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What are power surges and what can I do about them?

As its name suggests, a power surge is a surge or increase of power. The brief jolts of electrical voltage range from minor to severe and can leave their mark. Major surges can damage or fry your computer or TV while minor surges may cause no apparent damage but can take their toll on devices over time.

Electronics and appliances are especially susceptible to a power surge, but spikes in power can also damage outlets or start electrical fires. Although many people associate lightning with power surges, Mother Nature’s strike is not the most common culprit.

Other causes can be found at home. Devices that require a lot of power to switch compressors or turn motors on or off – air conditioners, refrigerators and space heaters, for example – call for sudden, brief draws on power. These power demands upset the steady flow of volts in the electrical system. While the surges caused by these items are far less intense than a lightning strike, they can still cause damage.

Other causes of power surges include faulty wiring and overloaded outlets or circuits.

These options may protect appliances and electronics:

  1. Use surge protector strips or devices. Most surge protectors are no match for lightning’s wallop, however. During a severe storm, it is best to unplug your computer, televisions and other electronics.
  2. For electronics, consider investing in the surge protector’s big brother: uninterruptable power supply devices. They work like a surge protector but have battery backup to keep them running during surges, power reductions or brief outages.
  3. Consider having a whole-house surge protector installed by a qualified electrician. Typically installed to the electric service box, it offers greater protection for your appliances than individual surge-protecting devices.
  4. If you do not have them already, consider updating outlets with those that feature ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). Today’s electrical code requires them near a water source for new or remodeled homes. They help prevent electrical shock and fire, and they are reset with the push of a button after they have been tripped.
  5. Contact your local electric cooperative to learn more about surge protection programs.

People who elect whole-house surge protection can still use the individual plug-in versions for their most sensitive electronics, providing two levels of protection.

Find more useful information about how to stay safe around electricity from our other safety pages:

Overhead power line safety

Power lines and cars

Indoor electrical safety

Generator safety

Stay safe during an outage

 

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