What Do Surge Protectors Actually Do, Anyway?

We all know that surge protectors can save our sensitive electronics from getting fried during an electrical storm, transformer explosion and other sources of electrical surges. But do you know how surge protectors actually work?

While the important thing is to make sure your household surge protectors are in place and functional, it never hurts to understand just what happens when an electrical surge comes along and these devices save the day.

Voltage Gone Wild

Another term for a power surge is “transient voltage”, and this can come about for all sorts of reasons. As referenced above, transient voltage can be the result of either a lightning strike or some sort of malfunction with the electrical equipment outside of your home.

But surges are also common within your home, especially when major appliances switch on and off. For example, do you ever notice that the lights in your home temporarily dim or flicker when your air conditioner cycles on? This is because your air conditioner uses so much energy that it creates a small surge whenever it activates. Over time, these repeated surges can diminish the lifespan of other sensitive electronics plugged in throughout your home.

Clever Diversion

In the typical North American home, voltage is set to flow at 120 volts. But when surges occur, the voltage exceeds this limit, and some amount of damage always takes place. The amount of damage depends on the intensity and length of the surge.

Surge protectors prevent this damage from reaching your electronics and appliances by diverting the excess voltage into your home’s grounding line. When you look at a three-prong electrical plug, the round prong at the bottom connects to the grounding line and protects you from accidental electrical shock.

Similarly, this line can protect your devices by providing a safe escape route for unexpected bursts of electricity. But how does this process happen?

MOV, the Unsung Hero

Most surge protectors operate with the help of a metal oxide varistor, or MOV. Inside a surge protecting power strip or adapter, the MOV is the middleman between the surge protector’s hot wire and its grounding wire.

The MOV has variable electrical resistance, which means it can make adjustments to incoming voltage that is either too low or too high. When it’s too high, as in an electrical surge, the MOV redirects only the excess voltage into the grounding wire, where it can dissipate safely. The safe level of voltage continues to flow through, ensuring uninterrupted use of your electronics and appliances. 

Layer Your Protection

Any functional surge protector can make a big difference, whether you’re talking about a whole-home surge protection system or a simple surge protecting power strip. But no surge protector is 100% reliable on every power surge.

With that in mind, it’s a good idea to create at least two layers of surge protection. The easiest way to do this is to install a whole-home surge protection system, which is extremely effective at diverting surges that originate outside the home from sources like lightning or transformer problems. 

Then, in addition to that primary layer, use surge protecting power strips and adapters to add an extra line of defense for your most sensitive electronics. This will be especially helpful in minimizing damage from internal power surges, such as when your HVAC system turns on.

Interested in installing a whole-home surge protection system? Reach out to your licensed, local electricians for a no-obligation quote and consultation.

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