Q&A / 

Residential Surge Suppressors

DEAR TIM: I am getting ready to build a new home. A neighbor told me that many of my new electronic devices including my computer and stereo equipment can be harmed by invisible power surges in the electric lines. I thought only lightning could destroy my stuff. If this is so, what is the best way to protect all of my electronic equipment? Do those inexpensive surge suppressors really work? Alan O., Clanton, AL

DEAR ALAN: Invisible disruptions in electrical power are real and they are becoming more of a threat to electronic equipment regardless of whether or not you live in a new home. A voltage surge or spike caused by a blown transformer, downed power lines, lightning, electric power grid switching, etc. doesn't discriminate between old and new houses. What's more, surges travel down telephone, cable, and TV antennae wires as well. That innocent telephone line connected to the back of your TV or computer can be the source of destruction in the blink of an eye.

Well over 50 percent of the power surges your equipment will experience are created within your own home when appliances with large motors (air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, etc.) turn on and off. What's more, just about every electronic device manufactured today contains smaller and smaller micro-processing chips that are more sensitive to voltage spikes than ever before.You need surge protection and lots of it if you want to protect your computers, printers, fax machines, garage door openers, stereos, etc.

There are two basic types of residential or light commercial surge suppressors. One type connects to your electric panel where your circuit breakers or fuses are located. These devices are designed to stop harmful surges before they can travel towards the electronic equipment in your home. They are not DIY friendly. A professional, licensed electrician should install a whole house suppressor. A good electrician can complete the task in less than one half hour in almost all cases. The whole house surge suppressors are affordable. You can find several in the $200 range.

Most people are familiar with the point of use surge suppressor. These are the ones that contain multiple electrical outlets for your computer, printer, scanner, stereo receiver, CD player, etc. and often connection points for telephone and cable TV wires. These surge protection devices come in varying levels of quality and protection. If you purchase the wrong one, your brand new computer or stereo can become toast in less than a second.

Surge suppressors are like car brake disc pads. They wear out. Inside most suppressors you will find metal oxide varistors (MOVs). These electrical components are sacrificial. Small surges that enter your house slowly destroy the MOVs. A large surge can cause instantaneous destruction of all of the MOVs in an instant. The MOVs ability to block surges is measured in joules. Buy a surge suppressor that has a high joule rating. Look for ones that offer joule ratings of 1,900 or more if possible.

Pay attention to clamping voltage as well. This rating tells you when the surge suppressor will react. High quality suppressors have low clamping voltages. If the equipment you are trying to protect contains micro-processing or computer chips, purchase a suppressor with a clamping voltage of 330 volts or LESS. Look for the Underwriters Laboratory (UL) UL-1449 voltage rating on the suppressor's packaging. This is the true measure of clamping voltage.

Because surge suppressors wear out, your older surge suppressor might be an open gateway for destructive electrical surges. Newer high quality suppressors come with lights and audible alarms that tell you when the MOVs have given up the ghost. Both the whole house and point of use surge suppressors are available with this convenient feature. Look for suppressors that come with connected equipment and total replacement warranties. Numerous manufacturers will send you a free replacement suppressor when and if yours fails. In addition, some will even pay up to $100 towards the electrician's repair bill when your whole house suppressor needs to be replaced.

A spectacular book for learning all about residential electricity is Wiring a House. With its wealth of practical know how this book, written by a master electrician, is sure to become an indispensable reference for anyone who wants a common sense guide to residential electricity. The black and white photos and illustrations featured in this book are clear, crisp and easy to understand. You must buy a copy of Wiring a House, a great hardback book published by Taunton Press.

Here's a complete, full - color guide to all aspects of residential wiring and how to apply them to the wiring of a typical house. Electrical Wiring Residential is another must have book. It's everything anyone could need to know, from wiring a lighting branch circuit, to installing a service entrance or swimming pool. Loaded with examples, wiring diagrams, spectacular photos and illustrations explaining all the new NEC requirements throughly. This book is easy to read and understand, yet has all the instructions and details needed to perform virtually any residential wiring job properly.

If you are looking for a book with invaluable information on tools and materials, detailed instructions for how to repair or replace wiring in old buildings and bring them up to code then you need a copy of Old Electrical Wiring. This 400 plus page book tells you everything you could ever imagine about switch layouts, troubleshooting, and design change. It also has an extensive glossary of old wiring terms and slang. Packed with drawings and illustrations, including pictures of old devices, this practical book will tell you whether an old electrical system should be torn out or repaired. This book will really help you.

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