Power Strips Versus Surge Protectors

By Tom Tate

As we all have been encouraged to work and set up school workspaces in our homes, we realize there simply are not enough outlets in our homes for all of our various devices. This is particularly true for older homes. As a result, you may have ended up with a number of “outlet expanders,” more commonly known as power strips.

Power strips are generic and fulfill a very simple function. They are inexpensive, and the quality, in most cases, is on par with the price.

Keeping this in mind, take a look at factors to consider when purchasing a power strip or a surge protector, the power strip’s more talented cousin.

Important tip: Make sure you know the amperage rating of the outlet into which you are connecting the strip and other equipment. A residential circuit can overload if you are not careful.

Purchasing a power strip:
• Look for power strips with a built-in circuit breaker. If you connect too many electronics and devices, the strip will kick out the circuit breaker rather than causing the breaker in your electric panel to trip.
• Pay attention to the orientation of the outlets. The typical design is along the length of the strip, facing the bottom or end of the strip. Power strips with the outlets perpendicular to the length of the strip are recommended.
• Get a smart strip. These are becoming more common and less expensive. With smart strips, one outlet serves as a master, receiving power all the time. The other outlets do not receive power until the master device is turned on. This is ideal for home entertainment setups.

If you are connecting expensive electronics, you may want to consider a surge protector. Here, price is even more important because a cheap surge protector can be worse than none at all for two reasons. One, they use cheap, small, surge-fighting components. Two, these components can fail and the strip will still provide power, all without any indication that its protective side is gone.

Like power strips, there are some key factors to consider when buying a surge protector.
• Go for a significant joule (jewel) rating. This is a measure of how much energy it can withstand.
• Cable and internet connection protection. You may want to consider this for your entertainment and computing needs as surges can enter via any wired connection. Be sure the protector is designed to handle a digital television. Otherwise, it can cause pixilation if it’s only designed for analog signals.
• Indicator light that shows if protection has burned out.
• The same outlet orientation as previously mentioned.
• Power conditioning feature (for PCs, this is a nice-to-have feature but not a necessity).
• A smart capability as mentioned above.

Power strips and surge protectors are worth the investment when you follow these simple suggestions. Don’t get “burned” by purchasing cheap, inefficient strips and protectors. Pun intended.

Tom Tate writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.