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Not all surge protectors are created equal

Ten things you need to know about power strips, USB charging and surge protectors -- before you start shopping.

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Getty Images - Navee Sangvitoon

You probably have more devices that need charging than wall outlets to charge them. Adding additional AC outlets and USB charging ports is one benefit of surge protectors, but many models also add a layer of protection against a random, but surprisingly common, power surge. These spikes in power can damage your gear, so a layer of separation between them and the power in your wall is a good thing.

Not all surge protectors are created equal. There's a wide range of prices and a handful of features to consider. Many come with questionable marketing promises, too, so it's hard to figure out what's worth the money and what's nonsense. I'll help you sort through it.

While you're here, we've got tips on hiding TV wires and products that help cut cord clutter. Plus, quick tweaks that will enhance your home theater setup. If you're interested in a bit of background, check out what makes a good surge protector. This article is the updated successor to that one and covers the basics you need, so let's dive in.

1. Surge protectors vs. power strips


Belkin Surge Power Strip Protector

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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. They're usually small and thin, sometimes fitting directly into the outlet itself. They 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 directly.

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. They're usually a bit more elaborate, and often bigger, than a simple power strip, though not always.

2. Joules are a measure of protection


Yeah, not sure what to do about that either, buddy.

Getty Images - D-Keine

Surge protectors offer protection in units 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.

Unfortunately, there's no way to know how much protection a device has left, or if the initial rating is even accurate. Buying from a reputable company, and one that includes a warranty, is a good idea.

3. Some come with a warranty on your stuff

Brett Pearce/CNET

Some surge protectors offer a warranty (up to a certain amount) on the gear connected to the protector. For example, in the US, certain Belkin models have up to $300,000 Connected Equipment Warranty, and states: "Belkin Components will repair or replace, at its option, any equipment which is damaged by a transient voltage surge/spike or lightning strike, (an "Occurrence"), while properly connected through a Belkin Surge Protector to a properly wired AC power line with protective ground."

You'll probably never need it, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have it. Keep in mind, however, that just because the warranty exists doesn't mean you'll ever see a dime from it. Note in that Belkin quote the term "at its option." That means they'll come up with any reason not to cover your claim. So don't use this as a replacement for home or renter's insurance.

4. Why 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.

5. Always get more outlets than you need right now

Getty Images - DonNichols

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, you should get 12 -- but at least six is probably a good investment.

Ideally, you don't want your surge protector to look like the image above.

6. Get one with enough spacing for big plugs


APC Surge Arrest P11U2


Most modern 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 can be rotated or moved, to accommodate chunky plugs.

Note how the APC example in the image above has several close-spaced outlets, for small plugs, and also six wide-spaced for wall warts.

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.


Sorry, doggo.

Getty Images - Ирина Мещерякова

8. USB is great, but check the amps


APC Surge Protector with USB Charging Ports


Many surge protectors come with USB connections, so you can charge your mobile devices without having to use 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.

Most modern phones have the ability to fast-charge, but you'll need to use their wall warts for that. If you don't need to quickly charge them, though, these lower power ports will work just fine.

Now playing: Watch this: USB-C gets big power boost

9. Traveling? 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 no. 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 lightning blew out a transformer down the street), it's probably worth replacing your surge protector just in case. 

Most companies that sell surge protectors say they need to be replaced every three to five years. Sure, they're motivated to have you buy them more often, but with many models under $50, this isn't an extreme cost. 

Bottom line

There is no reason not to get a surge protector. How much you might 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.

One thing that's beyond the scope of this article, but worth mentioning, are UPSs, or uninterruptible power supplies. These are like surge protectors, but have built-in batteries so the device never loses power. At least, not until the battery runs down. They're not crucial for most people and most equipment, but if there's something in your house that would cause serious issues if it lost power (CPAP machines, perhaps), they're worth looking into. Just make sure they fit your specific needs.

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

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As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on Instagram and his travel video series on YouTube. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel