How to Choose, Buy, and Safely Use a Good Surge Protector

How to Choose, Buy, and Safely Use a Good Surge Protector


Not all surge protectors are alike, and some even put your gadgets at risk. We talked how to tell the good ones from the bad ones, and how to use them safely.

Charles Ravenscraft (yes, that's Lifehacker writer Eric Ravenscraft's brother) is a licensed union electrician, and sat down with me to talk about how to choose the best surge protectors for your gadgets, and how to avoid accidents, electrical fires, and other dangerous situations when using them. Here's what you need to know.

Understand the Difference Between a Power Strip and a Surge Protector

First of all, not every power strip is a surge protector. It may sound basic, but it's a fundamental piece of knowledge you'll need. While a power strip just splits your outlet into multiple ports, a surge protector is designed to protect your computer, TV, and other electronics against power surges and any interference or noise on your power line. Power surges may not be an everyday event, but they're common enough that they can damage your equipment. Charles notes:

The main thing for people to pay attention too is that they are in fact buying a "surge protector" and not a power strip. A consumer should look for the words surge protection, fused strip, or interrupter switch. If it says power strip on it it most likely does not offer surge protection, so pay attention.

You'll almost certainly pay more for a surge protector than a power strip, but it's worth it. If you're the type to head over to Amazon and just buy whatever's cheapest, keep this in mind. Don't assume that because it's in the same category as surge protectors, or even in the department store hanging next to the surge protectors that it is one.

Choose the Right Surge Protector for Your Needs

There are five major points to consider when buying a surge protector. They are:

Buy the right number of ports. Don't just assume that every surge protector is six or eight ports. Some of them, like one of my favorites, sport 12 ports, well spaced so you can use them all. Buying the right number of ports will make sure you don't have to daisy chain surge protectors—something we'll get to in a moment.

Consider the gear you'll plug into the surge protector. Think about the things you're going to plug into the surge protector you're buying. You can just go all out and buy the best you can afford, but you'll save some money by buying a surge protector appropriate for the equipment you'll use it with. Your TV and home entertainment center will call for a more robust surge protector than the lamp and phone charger on your nightstand, for example.

Check for the UL seal, and make sure it's a "transient voltage surge suppressor." Making sure that the surge protector you're planning to buy is both certified by Underwriter's Laboratories, and at least meets their UL 1449 standards (required for the label "transient voltage surge suppressor,") will make sure the surge protector you take home will actually protect the equipment you plug into it.

Check the surge protector's energy absorption rating, and its "clamping voltage." The absorption rating is, as the name implies, how much energy it can absorb before it fails. You'll want something at least 6-700 joules or higher. (Higher is better here.) The clamping voltage is the voltage that will trigger the surge protector—or essentially when the surge protector wakes up and starts absorbing energy. Look for something around 400 V or less. Lower is better here. Finally, see if response time is listed in the product details—it's good to know, and lower is better.

Check the warranty. Some surge protectors warranty the devices connected to it for some amount of damages if a power surge does get through. Check to see what's covered (and what isn't), and how you can file a warranty claim if the surge protector fails.

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