Electricity is one of the most useful (and used) modern inventions in the world. It’s the bedrock on which almost everything runs in your home — and increasingly in other ways, including electric cars. Given the importance of electricity, it’s essential for all of us to have a reliable, uninterrupted supply. While each utility company strives to provide this, sometimes a power surge can disrupt the process.
Join us as we uncover everything you need to know about what power surges are, why they occur, and how to prevent one from happening in your home.
What Is a Power Surge?
Power surges are just as the name suggests: surges of electrical power that are higher than normal. Typical voltage levels for household appliances and electronics are between 110 volts and 220 volts in most countries, with the United States operating on 120 volts on average. When significantly more voltage comes through wires into devices, it’s known as a power surge. These surges can be small or large, resulting in reduced performance or possibly damaging plugged-in devices.
How Do Power Surges Happen?
Power surges happen in three main ways: when there’s an interruption in the flow of electricity followed by a short; when an increased delivery of power is interrupted when electricity is sent flowing back into the system; or when a sudden increase of voltage is sent through a power system from internal or external forces. Power surges can range from as little as one volt over the threshold maximum of 169 volts to thousands of excess volts, such as when lightning strikes power lines or a transformer.
What Causes a Power Surge?
There are several causes for a power surge. The main reasons are electrical overload, faulty wiring, lightning strikes, and the restoration of power after a power outage or blackout. Let’s review each of these causes in more detail.
Electrical overloads can occur when too much power is drawn from a single circuit. This happens most commonly from overusing extension cords and plugging in too many devices into the same circuit. Power surges are common following electrical overloads as the overwhelmed single circuit can receive a massive current and subsequent voltage spike from the excess power being drawn.
Faulty wiring is a potential internal cause of power surges, which are more likely to happen with damaged or exposed electrical wires. It may not be easy to see faulty wiring, especially if it’s located behind walls.
However, there are other signs that faulty wiring is present. These signs include outlets with burn marks, a burning smell coming from wiring or outlets, a buzzing sound coming from outlets, and circuit breakers frequently tripping. If you see these signs, unplug any connected electrical devices immediately and turn off electricity to the area if possible. It’s best to contact a certified electrician if you suspect faulty wiring.
Lightning rarely damages appliances through direct exposure. Still, it can wreak havoc by triggering a power surge. Lightning damage usually results from a direct strike on power lines, which produces a large voltage. When this happens, the electrical system accepts the overwhelmingly excessive current with no other option. This creates a tremendous spike in voltage, which in turn causes a significant power surge. As such, you should unplug any devices that don’t have surge protection during severe storms.
Power Outage or Blackout
Power outages typically occur due to large-scale power grid failure, and while the lack of electricity doesn’t usually cause any issues, the return to connection often can. It’s common to experience a sudden jump in current when power is restored following an outage. As a result, this power surge has the potential to damage any plugged-in appliances and devices that do not have surge protectors.
How Often Do Power Surges Occur?
Power surges occur very often. While standard U.S. voltage is 120 V, the true amount of voltage constantly oscillates between a few volts up to 169 volts — it is not until voltage passes 170 V that a potentially harmful power surge happens. Homes can go years without experiencing any significant surges, which are typically caused by lightning or faulty wiring.
Who Pays for Power Surge Damage?
Payment for power surge damage depends on what caused the surge, and what type of insurance you have. Homeowners insurance policies, particularly those with personal property coverage, generally cover damages from power surges caused by lightning strikes or excessive voltage from external events.
However, if the surge that damaged your devices or home appliances was caused by known faulty wiring or overloading circuits — especially those with visible warning signs — you will likely be responsible for covering the expenses.
How Can Power Surges Be Prevented?
There are several ways to prevent internal power surges, and several ways to prevent damage from external power surges that are out of your control. Internal surges can be prevented by making sure your devices are not overloading circuits. Large appliances such as air conditioners shouldn’t share the same socket with other appliances, and you should make sure your wiring is up to code.
While external power surges are sometimes unavoidable, you can still prevent them from causing damage by unplugging your devices and appliances during severe storms. You can also utilize surge protectors for your appliances and gadgets, which block excess voltage from reaching your electronics in the event of a power surge. You can even install a whole-house surge protector to ensure your devices aren’t affected by any external events.
What Are the Signs of a Coming Power Surge?
There are several signs to watch out for that may indicate a power surge is coming. Things to look out for include:
- Flickering, buzzing or dimming lights
- Frayed wiring
- Discoloration or scorching of outlets or areas surrounding wires
- Smoke coming from outlets
- Warm or vibrating outlets
- Burning smell or odd, sharp odors near outlets
Some signs that a power surge has already happened include flashing lights on digital clocks, devices unexpectedly turning off or not working, or an acrid smell surrounding the device.
How Can You Prevent a Power Surge From Damaging Your Appliances or Electronic Devices?
Aside from unplugging your devices when not in use, there are a few things you can do to safeguard against power surges. Using point-of-use surge protection devices, especially when combined with a reliable grounding system, will protect electrical devices and appliances from all but the most severe power surges. Plus, you can also use special wall outlets that offer additional surge protection. You can easily find these items at most local hardware stores or home improvement centers.
Are Power Surges Damaging Your Electronics?
The spike in voltage that causes power surges has the potential to damage electrical devices and appliances. When voltage increases above normal capacity, it can cause an arc of electrical current, with associated heat also posing a risk to electronic components. Even smaller power surges can cause damage if they happen frequently. This could be the reason that your devices and electrical appliances stop working for no apparent reason.
What Should You Do After a Power Surge?
- Reset, unplug, and repower all electronic devices. Do this before resetting your circuit breakers if a power outage has occured after the surge.
- Assess your home for any damages by inspecting your appliances, electronics, and power outlets.
- Check your HVAC system for functionality and any damage. This may require professional help.
What Are Surge Protectors?
Also known as spike suppressors, surge suppressors, and surge diverters, surge protectors are devices that protect electrical appliances from voltage spikes in alternating current circuits. These spikes occur very quickly, usually lasting only microseconds — but they can go well beyond the threshold of 170 volts that causes electronic equipment to malfunction or fail. Surge protectors keep these short but potentially destructive events from harming your electrical devices.
Are Surge Protectors Necessary?
Surge protectors are not necessary for the functionality of your electronic devices under normal circumstances. However, without a surge protector, a sudden voltage spike and accompanying power surge could damage your television, computer, or other plugged-in device. Even if a power surge doesn’t completely ruin your electronics, it can shorten the lifespan of devices, clear stored data, or otherwise harm devices and appliances.
Are All Power Strips Surge Protectors?
Many surge protectors look exactly like power strips. However, not all power strips are surge protectors, and older power strips offer very little protection (if any) from power surges. Only devices specified as surge protectors reliably protect electronics against voltage spikes and power surges.
To tell the difference between a surge protector and regular power strip, look for the word “joules” on the packaging or the strip itself. Surge protectors always have a rating in joules to show the maximum voltage it can handle from a power spike. On the other hand, power strips are really just extension cords with extra outlets and no joules rating.
How Much Surge Protection Do You Need?
Not all surge protectors are made equal, with the joule rating of each indicating how much energy it is able to absorb before failing. This is calculated in a simple and straightforward manner: the higher the joule rating, the greater the protection against power surges.
When it comes to determining how much protection you realistically need, you need to take into consideration the value of the equipment you want to protect. If you need to protect higher value devices, you should consider higher joule ratings to ensure it’s protected against high voltage spikes, such as those caused by lightning strikes. While all devices stand to benefit from surge protection, inexpensive items such as lights and alarm clocks typically do not warrant protection.
Stay Safe From Power Surges
Now that all the most essential information surrounding power surges and surge protectors has been covered, the only thing left to do is ensure you keep yourself safe from these events.
Remember to keep any valuable devices or complex appliances unplugged during severe storms, and try to give your largest appliances their own circuits or at least their own outlets to draw power from. Remember that it’s usually a good idea to use surge protectors for any electronics that need to be protected, whether it’s because they’re expensive or because you don’t want to risk losing stored data that could be erased from a sudden power surge.
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