Are Surge Protectors Necessary? Here’s What They Really Do

A surge protector is not the same thing as a power strip! Here’s how they’re different and why you need a reliable surge protector.

People sometimes confuse surge protectors with power strips, but they’re two very different technologies. It’s important to learn the difference, as only one of them will protect your devices from a power spike!

Let’s explore what a surge protector does and how it works.

What Does a Surge Protector Do?

Before we can define how a surge protector works, we need to define what it’s protecting your electronics from—an electrical surge.

Think of the flow of electricity like water running through a pipe. Water moves from one end of a pipe to the other end due to water pressure—water moves from high pressure to low pressure.

Electricity operates in a similar way, moving from areas of high electric potential energy to areas of low electric potential energy. In this case, it’s from one end of a wire to the other end.

Voltage is a measure of this electric potential energy—more specifically, the difference in electric potential energy. When the voltage increases above the norm for at least 3 nanoseconds, it’s called a surge.

If the voltage of the wire is too great—meaning the difference in electric potential energy from one end to the other is too high—then the electricity will surge through. This heats up the wire; if it gets hot enough, it can burn the wire and render it useless.

The surge protector has one job: detect excess voltage and divert the extra electricity into the grounding wire. This is why all surge protectors will have a grounding pin (the third prong on a plug) and all surge protectors must be plugged into a properly grounded outlet for them to work as intended.

What Is an Electrical Surge?

So what causes an electrical surge? Most people think that the biggest culprit of electrical surging is lightning, but that’s not wholly true.

Lightning can and does cause electrical surges, but it’s not as common as other causes. In fact, buying a surge protector to save your electronics from a thunderstorm may not work in your favor.

While good surge protectors can take on a surge caused by a distant thunderstorm, a near or direct hit from a lightning bolt will fry it. As such, the best protection against thunderstorms is to unplug your electronics.

The primary culprits of electrical surges are devices that require lots of power to operate. Depending on the wiring of your home, you may notice at times that your lights flicker when powerful devices turn on and off, such as your air conditioner.

If these devices are switched on, they demand a lot of electricity, which puts a lot of strain on the grid and can cause surges.

Are Surge Protectors Necessary?

Given how surges can happen at any time, you don’t need to worry about when to use a protector; just use it all the time. The real question is what you should plug into a surge protector.

You don’t need a surge protector for your desk lamp or your standing fan, but you do want a surge protector for expensive devices that have intricate microprocessors, like computers, televisions, stereo systems, and media centers. In short, anything electronic and expensive benefits from a surge protector.

Think of it this way: if there was an electrical surge that destroyed all of the devices connected to your outlets, which lost devices would pain you the most? Plug those into a surge protector. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

On an offbeat note, surge protectors can be useful for reducing cable clutter and improving organization with your electronics. All of the cables end up being directed to the same destination, making it much easier for you to handle them all neatly.

Choosing the Best Surge Protector For You

It can be difficult finding the right surge protector for your needs at a good value. What makes a surge protector good? And why are some surge protectors much more expensive than others? Are there any features you should be looking out for?

Let’s break down the basics to look out for when getting a surge protector.

Indicator Lights

Surge protectors only have a limited lifespan depending on how hard they work. Even when the surge protector properly diverts a surge, the protector itself can suffer damage in the process.

As such, one of the most important features is an indicator light. An indicator light will let you know that your surge protector is working fine. Is the indicator light not working? Time to buy a new surge protector.

UL Rating

As for protection power, good surge protectors will come with a UL rating, a rating put out by the independent Underwriters Laboratories that test the safety of electronic devices.

Don’t bother with a surge protector that doesn’t have a UL rating. Also, make sure that the product is a “transient voltage surge suppressor” as many UL-rated power strips still might not offer surge protection.

Clamping Voltage

The clamping voltage is the measurement that prompts the surge protector to start redirecting the excess electricity away from the plugged-in devices. In other words, a surge protector with a lower clamping voltage will trigger earlier, thus protecting your devices quicker.

Any surge protector with a clamping voltage below 400 volts should be good enough for home use.

Joule Rating

This is the maximum amount of energy the surge protector can absorb. If the surge breaches this maximum, it renders the surge protector useless.

The higher the joule rating, the more energy can be absorbed by the surge protector, so a higher joule rating will often indicate a longer lifespan for the product.

For best household protection, you’ll want a surge protector with a joule rating of at least 600.

Response Time

The response time is how long it takes for the surge protector to detect a surge in electricity. A lower value means a faster response. This reduces the time that your plugged-in devices are exposed to the surge, thus protecting them better.

Ideally, you’ll want a surge protector with a response time of 1 nanosecond or faster.

Recommended Surge Protectors

If you’re still stuck on which surge protector to buy, don’t worry. We covered your best options in our article on the best surge protectors for every use case, from the budget-minded spender to someone protecting an expensive home cinema.

Defending Against the Surge

All electrical grids experience electrical surges; some more than others. These surges can damage electronics and surge protectors are there to control them as much as possible.

You’ll want to use surge protectors for complex and valuable electronics, such as computers, appliances, and media centers. Keep in mind that it’s not enough to have a surge protector; you need one that’s properly suited to your needs.

Given how power-hungry devices cause surges, it’s a good idea to learn how much energy your PC uses in case it’s a prime culprit.