Most damage caused by power outages results from power surges when power is restored. As such, surge suppressors are critical for device protection.
Power outages don’t just bring the risk of spoiled food or the misery of living without your furnace or AC running, they can also wreak havoc on your electronics. Here’s what you need to know about protecting your TVs, game consoles, computers, and more.
You can end up with a damaged device on your hands due to a power outage in several ways. Damage can occur on the front end when the power first cuts out and on the back end when power is restored. First, we’ll look at what causes the problems, and then in the next section, we’ll talk about the different ways you can protect your electronics, appliances, and other equipment.
Although we usually talk about power disruption events and the damage that occurs in their aftermath strictly regarding “power outages,” it’s usually not the outage that does the damage.
The majority of things in your home—be it your TV, your microwave, or any number of other devices—can weather the loss of power just fine. Practically speaking, the power getting cut from the utility side is no different than throwing the breakers in your electrical panel or just unplugging the device from the wall. Turning your devices off by unplugging them isn’t ideal, but most of the time, it’s not the end of the world.
The exception to that rule is generally anything actively writing data. Computers, network-attached storage devices (NAS), and even your router or other devices, if they are in the middle of a firmware update, can be damaged by a sudden loss of power during crucial operations. In a best case scenario, nothing happens, or you only have minimal data loss (like that unsaved file). Worst case scenario, you have extensive data loss and corruption or a bricked device because of an interrupted firmware update.
The real risk of damage typically isn’t from the loss of power but from irregularities that can occur when your power is restored. While sudden power loss can cause problems, like the aforementioned failed firmware update, those are rare and limited to a single device. However, surges can cause extensive damage to multiple devices when the power comes back on.
When power is restored to your home, you can experience a current surge, a voltage surge, or both. With a current surge, the level of electrical current delivered to your home exceeds the expected amount. You get the same elevate levels with a voltage surge, often with 2-3 times more voltage than expected.
When comparing the two and the potential resulting damage, the initial power loss is more like “Whoops, I shouldn’t have unplugged that yet,” and the surges during power restoration are more like little lightning strikes.
Thankfully, your power company works hard to minimize the risk of surges and extensive damage to subscribers’ homes. But you certainly shouldn’t rely on that to protect yourself.
You can protect your devices from power outages and the risks that come with power restoration in several ways. First, let’s look at protecting against the initial power loss and then how to safeguard against surges.
The easiest way to protect devices like your computer, game consoles, and other similar devices is to plug them into an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS). A UPS is like a surge protector with a big battery attached, and it will keep your devices on when the power goes off.
Taken to the extreme, you can extend the concept of the UPS battery backup to your entire home using lithium-ion battery banks (like the Tesla Powerwall and similar products) or a whole-house generator, but that can easily run you $15,000+ and isn’t even an option for renters or apartment dwellers.
It might seem simple, but there’s no better way to protect your devices than to unplug them. While it’s not an option to scramble around your house and unplug everything for a brownout that merely flickers your lights, it’s a great time to unplug things if you’re in a blackout.
Once disconnected from the wall your devices are safe from any surges that may occur when power is restored. And hey, if you forget to plug them in again, don’t sweat it. You might just accidentally discover some energy vampires in your home and save a bit on your next power bill. You’d be surprised how much you can save by eliminating phantom loads.
Surge protectors might not be as cheap as power strips, but the extra expense of using a proper surge protector is next to nothing compared to replacing all the devices plugged into the surge protector. Upgrading from a $10 power strip to a $30 surge protector is a great deal when you consider it can save thousands of dollars worth of gear from surge damage.
So for devices that don’t require the graceful shutdown a full UPS offers but still need protection, a surge protector will at least ensure when the power comes back on, the device doesn’t get fried.
Plug-in surge protectors are classified as Type 3 suppression because they are applied at the point of use. In addition to plug-in models, outlet-based surge suppressors are also Type 3 because they provide surge protection only at the point of use. The power-strip style surge suppressors are the most common, but if you ever want to protect something like a washing machine and dryer set with a surge suppressor, the outlet-style suppressors are a great way to do so safely and without a strip-style suppressor dangling behind the machines.
If you own your home, one final option offers protection not just for devices plugged into individual surge protectors but for everything in your home: a whole home surge protection system.
There are two forms of whole home surge protection, Type 1 and Type 2. It’s worth noting that even with Type 1 and Type 2 suppression on your home, using a Type 3 power strip with sensitive electronics is still recommended.
A Type 1 surge suppressor is applied at the power entry point into the home at the meter. It looks like an extender for your power meter module and sits between the meter and the box. This kind of surge protection only prevents surges from the electrical grid (and not surges from within the home). Expect to pay around $250, plus the labor of a qualified electrician, for installation. A qualified electrician in your area will also be aware of local utility rules regarding Type 1 systems—some electrical utilities allow them and some forbid any alteration of the meter assembly.
A Type 2 surge suppressor is installed inside your home and has a form factor ranging from what looks like a giant wall-wart transformer to a miniature breaker panel. Type 2 systems help protect against a surge from outside your home (though not as thoroughly as a Type 1 system) and surges generated from things within your home, such as those created by AC systems or faults within the general electrical system. A Type 2 suppressor will run you around $100-250, again with the additional expense of a qualified electrician.
That might seem like a hassle, but whole home systems are significantly beefier than anything you’ll find in even the most robust individual surge protectors. So if you live somewhere with frequent power outages and you’re tired of replacing appliances and devices that keep mysteriously dying, it’s worth looking into.