Fry Now, Pay Later

Most computer users associate power surges with lightning strikes, but they’re more common than that. However unlikely they may seem, if you’ve plugged your computer into the cab of your truck, damaging surges can still build gradually and zap your equipment with a deathblow.

When they first buy a computer, many users buy a surge protector for the extra plugs, ending up with a protector too weak to protect their computers or, mistakenly, with simple power strips never intended to offer protection. Inverter manufacturers recommend you use a surge suppressor even if you’re using your diesel engine to power your computer. Most inverters, like connections at most truck stops and other shore sources, do not protect against surges.

According to Michael Galardi, manager for surge protection products at computer accessory manufacturer Belkin Components, you should look at certain characteristics when selecting a surge protector:

SUPPRESSED VOLTAGE RATING OR UL NUMBER. This is the level at which the surge protector cuts off the power supply. A good surge protector will have a rating of 330 or less because computer chips become damaged when voltage reaches 380.

JOULE RATING. This is a measure of the protector’s ability to absorb energy over time. Protectors are rated from 90 to 5,000 – the higher the number, the longer the device will absorb electricity.

MAXIMUM SPIKE AMPERAGE. Measured in amps; the higher the amperage rating, the larger the spike it can survive.

THREE-LINE PROTECTION. This means all three electrical wires – hot, neutral and ground – coming into an AC system are protected.

Other factors you should consider: response time (which should be less than 1 nanosecond); lights that indicate when the protector is grounded and functioning; and protection for phone or cable lines over which surges can travel. Check the warranty, too. It’s often a good indicator of how much confidence a manufacturer has in its device, Galardi says.

Surge protectors cost $5 to $90, Galardi says, depending on the options. They can be found at most discount retailers and electronics stores. For laptop users, there are smaller devices, usually for a single outlet, such as American Power Conversion’s SurgeArrest Notebook protector. It retails around $34.

Surge protectors can protect your equipment, but they can’t prevent data loss if you have documents open when the power outage occurs.

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Surge protectors can protect your equipment, but they can’t prevent data loss if you have documents open when the power outage occurs. That’s why you may want to consider an uninterruptible power source if you use your computer for more than games and e-mail.

A UPS allows a computer to operate on batteries for a few minutes after a power failure, enough time for the user to save documents and shut down the computer properly.

A UPS has a surge protector built in, but it also costs more and offers fewer plugs. The devices start about $50 for a few minutes of backup time and typically have outlets for your computer and monitor. You can use a UPS even if you’re running your computer off AC power in your truck.