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How to protect your electronics from power surges

A hand plugging a cord into the USB port on a surge protector
A hand plugging a cord into the USB port on a surge protector
A hand plugging a cord into the USB port on a surge protector

A sudden surge of electricity can cause instant physical damage to electrical components. Electronics and appliances may become inoperable, and sometimes unrepairable. Unseen damage from a power surge can reduce the lifespan of devices or make them more vulnerable to damage from subsequent power surges.

So what can you do? Let’s take a look at why power surges occur, how you can minimize the damage, and how you can recover when a power surge fizzles your favorite devices.

What causes power surges?

The standard outlets in your home are engineered to deliver 120 volts of electricity, though the actual voltage may vary within a safe range. If the voltage reaches 170 volts or higher, it’s considered a power surge, and could cause damage.

There are several potential causes of power surges. A lightning strike to an electrical system, a transformer malfunction or a change to the power grid can cause a surge of electricity to flow into homes and buildings through external transmission lines.

But power surges can also originate within your own home. This may happen when a large system, such as an air conditioner or refrigerator, cycles on or off. These surges may be less dramatic and damaging than those caused by external forces, but they’re also more common, which means they can do smaller amounts of damage that accumulate over time.

How do you protect against power surges?

Appliances and electronics can be protected from surge damage by devices called surge protectors, which you’re probably already familiar with. The most affordable surge protectors resemble power strips, and don’t require any special installation. But there are also whole home surge protectors that can be hardwired to your electrical panel, providing protection to all your home’s outlets at once. Whole home surge protection is often the only way to protect hardwired equipment and appliances that plug into 240-volt outlets.

Surge protectors have one or more components called “varistors” which absorb or divert surging electricity, depending on the voltage. A varistor can only take so much of this damage before it stops working, however, so it’s important to monitor your surge protectors and replace them as needed. Some surge protectors stop the flow of electricity altogether when the varistors stop functioning, but others will let electricity flow unrestricted.

When choosing a surge protector, you may notice it has a “joule rating” – this is a measure of how much electricity the varistors can absorb before becoming ineffective. The higher the rating, the longer the device should last.

What if a power surge damages your appliances or electronics?

Even if you make an effort to protect your devices, power surge damage can still occur. Significant power surges can instantly overwhelm small surge protectors and even some whole home systems. And if the varistors of one or more surge protectors become consumed without anyone noticing, they may allow harmful surges to pass through.

Homeowners insurance may not cover damage related to power surges, and some product warranties won’t, either. If you want to make sure your most valuable and important devices and appliances are covered in the event of a power surge, we recommend protecting them with a Surge Protection Plan that will reimburse you for repairs or replacement related to power surge damage. There’s no way to completely prevent all surge damage, but with a Surge Protection Plan, you’ll have peace of mind knowing your wallet is covered.

Our top surge protection tips

If you’re serious about protecting your appliances and electronics from surge damage, you’ll want to do the following:

  • Consider having a whole home surge protector installed by an electrician. It’s more expensive than a power strip, but much cheaper than replacing a home full of appliances.
  • If you don’t have whole home surge protection, use surge protecting power strips on your most sensitive electronics, including computers, TVs and mobile devices.
  • Read the documentation that comes with your surge protectors to make sure you know how to tell if they’re actively protecting. Different models may use status lights, alarms or even text alerts to let you know if they need to be replaced. When a surge protector is all used up, replace it immediately.
  • Unplug your sensitive electronics as an added layer of protection if there’s increased risk of a power surge. If there’s a severe lightning storm, if you’re currently experiencing a power outage, or if you’re powering your home with an emergency generator, you have an elevated power surge risk.
  • If you experience repeated power surge incidents or have concerns about the safety or function of your home’s electrical system, hire a licensed electrician to perform an electrical safety inspection. Aged or damaged wiring, circuits or other equipment could be contributing to the problem.

Don’t let an unexpected power surge leave you with a shocking surprise! Cover your devices with dependable surge protectors, and consider a Surge Protection Plan to help pay for repairs.