Sometimes the dollar amount can be pretty ridiculous.

When I worked at Best Buy in the 90s, one of my coworkers used to tell a story when someone asked about the $100 surge protectors. The story might have even been true. He said he sold one of these high-end surge protectors to someone, and six months later he came back in to buy another one, with $10,000 to spend. His equipment got damaged, he cashed in the policy, and he came back and bought the best of everything he could find.

Today the protection guarantees are even higher, and you don’t necessarily have to spend $100 or even $50 to get one. An insurance company can tell the manufacturer how many times they’ll have to pay out a claim during a 12-month period, they just can’t predict who the people will be. So you can spend as little as $18 today and get a surge protector with a high-dollar warranty attached.

A protection guarantee on a surge protector is worth looking for, but be aware of the caveats.

Caveats with protection guarantees

The caveat on these is the terms and conditions. Read the fine print on the box and make sure you’ll be able to comply with everything. That may mean having the device plugged into the surge protector on all of its connections, including the antenna and network ports. You may also get replacement value, rather than the full value stated on the front of the box. If my $70 TV blows up in a storm and it’s plugged into a $17 surge protector, I might get $70, not the $100,000 printed on the box. That still makes the purchase worthwhile.

Just make sure you follow the terms and conditions completely. If there’s a card you have to send in, send in the card. Keep all the documentation someplace safe. If you ever change your setup, check the terms and conditions again to make sure you’re still complying. And when the time comes to cash in, follow the instructions to the letter.

Does a surge protector protect against lightning?

The existence of these high dollar protection guarantees suggest that surge protectors protect against lightning. They don’t. When that lightning strikes with 1.21 gigawatts of intensity, nothing on the shelf at your local Best Buy is going to stop that. Surge protectors protect against the surges caused by the normal ebbs and flows in your power caused by your neighbors’ air conditioners starting and stopping. Not bolts of lightning.

It’s just a good marketing gimmick. The statistical probability of your equipment getting hit by lightning and causing a payout is easy enough to calculate and then factor into the cost of the product. Insurance companies do that kind of thing every day. So the manufacturer raises the price of the unit by enough to cover the cost of an insurance policy. This increases the perceived value of the product and increases sales. Everyone wins, except for the person who forgot to send in the registration card and couldn’t get the payout.

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2 thoughts on “What to look for in a surge protector”

  1. The $100 protector from the home theater department may include filtering as well as surge protection. That can have some benefit in environments with a lot of RF noise. For pictures, it mattered in the days of analog TV but not so much for digital. Audio may also be cleaned up a bit, though it will take good ears and careful listening to detect any difference. As always, watch out for placebo effects.

    Power line filters will only help if your problem is conducted interference coming through the power lines. They won’t do anything to prevent radiated interference that comes in through radio waves.

    (My own home theater has a fancy Monster Cable unit, bought for $60 circa 2000. It’s a model they actually sold for use with computers, which was on sale because those had not sold well; a nearly identical model for home theater use cost $150 at the time The improvement on analog TV was easy to see but I never heard any difference in audio. I also don’t see any improvement on the digital TV that is in the theater now. Caveat emptor.)

  2. It’s also worth considering a UPS – uninterruptible power supply – instead of a simple surge protector for computer equipment (probably not for audio gear). A half decent small UPS can be had for not much more money than a “good” surge protector and will include very similar filtering, which is in-circuit even when not on battery. UPSes will also have several outputs on the back, though probably not as many as a surge strip.

    Many cheap UPSes these days can “boost” and “buck” their output by changing transformer taps, in order to overcome small variations in mains input without going on battery. Any UPS will allow a computer to ride-through a short power cut, or give enough time for a graceful shutdown if the outage is longer, and most can trigger this automatically either through a USB connection or (on more expensive models) over the network.

    Why not audio gear? Cheap UPSes invariably use a “stepped square wave” or “modified sine wave” instead of the (almost) pure sine wave of the mains (or more expensive UPSes). Very cheap UPSes use plain square waves. A lot of audio gear still uses transformers for power, and transformers will buzz and may overheat with anything except a clean sine wave as input. Newer gear based on switch-mode power supplies will probably cope better, but I’d avoid the use of a square wave UPS for anything.

    The main caveat is that most UPSes use Lead-acid batteries which have a lifespan of perhaps five years, even just sitting idle. These batteries aren’t expensive to replace and are available in standard sizes from a selection of manufacturers, but it’s not always trivial to get inside the UPS in order to do so.

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