You’ve probably heard it from others or read it online: To fully protect the equipment connected to your home outlets, you should get yourself a surge protector. But the advice stops right there. No one tells you anything about what kind of surge protector you should buy or anything you should look for. In this day and age, buying a surge protector is still not a straightforward process. The information out there is still a bit overwhelming for people who understand little to nothing about electric circuits. It’s time we addressed questions consumers frequently ask about these enigmatic pieces of hardware.
1: Do I need a grounded circuit to use a surge protector?
Yes, you do. Most surge protectors function by running any excess power through a ground. When they have nowhere to run that power, they’ll act unpredictably. When a surge protector fails to protect the equipment hooked up to it, the excess power may divert to the equipment itself. This short-circuits everything inside each device, which might cause tons of irreparable damage. Make sure that the outlet you connect the surge protector to is grounded.
However, there are surge protectors out there that don’t require a ground. I only know of BrickWall and Zero Surge. Both companies make surge protectors that have alternative methods of diverting power, rather than relying on a trip mechanism that can fail at any point and hoping that the outlet is grounded. Cleverly named, BrickWall surge protectors actually look like bricks:
2: I have a GFI/GFCI. Is that enough to count as “grounding?”
Nope! Having ground fault interruptors (GFIs) doesn’t mean that your outlets are grounded. It simply means that the power to that outlet (or the entire house, for that matter) will shut off as soon as it detects the possibility of personal electrical shock. If you touch a hot wire while putting the other hand in water, for example, the power to the outlet in which the hot wire is connected will shut off. It’s useful for your protection, but it won’t protect any valuable equipment. Again, if you have no ground or aren’t sure if you have one, get a Zero Surge or BrickWall surge protector.
Note: By the way, if you don’t know whether you have a GFI/GFCI or not, but want to find out, your outlet would include a red button and a black one below it if you had this protection.
3: What joule rating (how many joules) should my surge protector have?
You’ve probably asked this question after you’ve seen the funky data sheets that surge protectors have. Or perhaps you’ve recently looked at one of their boxes. Nonetheless, surge protectors have a tendency to pride themselves with joule ratings galore. First of all, one joule is one watt-second. In other words, the number of joules a surge protector is capable of handling represents how many watts per second it can absorb before just giving up. You should get something in the order of at least 600 joules, if not more. That shouldn’t be any trouble in the 21st century. Still, you shouldn’t be surprised if you still see units touting 200-500 joules.
Anyway, you shouldn’t just be basing your decision on “how many joules this surge protector can handle.” That is a recipe for a superficial purchase. The most reliable conventional surge protectors also have UL ratings (clamping voltage) at 330 V. The lower you go, the better it gets.
Oh, and let’s not forget about response time. You don’t want a long delay before the protector flips the switch in the case of an electrical surge, do you? If a manufacturer omits the surge protector’s response time and refuses to tell you after a phone call, it’s not worth your time to buy from it. Manufacturers have a tendency to be a bit selective on what they advertise for a reason.
Got more questions?
Ask away! That’s what I’m here for! If you feel confused by anything mentioned here, or have a new valid question, leave a comment below.
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