Power strips, supplies and surges


A common misconception in the world of technology is that if I have a “surge protector”, then I don’t need to worry about my electrically connected components. While it is a start, surge protectors are just one of the many options available to the consumer who is trying to prolong the life of his or her components. This article is going to discuss the many consumer level electrical adapters that are available and some good general rules about how to best protect your sensitive electronics.

For those that want more information about some of the physics behind electricity, you can take a look at this site.

In order to really understand how best to protect your components, you need to understand the war that takes place everyday at our power outlets. There are many different causes of power surges. Weather, other appliances, power grid fluctuations and outright outages can all affect the longevity of your electrical components. The most commonly known source of a power surge is a lightning strike. Lightning occurs as a result of a voltage difference between the ground and a cloud and that voltage difference must be equalized. That equalization is what we witness as a lightning bolt. A lightning bolt can reach temperatures of 50,000 degrees fahrenheit (Encyclopedia Britannica). Just as a point of reference, the surface temperature of the sun is right around 10,000 degrees fahrenheit. Each small lightning bolt dispenses about 1,000,000,000 (one billion) joules of energy or somewhere around 35,000-40,000 amps. That sudden release of energy, when it makes contact with our homes or the electrical wiring that connects to our homes, is just one of the potential causes of a power surge. While we don’t have any statistics about how many “brown outs” (or temporary voltage reductions) or “black outs” (complete loss of power continuity) take place here in Los Angeles, we do know that somewhere between 2 and 10 take place everyday at our offices. Now, most of these issues pass by without any major incidents, however, the collective of these fluctuations can add up to a severe shortening of the lifespan of your electrical components.

A common metaphor for electrical wiring is a water flowing through a hose, if too much water pressure (amperage) suddenly comes flying down the hose, it can cause the hose to burst or in the case of electricity to actually burn components. If the pressure fluctuates only in a small amount (electrical spikes), the effect doesn’t occur immediately, but over time, the additional effort expended by your components during the fighting of this war causes their life span to shorten.

Just for thoroughness sake, there are two different devices characterized by the term surge protectors. There are true surge protectors and then there are surge suppressors. For the sake of this brief discussion, we are going to use the term surge protectors to cover both surge protectors and surge suppressors.

Surge protectors are some of the most cost effective ways to reduce the effect of power fluctuations on your electrical components. Surge protectors take the overage caused by the surge and funnel it off back through the ground wire so that it doesn’t pass through to the components connected to it. However, as noted above, some electrical surges are so large that even the circuitry inside basic surge protectors can’t handle the overage caused by the sudden increase. Some higher rated surge protectors come with built-in fuses that if conditions deteriorate beyond what the surge protectors’ circuitry can handle, the fuse will simply burn and cause the circuit to disconnect, unfortunately turning off the components connected to it, but saving them from being damaged in the process.

A very common cause of smaller surges (not quite as exciting as lightning but much more common here in Los Angeles), are the use of high powered electrical appliances like vacuums, air conditioners and even some hair dryers. These devices, because of the way that the electrical motors draw a large amount of electricity, when they are powered on and off, any other devices connected to the same circuit can experience (occasionally severe) voltage fluctuations.

Surge protectors can come in many configurations and like most electronics, better performance comes with higher prices. You can purchase a fairly decent quality surge protector for around $25-$30. Even higher quality devices that offer better protection and basic power conditioning can be purchased for $75-$100. Aside from these options, it is becoming more and more common for electricians to install whole-home surge protection systems that prevent surges from even reaching your outlets and stopping them at the circuit breaker box. You can contact your electrician for more information on those products and to receive an estimate for getting one put into your home.

Surge protectors do a good job preventing higher than normal electrical levels from reaching your components, however, as mentioned above, besides spikes in voltage, there are also times in which voltage dips below optimal levels and surge protectors can’t really do much to help out with that condition.

Beyond the Basics

Battery Backup

Battery backups or Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) are the commonly used bigger brother of the surge protector. These devices are easily found at most office supply retailers and oftentimes combine the circuitry of a surge protector with the added bonus of a large battery that if a drop in voltage occurs (either lower than normal or a total loss) the battery kicks in and takes over the power flow and keeps your components running long enough to save your work and shut them down safely rather than the power outage shutting them down for you. Generally speaking the battery needs to be replaced every 2-3 years and many units are smart enough to let you know when the battery needs replacing. Most consumer level UPS replacement batteries cost around $40-$50 and can be easily ordered through the manufacturer’s website or other third party resellers. Some of these devices can even be configured (using computer software) to report their status in case of an outage so that appropriate actions can be taken to prevent damage to the components that are connected. These devices can cost anywhere from $50 up to $10,000+ depending on the voltage needs and the feature set.

Power Conditioning

Anyone that installs high end audio/video equipment will agree, that in order to guarantee the best picture and performance, you have to provide clean and even power. And this advice is for components that we spend only a few hours (hopefully) at most watching each day. Why are we so reluctant to provide this same level of protection for their computer systems with which some of us spend 8-10 hours a day (OK some of us more)? The devices that provide this service are called power conditioners and they (oftentimes) combine the functionality of high quality surge protectors and add sophisticated digital circuitry that buffers and then regulates the power that is being delivered to your components. These devices are designed to effectively eliminate the war that our components go through by taking the rugged battle field of our electrical grid and flattening it so that there is no longer a reason to fight. In addition to their overall function, these devices also provide easy to read visual information about what the device is doing and it lets the end user know that it is doing its job and if a problem occurs, its job is to report back to the user and let them know the nature of that problem so it can be addressed in a timely manner before that problem causes damage to your equipment. They can range in price from $150-$3000+ but quality units can be purchased for around $250-$500 depending on how much voltage needs to be handled and what features you were looking for.

Purchasing Advice

The most dangerous error that can be made is mistaking a power strip and a surge protector. Surge protectors have become a ubiquitous part of our day to day lives. The main distinction between a power strip and a surge protector is that a power strip does nothing to protect your components from electrical current fluctuations. A power strip simply splits a single outlet into multiple outlets so you can connect more than one device. Most power strips that don’t have surge protection built-in will actually say in large print on the retail packaging “this does not provide surge protection.” In addition, they usually have an amperage rating which should never be exceeded and some of them have a basic breaker that when the amperage rating is exceeded it trips the breaker in an attempt to protect the connected components. However, the amperage rating can actually be higher than the residential circuit breaker rating thus providing very little protection for the components that are connected and if a powerful enough surge occurs, it will still likely cause damage to the components connected to it. These basic power strips are to be avoided as much as possible unless a quality surge protector is utilized in conjunction with it and appropriate load requirements aren’t exceeded.

Mistakenly purchasing a power strip instead of a surge protector is fairly common considering how inexpensive cheap surge protectors are and how similar power strips and surge protectors look.

For example:

The basic power strip on the left and Surge Protector on the right both look very similar. The power strip is currently being sold at around $5-$10 and the surge protector is currently selling for around $20. Both are made by the same company and during normal use they function very similarly. They allow the electrical current coming out of a single outlet to connect to multiple devices. The key difference being that the surge protector will provide some protection should the input voltage spike.

For UPS units, make certain that you purchase a unit that has enough outlets for your battery backup related needs as well as your surge protection needs. As mentioned, many UPS units combine these two very important functions, but to keep prices low, a common practice is to enable battery protection on half of the outlets on the unit. As mentioned above, you should avoid daisy chaining UPS units and surge protectors. So make certain that the devices that need to be backed up by the battery are connected to the proper outlets. You should refer to the user’s manual of your unit to determine which outlets, if any, are not battery backup protected.

Our primary recommendation is to know your electrical usage. Just because you have enough plugs to connect an electrical component, doesn’t mean its safe to do so. Every electrical component has its maximum electrical requirement listed somewhere on the device. For example, our Cisco telephones have a 110V @ 0.3 amp draw (33W). Here is a list of a few of our other electronic devices and their maximum input draws:

  • 17” LCD Monitor: 110V @ 1A (110W)
  • RAID1 Enclosure: 110V @ 1.3A (143W)
  • 1.5TB External USB Drive: 110V @ 0.8A (88W)
  • 2 Mac Mini Computers: 110V @ 2A each x2 (440W)
  • Brother Laser Printer: 110V @ 9.9A (1089W)
  • Power Mac G5: 110V @ 10A (1100W)

So if every device was using the maximum draw at the same time, we would be utilizing over 3000W of power. If we were purchasing a UPS for that much of a constant power load, it would cost around $3,500 and we would need a circuit that could handle around 30-40 Amps which is higher than most residential circuits allow for. Thankfully, the ratings that are listed on transformers and the backs of electrical equipment (Equipment Nameplates) are sufficiently over estimated maximum load requirements. According to APC (by Schneider Electric), a company that manufacturers quality uninterruptible power supplies and other power related products, “equipment nameplate ratings are never lower but often higher than the actual power drawn by electronic equipment. Nameplate ratings are required by regulatory agencies…and are required to represent a power or current rating which the equipment will never exceed. As a result, manufacturers often are extremely conservative and place high nameplate ratings on equipment. It is not uncommon for the nameplate rating of computer equipment to be over two times the actual power draw.” So if we utilize APC’s estimates and we want a UPS that handles all of the equipment above, then really we need something that can handle around 1000-1500W. Which can be purchased for around $500-$700. Thankfully, the only thing most consumers need to put on a UPS is their computer, their monitor and they need to route their ethernet connection and cable connection through it to prevent a surge reaching their tower through those alternate utilities. With a setup like that, if a power outage occurs they can walk over to their computer, turn it off and unplug it so that any additional electrical irregularities don’t cause damage to the device. The average computer tower has around a 400W power supply and a 17″ monitor is around 110W. So the maximum needed would be around 650-750W and a good UPS for a setup like that would be something in the neighborhood of $150-$200. If you have a wireless connection to the internet, then as an added bonus to fewer wires, you don’t need to worry about a surge reaching your tower through the ethernet cable.

The moral of all of this math is that the only way you can know what type of voltage your devices are actually using during normal operation is to connect an electricity monitor inline with your devices and keep an eye on it for a few days to see what your usage actually is…

Or there is another way to get fairly close. Companies like APC make their living making sure your electrical components are protected. As a result they have a huge database of known normal power consumption for many common computer components. You can actually go to their website and use their Sizing Tool.

Its a given that they will be recommending devices in their own product line (and they are our preferred vendor for UPS and surge protection). That being said, if you have a preferred vendor for power related products, you can utilize the specification recommendations provided by APC (or any other publicly available sizing utility) and apply them to your vendor’s products.

Final Thoughts

There are few considerations more important than properly protecting your components from electrical related fluctuations. Every day, we see the effects of not properly doing so in the form of lost data on external drives and blown power supplies in computers. Just like for data storage limits, it is our recommendation to allow a minimum of 15-25% of unused capacity on whatever device you select. This gives you some room to allow for the occasional high need requirement from one of your devices. So if you require 500W of available power then get something that can handle 650+. In addition, it really doesn’t matter what type of power protection you have in place, if at all possible, it is always a good idea to disconnect your precious equipment during electrical storms. This also means disconnecting ethernet and/or telephone lines as well which can also be a potential source of a surge.

In this article, we have provided information regarding many of the options related to consumer level power protection and how to understand the differences between them. If you have additions to this article or feel we have made an error in our reporting here, feel free to contact us. If you have questions or would like to leave a comment feel free to do so below.