All of us have a number of expensive items that are connected to the electrical grid most of the time; plugged into the walls in our living space. Do we need to protect those devices with surge protectors?
First, just what is a surge protector? A surge protector (sometimes called a surge suppressor) is an electronic/electrical appliance designed to protect electronic and electrical devices from voltage spikes. The surge protector attempts to regulate the voltage supplied to an electric device by either blocking or by shorting to ground voltages above a safe threshold. This article covers only the type of protector that diverts (shorts) a voltage spike to ground. Many power strips have surge protection built-in; these are typically clearly labeled as such. However, sometimes power strips that do not provide surge protection are erroneously referred to as surge protectors. They are not.
What a surge protector protects against is voltage which is too high for an electronic or electrical device to handle safely on its own. Such spikes in the voltage supplied to the outlets in your home can come from things like lightning strikes and malfunctions in the public power system. When such a problem or event occurs, too much or too little voltage can flow into the devices that you have plugged into the wall. Few problems are caused by too little voltage, though you may have to reboot or turn the devices on and off after the event to make them work properly again.
Too much voltage, however, can be deadly to electronic devices. Those devices, such as computers, televisions, stereos, radios, cable boxes, and a zillion others are built with components that are rated for a specific amount of voltage. If such a device has components that are rated for 120 volts, and for even a fraction of a second are exposed to a higher voltage, all of the components that we are talking about will simply burn up. The term usually used in this situation is that the components (and the device that contains them) have been “fried.” However you term the damage, it means that those devices are ruined and that you will have to replace them, a very costly business at best.
The way to keep this from happening is to make sure that there is a surge protector between your wall outlet and the device that you wish to protect. Doing that is simple: plug the surge protector into the wall outlet and then plug the electronic device into the surge protector. Generally, there is also a switch that turns the surge protector on and off; turn it on to supply power to your devices. The protector will do its job, however, even when the switch is in the off position. When such a device senses a voltage spike coming in from the wall socket, it shuts off the power to your devices, saving them from damage.
These devices will not protect your appliances from every voltage spike, but a good one will protect your electronics from the vast majority of surges. Surge protectors come in a number of flavors. Most decent ones provide 6-8 power outlets covered by surge protection, and a power switch and light for somewhere around $30-40. As a general rule of thumb, if the surge protector would cost more than the device(s) that you want to protect with it, don’t buy the protector. In all other cases, by all means buy surge protectors for all of your valuable devices. They are very cheap insurance against very large problems and expenses.