When to Use a Surge Protector

In the last section, we saw that power surges are a regular occurrence, unavoidable with our current system of providing electricity to homes and offices. This raises an interesting question: If power surges are an inherent part of our electrical system, why didn't we need surge protectors in our homes 50 years ago?

The answer is that a lot of the components in sophisticated modern electronic devices (such as computers, microwaves, DVD players) are much smaller and more delicate than components in older machines, and are therefore more sensitive to current increases. Microprocessors, which are an integral part of all computers as well as many home appliances, are particularly sensitive to surges. They only function properly when they receive stable current at the right voltage.

So whether or not you should get a surge protector depends on what sort of device you're hooking up to the power supply.

  • There's no reason to hook up a light bulb to a surge protector because the worst that is likely to happen due to a power surge is that your light bulb will burn out.
  • You should definitely use a surge protector with your computer. It is filled with voltage-sensitive components that a power surge could damage very easily. At the least, this damage will shorten the life of your computer, and it could very easily wipe out all of your saved data or destroy your system. Computers are very expensive items, and the data they hold is often irreplaceable, so it's only good economic sense to invest in a quality surge protector.
  • It's a good idea to use surge protectors for other high-end electronic equipment, such as entertainment center components. A surge protector will generally extend the life of these devices, and there's always a chance that a big power surge will causes severe damage.

One problem with surge protectors is that the MOVs can burn out with one good surge. This is why it's good to get a protector with an indicator light that tells you whether or not it's functioning properly.

Even if you connect surge protectors to all of your outlets, your equipment might be exposed to damaging surges from other sources. Telephone and cable lines can also conduct high voltage -- for full protection, you should also guard against surges from your telephone or cable lines. Any lines carrying signals into your home can also carry a power surge, due to lightning or a number of other factors. If your computer is connected to the phone lines via a modem, you should get a surge protector that has a phone-line input jack. If you have a coaxial cable line hooked up to expensive equipment, consider a cable surge protector. Surges on these lines can do just as much damage as surges over power lines.