Heavy electricity usage in hot weather, high winds and lightning can all cause power outages and it’s important to protect your computer and other electrical appliances against a power surge. Melbourne sees all of these conditions in summer, sometimes all in one day.
Both area-wide power outages, and overloading your own home’s systems, can cause a power surge. Heavy use of air-conditioning and over-working refrigerators are common causes. Problems occur when power comes back on and there’s a sudden surge in electricity flowing through the system.
Large surges can fry circuits, melt plastic and metal parts. Even if there’s no immediate damage, small surges can gradually degrade the electronic circuits in your computer and other appliances. These happen all the time without us knowing. Shorter, strong power spikes, where equipment turns off and on quickly, cause more problems. Even more common is what is known as brownout, where the nominal 240v supply is under-delivered, often down to 210v. Ever noticed how sometimes your lights seem brighter than other times?
What Is a Power Surge?
Past Experiences of Power Outages Causing Surge Damage
I’ve woken to find my PC switched off three times lately due to power outages. On New Year’s Eve power was out over the Mornington Peninsula for two hours.
At one time we’d sit around in a candle lit room chatting. Times have changed. With laptops, phones, and iPads, charged we found other ways to keep entertained. For lighting, we just grabbed some or our solar Christmas lights and brought them inside.
Thankfully no damage occurred to our computers or appliance because, after past experience, we have protection. Early this century*, on different occasions, a power surge destroyed our TV, a dryer and a couple of PC’s. Then there was the time our Christmas tree fell over, knocked over a vase which spread its watery contents over our TV!
Power Surge Protection
Surge Protection Power Boards
These are multi outlet boards that you plug into a wall socket. You then plug your appliances into the board. They are not the same as plain old power strips. When buying look for the words “surge protection”, “fused strip” or “interrupter switch”.
Level of Protection
Buy a board with the right amount of outlets for your needs or future needs. They usually come with 4-12 sockets but you can buy those with single sockets. Singles are good when you just want to swap appliances, or behind microwaves and fridges. Some come with USB chargers for your portable devices.
The more expensive boards aren’t necessarily better for home use. But be careful of the cheap ones, not only because of reliability but the amount of power they can absorb in a surge, how large a spike they can stop and lack of warranty. Brand name boards, such as Belkin, HPM and Arlec, aren’t expensive these days and you can often find them on special.
The absorption rating on a board shows how much energy, in joules, it can absorb before it fails. The amp rating refer to how large a spike the surge protector can stop. The clamping voltage shows what voltage makes the board kick in to divert unwanted energy from the protected lines.
Lifehacker Australia recommends an absorption rating of at least 6-700 joules or higher and a clamping voltage of around 400V or less. The amp rating on consumer surge protectors starts at about 25,000 amps and goes up to about 150,000 amps. Computer and entertainment equipment need more robust boards than, for example, bedroom lamps.
Some boards come with a warranty which covers you if the board doesn’t do what it’s meant to. Other boards turn off when your devices turn off and some come with remote controls. A remote control is handy if the power board is hard to get at (behind TV units, under desks). Warranty only protects you from surges coming into the board from your electricity supply, not from a faulty piece of equipment plugged into it. If you need to replace a charger or transformer for one of your devices, stick to branded, not cheap knock-offs. Too many stories of burnt out phones, exploding power bricks or fires to run the risk.
- Power Surge protectors don’t give protection against really major surges caused by lightning strikes. If lightning is close it’s best to turn off and unplug your appliances.
- Avoid plugging other surge boards or extension boards into a surge board. Avoid overload by plugging high power need appliances into their own sockets – heaters, microwaves, toasters, kettles.
- Boards need replacing after a while, even if there’s still a light on the board.
- For safety reasons, if you’re not going to plug appliances into all the sockets all the time, choose surge boards that have individual switches rather than one master switch.
Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) Boards
UPS boards have inbuilt battery backups so that if your power supply fails then, in theory, you have time to back up any computer files you are working on before your machine shuts down. The two we bought obviously don’t store enough energy to do this as they shut down a computer straight away.
There are two types of UPS boards
- Standard which kick in when the power goes out completely.
- Line Interactive which, as well as battery back up, work all the time to smooth out the power supply for minor fluctuations.
UPS protection is much more expensive to buy and there’s a cost for the electricity needed to run them. Choice says that in 2014 this was around $40 a year.
Whole of Home Surge Protection
Hard wired surge protection is the most expensive option of all but be worth considering if you’re building a new home.
Have you had any computers or appliance damaged by power outages and surges?
*”Early this century”. It seems strange using that expression because it doesn’t seem like 16 years it started!