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How to Choose Surge Protection for Your Home

You may not realize it, but your stereo system, home computer, television, VCR, microwave oven -- anything with internal electronic circuits -- is under attack every day. The attacks are silent, but destructive.

The culprit -- POWER SURGES. Power surges are extremely brief spikes in electrical power that burn up the electrical circuits inside appliances and electronics. For more detail about what power surges are and where they come from, read Facts about Power Surges.

Not only can power surges destroy appliances and electronics, they can ruin electrical outlets, light switches, light bulbs, air conditioner components, and garage door openers. How can you protect yourself?

Surge protection devices can prevent the damages from most power surges.

There are two types of residential surge protectors:

  1. Service entrance surge protection device, which is mounted at or near the incoming electrical service
  2. Point-of-use surge protection device, which is used at the appliance being protected and includes the type of surge protectors that plug into a wall outlet.

For the typical home, many experts recommend a minimum surge protection network consisting of:

  1. Service entrance surge protection device protecting the incoming electrical power line, incoming telephone line, and cable TV and satellite dish cable.  This can be done with a single surge protection device that is capable of protecting all types of incoming lines (electrical, telephone, cable TV, and satellite dish cable) or separate surge protection devices at each incoming line. Protection of the incoming electrical line can be located at the main electrical panel or electric meter.
  2. Point-of-use surge protection devices with a 330-volt clamping voltage at all expensive electronics and appliances, such as TVs, VCRs, stereos, and computers; all have electronic circuits which are susceptible to power surges. Susceptible appliances can be identified because many times they have electronic push buttons, electronic clocks, or digital displays. If the appliance has other wires connected to it (such as telephone lines, cable TV cable, antenna cable, or satellite dish cable), those wires or cables must run through the point-of-use surge protection device as well to provide protection on all lines.

For home office or special medical needs, additional and different protection from other types of electrical power interruptions may be appropriate as well.

There is no surge protection device or system that can protect against all power surges. A direct lightning strike to the house's electrical system may be too great for the surge protector(s) to handle. Using a "two-stage" surge protection system should protect against most of the power surges.

Why is it Better to Have a Two-Tiered Surge Protection System?

By combining a service entrance surge protector with point-of-use surge protectors located at all sensitive electronics, a better protection system is created.

  1. Using a service entrance surge protection device provides protection for the entire electrical system. They protect things such as motors, lights, outlets, light switches, and all the other "hard wired" items in the house that do not plug into an electrical outlet and can't be connected to a point-of-use surge protection device.
  2. If the power surge is created by a lightning strike or power fluctuation on the utility lines, the service entrance surge protection device can reduce the power surge to a lower level before it gets to the point-of-use surge protection device.
  3. This helps to prevent damage to the point-of-use surge protection devices from surges too strong for them to handle. It also helps reduce the level of the power surge at the appliance being protected since the power surge's energy level is reduced at both the service entrance device and again at the point-of-use device.
  4. Service entrance surge protection devices do not eliminate the need for point-of-use surge protection devices because:
    1. The power surge may not be generated on the incoming utility lines. For example, lightning may hit an outside light fixture creating a power surge on the circuit powering the light. If there are outlets on the same circuit as the outside light fixture, any electronics plugged into those outlets will be better protected if a point-of-use surge protection device is used.
    2. The point-of-use surge protection devices help protect appliances against surges that are generated within the home.
    3. Good quality point-of-use surge protection devices have the ability to reduce power surges to lower levels than typical service entrance surge protection devices.

Examples of Service Entrance Surge Protection Devices

There are service entrance surge protection devices that mount in or on your main electrical panel, or at the base of the electric meter. Several examples are shown below. Only one service entrance surge protection device is needed if it protects all incoming lines, including electrical, telephone, and cable TV lines. As an alternative, separate devices can be installed on each incoming line.

Service Entrance Surge Protection at the Main Electrical Panel (no protection for telephone or CATV)

Service Entrance Surge Protection at the Electric Meter (no protection for telephone or CATV)

Service Entrance Surge Protection at the Main Electrical Panel (with face cover removed). (This device protects the electrical service, telephone service, and cable TV service lines.)

Point-of-Use Surge Protection Devices - an alternative to whole house protectors

There are also several types of point-of-use surge protection devices:

Point-of-use surge protection devices (plug-in type): You may be familiar with the plug-in type surge protectors. They look like plug strips, having several plug-in locations on one device. A regular plug strip, unless it specifically says so, does not provide surge protection. Be careful when buying such items to make sure that you are getting the surge protection you need.

Plug-in (Point of use) Surge Protector

Surge protection electrical outlets: Special electrical outlets contain surge protection in those places that you don't have room for or don't want a plug-in type surge protector, such as at a countertop microwave oven.

Electrical Outlet with Built-In Surge Protection

Surge Protection Terminology

Surge protection and the associated protection devices on the market can be confusing to a homeowner. Understanding the terminology can help.

Surge Protection Devices have several names: surge protectors, surge suppressors, transient voltage surge suppressors (TVSS), or secondary surge arresters. But they essentially have the same function of protecting against power surges. Other common terms you may hear when shopping for surge protection devices are listed below.

Surge Protector: For the type of products one would find around the home, this a general term that can refer to TVSS or secondary surge arresters. These devices are designed to protect equipment "downstream" against power surges by reducing the amount of voltage they let through.

Many electric utility companies also use secondary surge arresters and devices called lightning arresters throughout their electrical grid to protect their equipment from lightning damage. The devices they use are more durable, but can't reduce the power surge down to the lower voltage levels that in-home products can.

However, the utility company's surge protection measures can help the homeowner by reducing the energy level of a power surge before it gets to the home.

Secondary Surge Arrester: These devices are designed to go on the inside or outside of the house. If tested, they are tested according to the recommendations of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standard C62.11, Metal Oxide Surge Arresters for Alternating Current Power Circuits, with a 10,000-volt, 5,000-amp power surge. IEEE C62.11 is not a test and does not assign a clamping voltage for secondary surge arresters. This makes it difficult to compare the capabilities of one product to the next.

These devices include the meter-mount surge protectors and the plug-on surge protectors that snap into the electrical panel.

Transient Voltage Surge Suppressor: TVSSs are generally designed to go on the inside of the house. If tested, they are tested according to Underwriters Laboratory (UL) standard UL 1449 with a 6,000-volt, 500-amp power surge. UL 1449 assigns a clamping voltage to the TVSS which can be used for comparison from one product to the next. These devices include the point-of-use surge protectors and service entrance surge protectors mounted on the electrical panel.

Clamping Voltage: TVSSs should have a clamping voltage specified. Clamping voltage is the voltage at which a surge protector begins to work by redirecting the power surge to ground. The lower the clamping voltage of the surge protector, the lower it will reduce the power surge voltage.

UL 1449 2nd Edition: This is a test standard that was developed by UL in conjunction with industry to certify product ratings and ensure proper markings on TVSS products. Through this test, the clamping voltage is determined.

IEEE C62.11: This standard, written by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, has recommendations on how to test secondary surge arresters. [IEEE C62.11: Standard for Metal-Oxide Surge Arresters for AC Power Circuits (>1 kV)]

Let-Through Voltage: This is the residual surge voltage that passes through a surge protector after the protector has "clamped" in response to the power surge.

The clamping voltage does not determine the level of let-through voltage for all power surges. For example, if a point-of-use surge protection device has a clamping voltage of 330-volts, that means the device will let-through no more than 330-volts if the power surge is exactly the size, shape and duration of the 6,000-volt surge required in the test standard, UL 1449.

 If the same device (with a 330-volt clamping rating) is subjected to a power surge with a higher energy level (voltage, amperage, or duration), the let-through voltage will most likely be above 330-volts.

Metal Oxide Varistors (MOVs): MOVs are a common technology (not the only type) and are at the heart of the surge protector's (TVSSs) ability to protect against power surges. Generally, the larger they are and the more there are equates to better protection and a more durable, longer-lasting surge protection device.

MOVs redirect the electrical current in the event of a power surge. How an MOV works is easier to understand if you think of it as a water spigot. Under normal conditions, without power surges, the MOV is a "closed valve" allowing current to flow in the electrical circuit and not through the MOV.

If there is a power surge, the MOV clamps the voltage by redirecting the electrical current (opening the valve) from the electrical circuit into the grounding system until the surge voltage drops below the clamping voltage of the protective device. When the power surge is over, the MOV returns to the "closed-valve" position.

During the power surge, all of the excess energy of the surge is diverted by the MOV, causing it to get hot. The temperature of an MOV disc can vary from room temperature to several hundred degrees after a power surge has been redirected.

The higher the voltage of the power surge, and the longer it lasts, the more energy that must be diverted and the hotter the MOV becomes. MOVs are sacrificial, meaning they will divert a finite number of power surges until they are eventually destroyed. They may reach end-of-life after only a single large surge or over several years from several smaller surges.

Thermal Fuse Protection: Because MOVs heat up when handling a power surge, there is a potential for the surge protection device or material surrounding the surge protection device to catch fire. The 2nd Edition of UL 1449 tests the fire safety of the TVSS surge protection devices by requiring severe overvoltage tests, causing the MOVs to fail.

The surge protection device passes if it does not create a fire or electrocution hazard. This is commonly accomplished by the use of thermal fuse protection. Under the previous version of UL 1449 surge conditions could cause the surge protector to overheat and catch fire. The thermal fuse reduces that risk.

L-N, L-G, & N-G Protection: The electrical system in your home is typically a three-wire system. The wires are the ground, line (hot), and neutral. A power surge can exist across any of these wires. The surge protection should protect against surges coming through any of these wires. When a surge protection device indicates the following, you know all wires are protected: Line to Neutral (L-N), Line to Ground (L-G), and Neutral to Ground (N-G). Secondary surge arresters installed at the service entrance have only Line to Neutral (L-N) protection because there is no ground wire in the locations where they are installed.

Continue to Part 2

State Farm® believes the information contained in this article is reliable and accurate. We cannot, however, guarantee the performance of all items demonstrated or described in all situations. Always consult an experienced contractor or other expert to determine the best application of these ideas or products in your home.

Thanks to our friends at State Farm Insurance from allowing us to reprint this article.

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