Tips & Tweaks: No Power? Blame the Heat!

Is it hot enough for you?

That's a dumb question, one that's being asked across the country.

Here in Southern California it's roughly 130 degrees. Okay, so I'm exaggerating a little--but I swear, not by much.

When the temperature goes up, so do the power company's rates, which I might be willing to pay if only they'd provide the service. Instead, they raise their fees and turn off the power without much warning. No kidding. You can see how some of California's unpredictable rolling brownouts work at Southern California Edison's Rotating Outages Information page.

The upshot? You need a surge suppressor. For one thing, it protects your equipment from everyday fluctuations in power. Just as important, if your neighborhood is targeted for a rolling blackout, you need protection when the power is restored.

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From an Expert: Surge Suppressors

I recently interviewed Dan Farnsworth, an APC product manager, via e-mail. Even though Farnsworth certainly could have pitched APC's products, he didn't. So the info below applies to any surge suppressor.

Question: If I have a whole house surge suppressor connected to my home's electrical service entrance, do I need to bother with additional surge suppressors on individual devices, such as the computer, TV, and stereo?

Answer: Absolutely! The Panelmount unit [whole house surge suppressor, also known as a Transient Voltage Surge Suppressor, or TVSS] should be the first line of defense in a properly protected house (or business). We always recommend use of "line cord" units [individual surge suppressors] at the specific outlets where you are plugging in any type of electronics.

Here are the reasons: All good-quality line cord surge protectors have "let-through" voltages much lower [than a TVSS] and therefore protect your electronics more completely.

Secondly, while a TVSS unit at your home or building's electrical service entrance will protect it from externally generated power spikes--say, a lightning strike, or a power surge from the power supplier--the majority of surges and spikes are generated from within your home or building. For instance, appliances--air conditioners, pumps and other items with motors--are a common source of these surges. These aren't nearly as large as a lightning strike, of course, but they subtly degrade the electrical components within your electronics.

This "multilevel" protection strategy is the best way to "bullet-proof" your system.

Question: Do I need a lightning rod?

Answer: Lightning arresters are helpful, however, they do not offer the same level surge protection as transient voltage surge suppressors (TVSS). Lightning arresters are installed on the line side of the service entrance panel and are designed to protect the incoming conductors and, to some extent, the main breaker. They have a let-through rating of 1500-3000v (depending on the voltage system).

TVSS units are installed on the load side of the first main disconnect and are designed to protect sensitive electronic loads inside the facility. They have let-through ratings of 400-800v (depending on voltage system). I'd recommend installation of a TVSS unit minimally at the service entrance panel.

Question: Do all other external paths--my cable TV, DSL, and phone lines--need separate surge suppression devices?

Answer: Absolutely! Damaging surges can enter your system just as easily from data cables as from AC power cables; in fact, damage from these "backdoor surges" is more common than from surges traveling along AC power lines. Each data cable needs surge protection and most of these devices are inexpensive.

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Steve Bass writes PC World's monthly "Hassle-Free PC" column and is the author of PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer, available from O'Reilly. He also writes PC World's daily Tips & Tweaks blog. Sign up to have Steve's newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.
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