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Do surge protectors merely give us a false sense of security?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) CNET staff/forum admin / June 29, 2012 9:39 AM PDT

Do surge protectors merely give us a false sense of security?

Here's why I ask this question. I live in upstate South Carolina, a
region prone to severe thunderstorms in the spring and summer. So
naturally I purchased and faithfully use surge protectors for all of
my sensitive electronic equipment. Several weeks ago we had a doozy of
a thunderstorm with multiple nearby lightning strikes and power
surges. I sat confidently at my computer and continued to work,
basking in the false security of a UPS and multiple surge protectors.
Zap-crackle, zap-crackle, Zap! "Wow, that was close" I thought. I even
thought I heard the surge protector "kick in." What I heard was my
cable modem arcing to ground! Yep. Fried it. And the phone modem. But
the big loss was my multi-function printer/scanner/copier/fax system.
D-E-A-D dead.

But wait! Don't these surge protectors come with a "connected
equipment protection policy?" I was shocked to discover (pardon the
pun) that I had actually kept the warranty information for the surge
protector in question. Indeed yes, it has such as policy. So I
contacted Schneider Electric, the manufacturer of the APC brand. They
confirmed the product's warranty and took me through their product
return process. Their letter arrived today. "The APC product we tested
showed no indication of malfunction," they wrote. "Your equipment
damage is therefore unfortunately not covered under APC's Equipment
Protection Policy."

So what I have is a perfectly "good" $20 surge protector that failed
to protect a device worth hundreds of dollars. It seems to me this is
$20 wasted. What do your readers think?

Kind regards.

--Submitted by: Jeff H.
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"The hand of God."
by R. Proffitt Forum moderator / June 29, 2012 9:54 AM PDT

Frankly a 20 buck protector is worth about that. It's going to stop minor spikes but if you work in this field (protection) you learn a famous quote about such strikes and then you know to ask the client to define in detail exactly what we are protecting this from.

If they saw "lightning strike" then you know they have only begun the journey and you need to spend a lot more time going over what lightning is and how variable it is.

I think it's best to see the pictures of a direct strike to see why no one will cover a direct strike.

Also the real fix is like what you see at http://www.copper.org/applications/electrical/pq/casestudy/kgbi_station_A6082.html

Notice that the treatment extended to the entire perimeter?

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WOW They are a RIP.
by Radio_Announcer / July 7, 2012 11:48 AM PDT
In reply to: "The hand of God."

Many years ago 10, I had a computer destroyed by an APC battery backup. Had to send it in. They told me they could not find my unit. They received it but somehow LOST it....Yeah....So do I trust APC...NEVER.

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I have had good luck with the Tripplite Isobars
by rptek / September 16, 2012 7:06 AM PDT
In reply to: WOW They are a RIP.

The Tripplite Isobars seem to be really well made. I have used quite a few of those with at least no BAD luck. I guess I can't prove they work, but the quality seems to be there.

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I feel your post is relevant...
by JCitizen / July 8, 2012 3:23 AM PDT
In reply to: "The hand of God."

and an excellent link! - BTW It is very difficult to contain extraneous behavior of direct or even indirect lightning strike. Your example explains why we need to think about the whole subject of surge protection, and why it cannot be a panacea on its own. If one owns a home TV receiver antenna, they might notice the grounding instructions have change lately, and offer even more grounding protection now. Lighting pretty much does what it wants unless you give it some bait to attract to.

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It's the grounding system
by arnold88 / July 8, 2012 3:34 AM PDT
In reply to: "The hand of God."

When in doubt a check of the service entrance grounding mechanism will tell if you can make good use of whole house protection. Your electrical provider should perform a simple test at no charge. Even though whole house protection may be installed, the use of redundant equipment is worth it. As an industrial electrician this problem arose with a 170,000 sq ft facility with a LAN and 14 corporate servers to protect. Located in central Tennessee we had lightning storms for 8 months of the year and the use of an upgraded ground system along with whole house protection and a large UPS installed on each server rack kept us running even when the area experienced power outages caused by lightning strikes on the local electrical sub-stations.

The same can be accomplished at home by using a good quality UPS installed after a properly grounded service entry with a UL rated service entry surge suppressor.

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Prevent a surge from entering the house/in-house protection
by RangoonPost / July 8, 2012 11:48 PM PDT

1. Proper grounding encase of a surge down the power line, cable or phone lines.
2. Direct strike prevention. Lighting rods do not capture the lighting but prevent the build-up of a charge on the house. Bleeding the charge from ground into the air, equalizing the charge so the electrical charge will be less likely to strike the building. Think of it like a capacitor. The 2 plates of a capacitor can store a charge until enough voltage is reached and the insulator is no longer sufficient to seperate the charges.
3. Whole house surge protection where the power, cable, et. al. enter the house.
4. In-Line protection through-out the house. Either through an in-line spike arrestor or circuit breaker. OR simple inductive ferrite cores that you can snap in place around the wires through-out the house.

NOTE: If you want to truly isolate parts of the house. Try a 1:1 transformer with an additional capacitor...Why? A trasformer is an inductor. Inductors are low pass frequency filters. Lightning spikes are high-frequency. The capacitor would help to modulate or keep the AC power around 60 hertzs. Thus using a more Electrically Effective Power use. Effective Power is for another converstaion.

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Lightning protection for your home
by chrisoanderson / July 9, 2012 5:06 AM PDT
In reply to: "The hand of God."

My personal home did not have any lightning protection when I bought it. The service feed was underground and was inside a plastic pipe. I did have natural gas service and its bipe was directly buried.The telephone had a 2' ground rod. No protection at all. What I did to protect my home for under $100.00: 1) using my lawn edger, I cut a 3" deep trench around my property and then every 4' across the property in a cross pattern with a trench directly connected near the service entrance. I laid copper wire into these trenches, soldering them together at every cross point ; 2) I drove 10'-15' (3-5m) ground rods every 30' around and across my property connecting the rods to the grounded wires (this was easiest during the rainy season); 3) I tied this ground system to the service entrance using copper wire. Where did I get all this done for $100.00? I went by commercial construction/demolition sites and asked for their torn out wiring. A few were recycling but most were glad to give it away. All I had to pay for were the ground rods and clamps. I have not had any problems since.

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Grounding House
by squeezon / July 17, 2012 12:30 PM PDT

As an electrician, I doubt you installed 15ft copper ground rods and other material for less than $100. I sell ground rods, and 15ft are special, not found at "home depot"
and run around 125./ea.
And by the way solder does not make a perfect grounding mat.

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Surge Protectors are missunderstood
by duddly / June 29, 2012 11:29 AM PDT

You didn't indicate if the all-in-one printer/fax had a phone line plugged in. If you did, then lightening can enter thru the phone cord. The other thing is you must have had a lightening hit close enough to cause EMP/RFI damage much like a nucular bomb would do when detonated. The one big thing people really forget is that once a surge protector does their job, they are nothing more than a big extension cord. they aren't designed to take hit after hit after hit. And you don't really know when they get that hit. Remember to unplug devices that are plugged in with the phone cord during electrical storms.

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by MB-GRAFIX / July 9, 2012 3:27 AM PDT

Did you just write "nucular"?
...as in, GW's pronunciation?

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Do surge protectors merely give us a false sense of security
by richj120952 / June 29, 2012 11:31 AM PDT

The answer is both yes and no. For basic over voltage protection most will do fine, if you have a properly grounded power distribution system. (From the circuit breaker panel in your house to the wall outlet.) As Bob pointed out, it truly depends upon what you are trying to protect from. Most power surges are not lightning based, but more tree based (Tree to primary to secondary) or some sort of system failure based. There are specific ratings on surge protectors telling you exactly what they will protect from.

Those that use spark gap type protection only last through a number of spark cycles and should be replaced as a matter of preventative maintenance after a couple of years or sooner if your power experiences a lot of outages. Even the ones that are semiconductor based should be replaced periodically. Those that are simply low pass filters (Inductors and capacitors) can tend to last longer, but be much less effective.

And of course the bottom line is that if a surge is fast enough and powerful enough, all bets are off. Smoke will be the result. With luck, the smoke will be the surge protector, if not it is likely your electronics gave up their lives to protect the surge protector.

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Surge Protectors - No! Surge Arrestors!
by FGuts / June 29, 2012 11:38 AM PDT

Always remember that in order to be arrested, you have to have done something!
Therefore, so called Surge Arrestors are always just a tiny bit behind the event!
If you know there is activity of the lightning kind about the place - shut down! that is the ONLY safe way!

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Surge Arrestors!
by darscom / July 7, 2012 11:34 PM PDT

Just to inform, one does not have to do something in order to be arrested. Courts are full of those who have been falsely accussed.

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Reforming your infoming.
by pillbox1911 / July 9, 2012 4:27 PM PDT
In reply to: Surge Arrestors!

"Stay on target" - Gold Five (1977)

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Surge protectors do not give surge protection
by gwhicks / June 29, 2012 11:41 AM PDT

Unfortunately you have had to learn the truth about these devices the hard way. There are multiple versions of "surge protection" and what you use is up to your discretion.

1) The "surge protector" power strips like you mention (typically $8-$50) offer a VERY basic form of power protection. If you have a higher quality model maybe you will be fortunate and it's internal breaker will trip before anything damaging gets through the lines. These are NOT good, even a little bit, during a lightning storm or other more extreme weather activity. If you only have one of these in an extreme weather condition, go unplug it from the wall as it's biggest benefit at that point is it gives a single point of disconnect. Your typical power spike occurs so quickly, that the internal components of these lower priced devices can't respond in time.

2) "Battery backup or UPS" systems give a higher quality of protection, at a higher price point (typically $40-$500 or more). Normally they have 2 sections on these devices, a group of outlets that offer surge protection akin to the surge protector strips mentioned above, and a group that offers surge protection with battery backup. These, again, are not super effective in electrical storms or the such, they are better than the devices above, but if you live in an area with extreme weather conditions your best bet is to still unplug your systems from the wall while these electrical storms are occurring. The big benefit (and something a lot of people don't realize) to battery backup is that your device is actually running off the battery ALL THE TIME. This means that the power drops and spikes that occur in every home's (and business) electrical system are balanced out to a steady current of power being fed to your devices. In the event of a power outage, they might give you enough time to properly shutdown your equipment, or even keep it on until powered is restored, assuming you get one with enough battery power (which translates to more expensive devices).

3) Your best method of single layer protection is "whole house protection". These devices can be purchased at places like Home Depot or Lowes for a lot less than people think (quite a few models can be found for right around $50). Installation might be a little more if you need to call in a professional and have it installed. The key is to have the device attached to the main ground of the house (or building). This then takes random lightning strikes and other types of power surges and puts them straight to ground where they can do minimal harm.

So with all that in mind, your most effective more of protection would be to install a "whole house surge protection" device, along with battery backups and power protector power strips (the strips become quite redundant after the whole house device, but better to have too much protection than not enough). I personally place battery backups on all my expensive equipment (computers, TV's, stereos, basically anything that would seriously hit my pocketbook if I had to replace it due to a power surge) and then use higher quality power strips anywhere else.

With all that said, if you live in an extreme weather area with intense lightning storms, you need to get in the habit of unplugging all devices you possibly can during the more severe storms. The only guaranteed protection against a big lightning strike or other type of surge is to NOT have your devices attached to the houses electrical system when they happen.

Hope that helps, and as a disclaimer, I am FAR from an electrician, just done some of my own research and I would appreciate any modifications or corrections to anything I stated above as I would hate to steer anyone in the wrong direction.

Greg Hicks
Tekamba Computers, LLC
Prescott Valley, AZ

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Addendum to the above comments regarding backup batteries
by GaryKilgore / July 7, 2012 9:38 AM PDT

Like Greg above, I use a backup battery, have surge protector at my main electrical panel, and Always unplug all expensive equipment, telephone, and cables lines prior to thunderstorms or when leaving town. However, you need to have your computer gear on one circuit breaker (surge protected) in your main electrical box. Because your backup battery provides electrical current to everything on a circuit. You don't want your backup battery backing up miscellaneous stuff in your house.

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UPS and surge protectors
by waynearcelectcom / July 7, 2012 9:45 AM PDT

well the common UPS used for home use are only good for a power outage although most has surge protectors in line with the AC - to get a true UPS the unit has to charge the battery and have an inverter that takes the battery and converts it back 115VAC - - AC in to charge -- battery - - DC to AC inverter - which has total insolation - the barry can take up lot of surge - the home units the battery and AC in and out are in parallel so any surge on the input AC is felt on the output AC side - -- like I siad they do have common surge protectors but it's no better that just a surge protector - now when you get into surge proectors there is a world of differnce in units - most the unts you see don't do much - if you wnat to see how the better units are made visit http://www.telebyteusa.com/catalog/refinfo/appnote1.htm and http://www.sinetech.co.za/lightninginfo.pdf

You have to remmember only God can save you and your equipment from a direct hit - so if you have a big T storm rolloing in discontect your equiment - next best thing is buy high quality surge proectors - and put more that one in inline

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God can save you, but you must save your data.
by DGGerman / July 7, 2012 10:38 AM PDT

So, when was the last time you backed up your data.

PS If you are backing up to an external drive, disconnect and unplug it when the backup is complete.

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My battery backup / surge experience
by codfather51 / July 7, 2012 10:24 AM PDT

I beg to differ on your opinion re Battery Backup or UPS protection. I use, and have been using for many years, a UPS device, 10 Outlet, 5 with surge & 5 with batter backup/surge. I will share an incident that happened to be a couple of years ago. I was living in a older home which had a breaker box and a ground fault breaker wired into that breaker box. That external ground fault breaker was for the upstairs floor of the house. We were watching a very intense movie around 8pm. We did see some flashes outside but was not concerned because my equipment was protected. Suddenly there was a very loud bang and the house shook. My electronic equipment, including my computer and 62 inch big screen did not even blink. I looked out to see the electrical utility pole (about 40 ft from my house) transformer on fire. Then I went to check my breaker box because I could smell something burning. I discovered my external ground fault breaker was smoking and fortunately did not catch fire. My electronic equipment shut down as per the device settings. When power was restored my electronic devices suffered no damage whatsoever. I am still using these devices today, including my UPS battery backup / surge protection. By the way, that battery backup / surge device cost me 149.99 Canadian.

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Lightning - You were very lucky
by aerofd / July 8, 2012 1:14 AM PDT

There is a saying in the electronics fields. "Electricity takes the path of least resistance". Lightning takes ALL paths to ground. Lightning is a millions of volts arc that travels 20 plus miles through open air. There have been cases of lightning hitting a tree in a yard, traveling through the tree root system and pieces of pipe and old chain buried in the yard and entering a home through its own ground system. All the systems mentioned in these comments give varying degrees of protection (and I use all of them), but the only way to be completely safe is to disconnect from power, phone and cable lines. Little switches, fuses, spark gaps and VOMs can only deal with relatively low voltages, take a look at the insulators on the cross city power lines near your home, they can be over a foot long and they are only dealing with around 13,000 volts. I live in central Florida one of the heaviest lightning areas in the US and no I don't always unplug all my electronics during storms and in the last 10 years all I've lost is two cable modems (which the cable company happily replaced). I've been lucky too. Nuf said.

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MOVs not VOMs
by aerofd / July 8, 2012 2:12 AM PDT

Sorry about that dyslexic I guess.

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Use a lightning rod.
by lordlollipop / July 7, 2012 11:06 AM PDT

Use a lightning rod.

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Surge protection
by geomurray / July 7, 2012 11:31 AM PDT

I have a good surge protector on almost all of my electronics. I use battery backup (APC) on all of my 4 computers, and 3 televisions. I also have a house surge protector by Florida Light & Power and pay only $5 a month for that. From that statement you can see I live in the lightning capital of the world. The reason for all of the APC's is because we get a lot of mini outages and they can do more harm then a regular one. I firmly believe in good protection.

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HDTV and PC protected
by SkywayTraveler / July 8, 2012 2:27 PM PDT
In reply to: Surge protection

I agree with you completely. I also live in Florida. When I first moved here years ago, I was not aware of the magnitude of the many thousands of strikes that we get down here. The summer rainy season in the Tampa Bay area produces over 40,000 lightning strikes per storm! You can visit http://www.roger-russell.com/lightning/lightning.htm to see a lightning area map.

I already had a Tripp-Lite UPS on my PC. We had a nasty lightning storm the first year that I was here. It hit my TV, costing me $245.00 for the main circuit board. The TV repairman said that 80% of his business is lightning related. I went to the electronics store to get a UPS for my HDTV. The salesman there said that 90% of his PC and TV repairs are from lightning taking out circuit boards. Now I have Tripp-Lite UPS's on my PC and my HDTV. Both UPS's have in/out connectors to protect my cables.

Many of these lightning strikes are "caught" by the electric company's circuit protection. The street power shuts off for a second or two and then resets itself. I was advised by my TV repairman that these flickerings can cause problems in circuit boards. By having only a surge protector, you are only protecting your equipment down to the clamping voltage of the surge protector. The lower the clamping voltage, the lower the over-voltage that gets through to your equipment. So if you really only want, or perhaps only can afford, a surge protector, get one with the lowest clamping voltage that you can afford. Four and five hundred clamping voltage protectors have minimal protection with 330v being preferred. It's a little complicated to get into MOV's and joules here, but you can read up on it in Wikipedia.

My way around the flickering problem, was to purchase a small UPS for my HDTV instead of just a surge protector. It eliminated the cost of replacing the surge protector after a lightning hit which then just becomes a wire. MY HDTV and my PC operate right through any kind of failure. Years and years, no problems.

If I disconnected all of my equipment as some have suggested, I would be a recluse here in Florida.

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Whole house surge protection?

What are some brands/models of whole house surge protection? The kind that plug into the main circuit breaker box of the house.

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whole house protector
by gcfp / July 8, 2012 4:16 AM PDT

i have a ditek ac panel protector installed at circuit breaker panel..apc backup for computer,,,individual surge protectors in every room to protect tvs..also since florida is the worst state for lightening i had time delay and hard start kit installed on my ac,,,nothing kills an ac compressor faster than a power surge which are so commom in florida..

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Whole house Surge protection
by willivon4 / July 10, 2012 5:26 AM PDT

Essential prerequisite for surge protection is a high quality ground. A previous responder described what may be called extreme measures to achieve same. Before you install a whole house unit you need to test the integrity and quality of your house grounding system.Think of the surges as waste and the ground your sewer connection. A poor ground can then be likened to trying to flush your toilet into a 1/4" pipe! No matter how good the toilet (surge protection device) the waste is going nowhere but back at you and your equipment! There are testers that you can acquire / borrow/rent that do this test by clamp on application to the ground either at the panel or for equipment site testing, the ground pin of an outlet. The type I'm referring to all transmit an RF signal onto the ground and per return signal amplitude calculate the impedance of the ground / it's quality.
As to the quality, a small fraction of an ohm is desired. I had tested my home grounding system a couple of years ago before I retired from the VHA Hospital here where I served for 30+ years in their Biomedical Engineering dept, using one I borrowed from the shop. Here's an example of the type of device: http://www.duncaninstr.com/st2301.htm
There are others that will allow clamping in tighter wiring situations.
I had to have the ground re-run. Here connection to the water service < 10' from it's entry into the building with a high quality jumper bypass around the water meter is required. Somehow the builder of my house got around that, connecting to a water pipe just 10-12' from the panel at the back of the basement while the water service enters at the front of the basement. A meter bypass wire was present though..
Once that was done I had a Sine Control unit installed at the power panel for the house. It is a 1240VF2-4. At the hospital we had experienced dramatic reduction in equipment failure rates once appropriate Sine Control units were installed on affected circuits. We used some plug in units as well. See http://www.sinecontrol.com/product_pdf_files/SCT_Series_4_2009.pdf for the specific one I have or this for the product line including some plug in varieties. http://www.sinecontrol.com/products.htm

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Filtering out the small stuff
by glen271 / July 7, 2012 2:25 PM PDT

While surge protectors and UPS's may provide little protection against a heavy lightning strike, the ones which function as electrical line conditioners can be a great benefit to electronics. Most UPS's and some of the more expensive surge protectors have at least some line conditioning to significantly reduce electronic noise. All of the electronics I have plugged into a UPS or surge protector with line conditioning have had a good life span.


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home Surge protection
by joejohn12345 / July 7, 2012 8:12 PM PDT

Lightning is really bad , to my knowledge there is no home surge protection available to protect against a full lightning strike , as other members have said disconnect the power cord for best protection . I used to work for a company that offered hole home surge protection , by adding a surge protector at the panel and individual surge outlets help in the long term effects of small bumps in the power grid, but nothing they sold offered protection from lightning.Unplug your power cord , coax cable and phone lines from your most values electronics is the only way to totally isolate them. just my 2 cents

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by coastie65 / June 15, 2013 9:06 AM PDT
In reply to: home Surge protection

I read that and got to the part where he said he was happily at work while lightening was flashing all around. Those UPS's are there to give you time to save your work and do a proper shut down. Once you have done that, then unplug the UPS from the wall.

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