Power strips allow you to plug in multiple items when there are not enough wall outlets available. While convenient, power strips have their limitations. When there's a power surge, it can adversely affect the power strip and the electrical items plugged into it.
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Surge Protector Versus Power Strip
A surge protector contains a circuit breaker or fuse that will trip if a power spike exceeds the maximum voltage of the unit. It usually has a label that indicates the maximum voltage it can handle if the power spikes. If there's no numbers on the box or unit, it's a power strip and cannot protect your electronics from surges.
A power strip is essentially a multioutlet extension cord. Always plug computers, stereos, televisions and other expensive electronics into a high-quality surge protector to protect them from damaging power spikes.
Power Surge Causes
Power surges have a variety of causes, ranging from the refrigerator compressor or air conditioner kicking on to an electrical spike when the power comes back on after an outage. While surge protectors provide protection for your expensive electronics when small spikes occur, a massive power surge, such as a lightning strike, will blow out the surge protector. Always unplug computers, entertainment systems and other electronics when lightning storms threaten.
Look at Your Electrical Devices
A small power surge can result in a momentary outage, or a "power blink." Your electric alarm clock display may go blank, or the microwave clock may reset itself to 12:00 and flash until you reprogram the time. These tiny outages help protect electrical systems by preventing a damaging power spike.
Surge protectors may emit a clicking noise. This indicates small power surges, often caused by household appliances turning on and off, such as a blender or coffee pot. The unit is preventing the power surge from damaging your devices.
Check the Outlet
Check the outlet if the overhead lights are on but the power strip and attached devices are off. Plug a lamp into the outlet. If it doesn't work, the issue is the outlet. Unplug the power strip and check the circuit at the main breaker box.
If the circuit trips again, unplug everything and reset the breaker. The problem may be too many items plugged in at once, a single item tripping the breaker or a worn-out power strip.
Too many items on the same circuit can cause power surges as they cycle on and off. A long-term solution is to install additional outlets in the room. Add one or more new breakers in the box to accommodate your electrical devices. In addition, add dedicated circuits for high-draw devices, like air conditioners and refrigerators.
Make a Visual Check
Examine and smell the power strip. Burn marks, melted plastic, crackling noises, sparks when plugging something in or a hot smell indicate that the power strip is not safe.
Power strips are intended for short-term use. If it is more than two or three years old or malfunctioning, throw it out and get a new power strip or surge protector. Repeated electrical surges can damage or wear out the electrical connections in your power strip and eventually harm your devices.
Reset a Surge Protector
Make sure the power strip is turned on. Surge protectors usually have a reset button. Press the button. If that doesn't work or it immediately trips again, unplug the strip.
Surge protectors often have a fuse. Unscrew the cover and look at the fuse. If it is burned out, replace it with a fuse of the same size and wattage. Do not use a higher-rated fuse; you'll risk damaging your electronics and/or starting a fire.
Replace the Unit
If the fuse is not burned out but the reset button keeps tripping, replace the unit with a new power strip or surge protector. The old unit may not be able to handle the load from multiple electrical items or a high-draw appliance, like a portable air conditioner, heater or hair dryer. Whenever possible, plug high-draw or major appliances directly into a wall outlet.
Ruth de Jauregui is the author of 50 Fabulous Tomatoes for Your Garden. She writes numerous home and garden articles for a variety of online publications. She got her start as a book and cover designer in San Francisco for William (Bill) Yenne at American Graphic Systems. In addition to designing books, she wrote her first book, Ghost Towns. With several nonfiction books under her belt, de Jauregui recently published her first novel, Bitter.