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Do you have surge protection?

Our homes now overflow with expensive electronic gadgets and gizmos, all of which can benefit from surge protection. But buy the wrong equipment, and all you'll get in return will be a false sense of security.

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All surge protectors and uninterruptible power supplies, or UPS, are not created equal. To get the right protection, you need the right equipment for the job.

Origin of spikes and surges
When most of us hear the terms "spike" or "surge," we think of electrical problems associated with violent weather. It's true that severe storms do take their toll on power lines, transformers and electrical substations. Not only can they deprive us of electricity for hours, days or even weeks, they can damage the sensitive electronic devices that dominate our lives.

The typical lightning bolt contains several hundred million volts of energy. Should that massive discharge strike a nearby cable, power or telephone line, it will fry anything that's plugged into an unprotected outlet.

Neil Bradshaw operates a home-based business in Windsor, Ontario, an area susceptible to lightning strikes. "We have lots of new housing developments and much open land," says Bradshaw, who had the foresight to buy a quality surge protector to safeguard his PCs. "We were hit with lightning two months later. All of my electronics were fried, however the computers that were plugged into my APC surge protector survived. The computers that were not ... were damaged."

Bradshaw says he was unable to recover data from the hard drives and calculates a loss of nearly $13,000 in unprotected equipment.

Storm winds can be equally damaging. Powerful gusts can easily down or stress electrical lines, causing otherwise-stable line voltages to fluctuate wildly. The resulting swings in AC current can damage unprotected electronics just as effectively as lightning.

"I work in a data center. I have seen firsthand the kinds of damage power interruptions can cause," says Jan Craddock of Tampa, Fla. His home electronics experienced no ill aftereffects from the surges and spikes generated by the winds of last year's hurricanes. He attributes that to surge and battery backup protection.

The equipment has also kept Craddock protected from a host of nonweather-related electrical problems. "My Back-UPS units have saved me from incurring thousands of dollars of electronic equipment damage as a result of the constant Tampa-area power surges, brownouts and power failures."

Foul weather isn't the only spike and surge producer. During summer heat waves, the atmosphere might be tranquil and unchanging for days on end, but the electrical grid is anything but, thanks to all those air conditioners, fans, pool filters and whirlpool tubs switching on and off. Even though the resulting fluctuations in current might not immediately damage unprotected equipment, they will wear on sensitive circuitry over time, shortening the lifespan.

Even the building boom can generate its share of localized spikes and surges.

"Construction sites are a problem," said John Drengenberg, an engineer and consumer affairs manager for Underwriters Laboratories. "Any time you have a large quantity of electricity being used, such as by a hoist-motor or a large salamander-type heater or an arc-welder or any other major power tool going on and off, well all this activity can send surges down the electrical line that can interact with AV equipment or any sophisticated electronic."

So no place is really safe, that's why many recommend whole-house surge protection to shield sensitive equipment from external power problems. These units are generally attached to the main breaker box and are designed to handle spikes and surges of up to 20,000 volts -- standard outlet surge protectors typically can't handle more than 6,000 volts. They can be a sensible option for those living in areas where utility or weather-related problems are common.

 
 
Next: What about home-entertainment centers?
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