Surge protectors (also known as power strips), those ubiquitous plastic blocks of electronic goodness, are great if for no other reason than that they turn one electrical outlet into 6, 12, or sometimes even 18 outlets. But what if we told you that there is another, more important purpose to the surge protector? As the name implies, surge protectors are actually a line of defense against electrical surges which can severely damage your computer and peripherals.
While the common perception is that the electricity that comes out of wall outlets is standardized and constant, in fact the voltage can vary a great deal. Occasionally, this voltage can “surge” to a dangerously high level. The most common cause of power surges are high powered electrical devices like air conditioners, elevators, and refrigerators. These devices contain components that require a lot of energy but switch on and off, components like compressors and motors. These components can cause severe variations in the flow of electricity.
Much like a hose or water pipe, the circuits in your computer have a threshold for how much energy can be safely passed through them. When too much electricity is run through your computer, the flow can overwhelm and damage the circuits. Unlike a water pipe however, the wires and circuits in your computer don’t “burst” per say, but they do burn out. Whereas water in a pipe builds up pressure until the pressure causes the pipe to burst, resistance in a wire causes heat to be generated as electrical current passes through it.
If too much current passes through the wire, it can become so hot that the material burns up, much like the filament in a light bulb. Once a wire is burnt out, no more current can pass through it, and the circuit is broken. If you’ve ever tried to turn your computer on after a thunderstorm only to realize that you have a shiny new doorstop under your desk, there is a very good chance that this is exactly what occurred.
Why They Work
So where does the power strip come in? In short, the power strip “smooths out” the voltage that comes out of your power outlet, minimizing those potentially damaging surges. When your computer is connected to a surge protector, which is in turn plugged into a wall outlet, any excess voltage is diverted to a grounding wire, saving your computer and other devices attached to the strip from damage. Some surge protectors also have a fuse which burns out when the voltage is too great for the grounding wire to adequately handle, preventing any current from flowing through the strip and adding another level of protection. The only downside to this fuse is that it must be replaced every time that it burns out, although 10 out of 10 IT professionals agree, it’s much easier to replace a fuse than a computer.
Got Surge Protection?
By this point, we hope we’ve convinced you that a surge protector is much more than a simple outlet multiplier, and if you don’t have one we hope we’ve made it clear why it is one of the easiest measures you can take to protect your computer investment. Before you dash out and purchase a new surge protector, be warned that there are many different types available with a gamut of price ranges and features, some much more effective than others. As always, talk it over with your IT professional for the best advice.