What Is a Whole House Surge Protector?

What Is a Whole House Surge Protector?

With home computers now as common as washers and dryers, the electronic devices in our home that are vulnerable to electric surges and damage are even more important. Your family keeps all sorts of important documents on the computer, from financial details to photographs and music collections. As more and more electronic devices are added to a home, the necessity for protection against electric surges increases. A whole house surge protector acts like a giant version of the familiar surge protector strip we see every day–preventing stray electric charges from enter the home and destroying valuable electronics.

What Are Electric Surges?

What Is a Whole House Surge Protector?

Power surges are nothing more than brief spikes in voltage, usually lasting a millionths of a second or even less, and aren’t always noticeable to the human eye. Because some power surges are stronger than others (anywhere from a few hundred volts to several thousand volts) the damage caused by surges ranges from mild to severe.

In the United States, most of use the same kind of electricity system running on a 120-volt, 60 Hz, alternating current. Since it is an alternating current, the voltage rises and falls, changing from anywhere from 0 to a max voltage of 169 volts. The electronics in your home are designed to withstand this alternating current, but during a power surge, the voltage peaks above that voltage range. If your electronic devices are not protected, they could be damaged.

In some extreme cases, electric surges lead to fires that threaten the entire home. Surges can be dangerous business.

Causes of Electric Surges

Lightning strikes are the most common causes of damaging electric surges. A surge can start with a single bolt of lightning striking a building or even near a building. The electric current of the lightning then travels into the building or home through underground pipes or other municipal lines. That electric surge is looking for a place to ground itself, such as a computer that is plugged into an electrical outlet. This charge is usually strong enough to damage the computer.  The damaged electronic device can even catch fire or damage anyone who may be touching it.

Another common source of electric surges is a simple stray electric charge. Surges in the general power supply, a down phone or power line, and even the simple act of turning a large appliance off or on can lead to electrical surges.

How Do I Protect My Home From Power Surges?

There are a few simple steps you can take to protect your home and the electrical appliances in it.  Your first step is to make sure your home’s electrical system is adequately grounded. If your home is properly grounded, a power surge will never make it into your home. When a home is properly grounded, the surge doesn’t have a way in.

Grounding systems are normally installed during home construction or a major renovation. If you aren’t sure of your home’s grounding situation, contact an electrician for an evaluation. If you find your home is not adequately grounded, you’ll need to pay for the necessary repairs.

Unfortunately, simply grounding your home correctly won’t protect from all possible sources of electric surges. That’s where “whole house surge protectors” come in.

Installing a Whole House Surge Protector

Whole house surge protectors do what it sounds like they do–protect your home’s electronic equipment from the dangers of surges. You can have these products installed or tackle the surge protection of your house as a weekend project–you can even have your power company come and do all the installation for you.

Electrical surges are so dangerous that many power companies actually offer protection against surges to their customers. For an installation and maintenance fee, your power company will come out to your house and professionally install, test, and then maintain your whole house surge protector. A typical fee schedule for these “rented” whole house surge protectors would have the customer paying about $100 for the one-time maintenance fee then a low monthly fee, something like $4 or $5 a month.

Installing a Whole House Surge Protector

To install your brand new whole house surge protector, simply follow the instructions. Most units are about the same, meaning that the installation is pretty simple.

You’ll need two empty circuit breaker slots (one on top of the other) on your main power panel or load center.

The first step is to install two 20 amp circuit breakers in these empty slots–these will protect each power phase. You could use 15 amp breakers but they will give you much less protection. A big mistake some people make during this step is to install tandem breakers (also known as piggyback breakers)–if you do this, the breaker will draw power from only one phase and thus it will protect only some of your home’s electronics.

If you are even a little bit handy, you can install a whole house surge protector yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable working with electricity, call up an electrician.

Different Types of Whole House Surge Protectors

Not all whole house surge protectors are created equal. There are plenty of cheap models to be had that just don’t provide the amount of protection you’ll need. Generally, you get what you pay for, though whether or not your whole house surge protection program will work has more to do with proper installation than with the cost of the unit.

Some devices are “sacrificial,” meaning they are good for a single electrical jolt. These are less expensive surge protectors used as emergency backup or in homes that can’t afford more expensive systems. After an electrical surge, these sacrificial units will need to be replaced.

Still other units are massive, installed during construction, able to withstand any electric surges you can throw at them. The size of your budget and the number of important electronic devices there are in your home dictates what size and style of electric surge protector you need.

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