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What to Look for With a Surge Protector for Your Computer

I evaluate products and clearly explain their features based on my background as a technology writer with a Master of Science degree.

Safeguard your electronics with a good surge protector.

Safeguard your electronics with a good surge protector.

You Need to Protect Your Computer From Getting Zapped

Many people buy surge protectors that provide little or no shield from damaging voltage spikes. I’ll explain everything you’ll need to know, such as clamping voltage, the importance of joules, and the causes of power surges and voltage spikes.

Your computer stores your financial information, business data, family pictures, and irreplaceable personal files. So it's crucial to protect that equipment. Excellent protection doesn’t have to be expensive.

How a Surge Protector Safeguards Your Equipment

A surge protector diverts voltage spikes safely to ground rather than getting into the sensitive circuits of your equipment. Voltage spikes can come through the power line and or through the telephone line. So phone lines need to be protected too if they are connected to your equipment.

Under normal conditions, electric lines have a steady voltage (120 volts in the United States). However, in some cases, erratic fluctuations of the voltage can occur. These are spikes in the electric power that can damage equipment. Any voltage spikes need to be re-channeled to ground. That's what a surge protector does.

What Causes Power Surges and Voltage Spikes?

Lightning is well known for creating power surges. But voltage spikes can also come from high-powered equipment that is on the same circuit. These can create huge spikes in the electric line when you turn them on and off.

For example, if you have a refrigerator or air conditioner on the same line as your computer, you may get interference that can damage the machine. Sometimes it might just be an unexpected reboot, but it can also cause a hard disk crash that cannot be recovered.

The average surge protector will not protect your equipment from lightning strikes. If this is a major problem in the area where you live or work, you need to consider full-building protection with an external lightning arrestor that diverts lightning strikes to ground.

If this is your concern, check with your power company and your telephone company. Ask what precautions they have taken to protect you and what recourse you have if their lightning protection fails.

Explanation of Clamping Voltage and Joules

What do you look for to select a good surge protector?

You need to pay attention to two things:

  • Clamping voltage: needs to be low to cut off high voltages.
  • Joules: needs to be high to increase the surge protector's life expectancy.

You want a low clamping voltage. That is the amount of voltage that is let through. You don't want to let through too high a voltage, as it will blow your equipment.

The standard clamping for a 120-volt line is 330 volts. So don't buy anything that allows more than that through.

You also want a protector that can absorb as much energy as possible before blowing itself out. That is measured in joules. The higher this number, the longer the life expectancy of your surge protector.

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If this absorption rate is too low, you may only be protected for a single event. Then you will need to get a new surge protector. Unfortunately, that's another mistake many people make. They don't realize that the surge protector is not going to protect them indefinitely.

How Many Joules Is Required for Good Surge Protection?

Some of the cheaper surge protectors only provide protection once. After that, it's like a fuse blowing. You do indeed want to protect your equipment, but you also don't want to keep buying a new surge protector each time it saves you from disaster.

If you use one that has a sufficiently high joule rating, then it should last through many power surges and spikes.

I suggest a rating of over 3000 joules. With anything less, your surge protector may not survive a spike. Therefore, it may not protect your equipment if you get more than one high voltage spike before replacing it.

A single high voltage spike may destroy surge protectors that have a low joule rating. You'll need to replace these cheap protectors often. You'll end up saving more money in the long run by getting a good surge protector with the proper joule rating in the first place.

I use the APC Back-UPS Pro 1000VA Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) on my main office computer, where I need to avoid losing power. Many UPS's have excellent surge protectors built-in, such as this one.

If you only want protection from power surges and don't need guaranteed uninterrupted power, I recommend the Tripp Lite Isobar. It's a power strip with surge protection.

I use the Isobar to protect my expensive video and stereo equipment. It has 10 Outlets and enough room to plug in up to four large transformer adapters.

3570 Joules of Surge Protection for Power and Phone lines

Phone Lines Need Protection Too

You will also want to include surge protection on your phone lines if they are connected to your equipment. The Tripp Lite Isobar power strip also includes protected phone jacks. Another solution is to have the phone company install surge protection on each phone line coming into your premises.

Whole-House Surge Protection for All Electronics

All your electronic devices should be protected. If you have a lot of different equipment throughout your home, you may want to consider a whole house surge protector. That needs to be installed by an electrician.

It could help save everything else that wouldn't have been protected otherwise. Besides damage from lightning strikes, voltage surges from other sources can come through your electrical system too. You never know where it strikes, and protecting your entire home is the best choice when you have a lot of expensive equipment.

People Also Ask

Should I protect kitchen appliances?

Kitchen items such as a food blender or toaster oven don’t need a high level of protection. Besides, replacing these items if they ever do get damaged is cheaper than the cost of a surge protector.

How many joules of protection are needed for a clothes iron?

Surge protectors are mainly used to protect electronic equipment. I wouldn’t consider using one for ironing clothes. There is no need for that.

You wouldn’t be using your iron during a thunderstorm anyway. It would be best if you stayed away from anything connected to electrical wiring that might receive a high voltage spark from a lightning strike.

Remember This

When buying a surge protector, the most important thing is to pay attention to the joules (the higher, the better) and the clamping voltage (basically around 330 volts).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Glenn Stok

Reader Comments

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on September 14, 2017:

Jordan, When you turn on a heavy-usage device there is an initial spike that can reach close to 330 volts. If the clamping voltage were any lower, the surge protector would erroneously trip every time you turn on the device.

Jordan on September 14, 2017:

Thanks for your response Glenn, but I admit I am still in the dark with the 330v UL Let thru limit. I know about the lesser the better, so why so high ? I would have thought something like 110 volts would be ideal / best let-thru voltage vs 330v. Plus I think the clamping voltage should ideally be like 130v max. What do you think ?

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on September 13, 2017:

Jordan - You need to compensate for normal spikes when a unit is turned on. The lowest UL rating for clamping voltage is 330 volts. The lower the rating, the better the protection.

Jordan on September 12, 2017:

A UL rating of 330 volt ? Isn't that too high for let thru ? Clearly I am missing something here with UL standard.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on February 10, 2012:

Frank, If they don't provide the information you need to make a purchase decision, then don't buy the product. That's their lose if they don't have complete specs, or they are hiding something about an inferior product. There is no way I can determine that.

Frank in Miami on February 10, 2012:

Good site, thanks for helpful info so far.

I wanted to purchase a new surge suppressor for my HTIB setup, but have had difficulty determining anything except protection in joules -manufacturers seem to not -or not WANT to -include either clamping voltage or response time in the specs, either on the box or online. I went with a Dynex DX-S114241 11-outlet model, with a 3750 joule protection rating. Know anything about clamping voltage or response time for this model?

Thanks in advance.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on December 26, 2011:

LH Fernando, Clamping voltage is the level where electricity will be conducted to ground in order to protect your device. So you want to have a clamping voltage as low as possible which is still over the level of you normal highest voltage.

The lowest UL protection rating is 330 volts. Your highest voltage during ringing is 150, so get a 330 rated clamping voltage.

L.H.Fernando on December 26, 2011:

Our (Sri Lanka) telephone system has 48 V DC supply when "on hook" and 130-150 V (rms)during ringing. What would you suggest for the clamping voltage of the SPD for the telephone line?

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