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10 things you should know about surge protectors

Surge protectors are an inexpensive way to protect your gear against random power spike damage. Here are a few tips before you start shopping.

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Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Whether you're just looking to add more outlets, or want to add a layer of protection between your gear and the outside world, you'll eventually want to buy a surge protector.

With an incredible range of prices and features, not to mention a barrage of questionable marketing promises, it's hard to figure out what's worth the money, and what's nonsense. I'll help you sort through it.

For a little background, check out what makes a good surge protector. This article is the updated successor to that piece, though we'll cover some similar ground.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

1. Surge protectors vs. power strips

Power strips and surge protectors, also called surge suppressors, are different. 

Typically, power strips are cheap, multi-outlet products that are merely an expansion of a wall outlet. These usually have a circuit breaker (on/off switch) of some sort, but most don't offer any real "protection" from electrical issues. Some might have the barest level of protection, but they're all pretty much just like plugging into the wall direct.

Surge protectors are relatively cheap too, but unlike power strips they offer some level of protection against power spikes. How much and how well varies considerably.

2. All about the joules

Surge protectors offer protection in amounts called joules. Generally, the more joules the better, as this means the device can handle one large surge, or multiple smaller surges, before your gear is in danger. Over time, the parts inside the protector wear down, reducing its effectiveness.

There's no way to know how much protection a device has left, or if the initial rating is even accurate. To get some answers, the Wirecutter did a massive test on surge protectors, essentially blowing them up to see how well they worked. (On a related note, definitely check out #10.

3. A warranty... on your stuff

Some surge protectors offer a warranty (up to a certain amount) on the gear connected to the protector. For example, in the US, one Belkin model has a $300,000 Connected Equipment Warranty, and states: "If your electronic equipment is damaged by a surge, spike, or lightning strike while properly connected to this power strip, we will repair or replace it, up to $300,000."

You'll probably never need it, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have it. Keep in mind that just because the warranty exists doesn't mean you'll ever see a dime from it. 

4. You probably don't need a power 'conditioner'

There are a number of products on the market that claim to "condition" the power from the wall, promising improved performance in your gear. 

Here's the dirty little secret: Your gear already does this. All electronics have a power supply that takes the incoming wall current (120v in the US), filters it for noise, and converts it into whatever the device needs. Almost nothing actually runs on 120 volts (or alternating current, for that matter), so unless you've got some really wacky (or cheap) gear, and live in an area with bizarrely inadequate power, a power conditioner isn't something you need.

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Bestek

5. Always get more outlets than you need

You're always going to need more outlets. You'll undoubtedly add more gear, without necessarily getting rid of your current gear. I'm not saying that if you think you need four outlets get a 12, but a six is probably a good investment.

6. Get one with enough spacing for big plugs

Many devices use wall warts -- plugs that convert AC power into DC power and look like little boxes with electrical prongs sticking out. Consider getting a surge protector with wider spacing between sockets, or sockets that be rotated or moved, to accommodate chunky plugs.

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7. Power spikes can come to phone or cable lines too

If you want total protection, consider that phone and cable lines can carry power spikes too. Some surge protectors have connectors for these as well.

8. USB is great, but check the amps

Many surge protectors come with USB connections, so you can charge your mobile devices without having to use a their wall warts. Handy, for sure, but check what the output amp rating is. Generally, this is either 1 or 2 amps (often labeled 1A or 2A). This is how much flow you can get through the pipe, so to speak. You'll want at least 2 amps for quicker charging.

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Eve Systems

9. Get a portable power strip

While not offering much protection, a portable power strip might prevent marital friction, and/or invoke bliss from travel companions. Most hotels and hostels have few accessible outlets, yet everyone has multiple devices that need recharging. Most portable power strips add two to three additional outlets, plus offer direct USB charging (see number 8).

10. They don't last forever

Remember the joule rating we discussed earlier? Well, it means that over time, a surge protector is going to wear out. Some will give you a warning or shut off when their protection drops below a safe level. Many will just keep working, without protection, and you won't know it until a power spike damages your gear. If you know you've had a serious electrical event (like lighting blew out a transformer down the street), it's probably worth replacing your surge protector just in case. If you've had your current surge protector for more than a few years, it's probably worth replacing.

Bottom Line

There really is no reason not to get a surge protector. How much you need it will vary. If you live in an area with lots of thunderstorms, your gear is probably more likely to experience power surges. Even if you live in the desert, your A/C or refrigerator could kick power spikes back down the lines to your A/V gear.

Since most surge protectors are cheap, they're worth getting (and regularly replacing) just in case.

We don't currently have recommendations for specific surge protectors, but you can find plenty of options for as little as $20 or less at Amazon.

Note that CNET may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.


Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the sameTV resolutions explainedLED LCD vs. OLED and more.

Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff, then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel.