How Can a Surge Protector Save Energy?

Cords plugged into surge protectors
Multi-plug surge protectors help us use a ridiculous amount of electricity, but can they possibly help us conserve power, too?
Gary Gay/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

You don't have to look hard to find a surge protector these days. From home theaters to garage workshops, power strips seem to propagate like weeds. As more gadgets invade our offices and homes, their numbers can only increase. But in addition to protecting our lovely plug-ins from lightning strikes and making it possible to run multiple devices from one wall outlet, can surge protectors actually conserve energy?

To answer this question, it's important to first recognize what a surge protector is and what it isn't. As its name implies, the device's primary purpose is to protect electronic devices from the damaging effects of power surges. Also known as transient voltage, surges are any increases above the standard power voltage for a given electrical line. If the increase is large enough, such as those resulting from lightning strikes, the increased voltage can damage the electrical components. After all, if your radio was designed to operate at 120 volts, a 15,000-volt surge will burn through its wiring. Surge protectors handle this problem by blocking or diverting excess current. To learn more about this process, read How Surge Protectors Work.


There are two basic varieties of surge protector: whole-house surge protectors, which intercept excess voltage as it enters the home, and point-of-use surge protectors, which operate between the wall outlet and your various gadgets and appliances. Of these, only the point-of-use surge protector offers any energy-saving potential. This is because many of the devices we plug in are constantly draining electricity, even when they're switched off. This is referred to as vampire power, also known as phantom load or standby power. In the United States, this drainage costs consumers more than $3 billion a year [source: U.S. Department of Energy].

Sure, Buffy could probably do some real damage with a surge protector, but how about the rest of us? Skip to the next page to learn how a point-of-use surge protector saves energy by stopping this vampire menace.


How to Choose a Surge Protector

Home office
Do you have a lot of electronic accessories crowding your desktop computer? Don't let printers, speakers and other gadgets drain power while your computer is off or asleep.

Think of electric outlets as food sources and your gadgets and appliances as hungry creatures. The problem is that some of these "creatures," like that ravenous plasma TV or volt-starved cell-phone charger, have no idea when to stop eating. Either poor design makes them draw power all the time or standby functions, such as clocks or sensors, require constant electrical energy.

The simplest way to fight vampire power is to unplug devices when they're not in use. Surge protectors can further help by providing another level of control between the electrical outlet and the device. If you don't feel like unplugging six different electronic items every time you're not using your home theater equipment, simply plug them all into a single surge protector and turn the device off. This kills power to the surge protector's outlets, while still protecting against surges.


Some models of surge protector offer additional features that better enable users to cut down on the amount of power their hungry gadgets gobble up.

Watt Stopper/Legrand's Isolé plug load controller features a motion detector. The surge protector consists of six occupancy-controlled outlets that turn off when there's no motion in the room and two uncontrolled outlets which remain on regardless of movement. Plug your computer into one of the uncontrolled outlets and your various computer accessories into the occupancy-controlled outlets. The lack of motion will cause your accessories to power down, while your computer remains on.­

­Other power strips (such as the Smart Strip Power Strip or the Power-Saving Essential SurgeArrest 7) feature an arrangement similar to the setup of many electronic devices where one device controls the other devices. These power strips let you choose which device is the master (primary) and which devices report to the master (secondary). If the master device is off or drawing only standby power, then the secondary outlets don't get any juice. One way to take advantage of this feature would be to designate your TV as the master and make your video game systems, DVD player and speakers secondary. Turn off your TV and the surge protector automatically kills power to the accessories. Additional always-on outlets would allow you to keep lights or digital-recording devices powered on, regardless of the master's status.

For more information about surge protectors and energy conservation, explore the links that follow.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Alliant Energy. "Your Home: Power Surges." Power House. (May 23, 2008)
  • Aquino, Grace. "Seven Ways to Cut Your Electric Bill." Bloomberg News. May 1, 2008. (May 23, 2008)
  • Clean Air Online. "Electricity Generation." Environment Canada. Nov. 20, 2006. (May 22, 2008)
  • Dunn, Collin. "TreeHugger Picks: Cut Back on Phantom Power." Dec. 6, 2006. (May 23, 2008)
  • Energy Information Administration. "Did You Know that Energy Vampires Lurk in your House?" Energy Kids Page (May 23, 2008)
  • Energy Star. "International Partners." (May 22, 2008)
  • Good Magazine. "Vampire Energy." January 2008. (May 23, 2008)
  • Gordon, Jacob. "Another Stake Through the Heart of Vampire Power." Nov. 18, 2006. (May 23, 2008)
  • Jeantheau, Mark. "Vampire Power" Grinning Planet. October 2007. (May 23, 2008)
  • Karp, Gregory. "Vampire appliances: plugged in, sucking power." Newsday. May 4, 2008.,0,3572442.story
  • Meier, Alan and Alain Anglade. "Global Implications of Standby Power Use." The Proceedings of ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings. June 2000.
  • Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel. "Learn about vampire power." October 2007. (May 23, 2008)
  • Oppenheim, Leonora. "Vampire Power." TreeHuggerTV. Oct. 31, 2006. (May 23, 2008)
  • Pogue, David. "Reducing the Amount of Juice Electronic Gadgets Consume." The New York Times." April 24, 2008.
  • Senoron, Reagan. "Whole House Surge Protector -- Protect Your Home Investments." Ezine Articles. March 3, 2008. (May 23, 2008)
  • Smyth, Julie Carr. "Electronic vampires suck energy, not blood." USA Today. Oct. 30, 2007.
  • U.C. Berkeley Student Sustainability Education Coordinators. "Phantom Load." University of California, Berkeley. (May 23, 2008)
  • United States Department of Energy. "How to Buy Products with Low Standby Power." June 2004. (May 23, 2008)
  • Watt Stopper/Legrand. "Watt Stopper/Legrand's unique plug load controls save energy and can contribute to LEED credits." May 2008. (May 22, 2008)