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Standard surge protector passes the electrical current along from the outlet to a number of electrical and electronic devices plugged into the power strip. If the voltage from the outlet surges or spikes — rises above the accepted level — the surge protector diverts the extra electricity into the outlet’s grounding wire.
In the most common type of surge protector, a component called a metal oxide varistor, or MOV, diverts the extra voltage. An MOV forms a connection between the hot power line and the grounding line.
One problem with surge protectors is that the MOVs can burn out with one good surge. This is why it is good to get a protector with an indicator light that tells you whether or not it’s functioning properly.”
An MOV has three parts: a piece of metal oxide material in the middle, joined to the power and grounding line by two semiconductors.
These semiconductors have a variable resistance that is dependent on voltage. When voltage is below a certain level, the electrons in the semiconductors flow in such a way as to create a very high resistance. When the voltage exceeds that level, the electrons behave differently, creating a much lower resistance. When the voltage is correct, an MOV does nothing. When voltage is too high, an MOV can conduct a lot of current to eliminate the extra voltage.
As soon as the extra current is diverted into the MOV and to ground, the voltage in the hot line returns to a normal level, so the MOV’s resistance shoots up again. In this way, the MOV only diverts the surge current, while allowing the standard current to continue powering whatever machines are connected to the surge protector. Metaphorically speaking, the MOV acts as a pressure-sensitive valve that only opens when there is too much pressure.
Causes Of Power Surges
Power surges occur when something boosts the electrical charge at some point in the power lines. This causes an increase in the electrical potential energy, which can increase the current flowing to your wall outlet. A number of different things can cause this to happen.
The most familiar source is probably lightning, though it’s actually one of the least common causes. When lightning strikes near a power line, whether it’s underground, in a building or running along poles, the electrical energy can boost electrical pressure by millions of volts. This causes an extremely large power surge that will overpower almost any surge protector. In a lightning storm, you should never rely on your surge protector to save your computer. The best protection is to unplug your computer.
A more common cause of power surges is the operation of high-power electrical devices, such as elevators, air conditioners and refrigerators. These high-powered pieces of equipment require a lot of energy to switch on and turn off components like compressors and motors. This switching creates sudden, brief demands for power, which upset the steady voltage flow in the electrical system. While these surges are nowhere near the intensity of a lightning surge, they can be severe enough to damage components, immediately or gradually, and they occur regularly in most building’s electrical systems.
Generator turning on and off will also create surges of power. Always disconnect your load when turning a generator on or off and don’t let them run out of fuel. The sputtering they do when running out of fuel will also create power surges. Realize it also takes time for the generator to stabilize when heavy loads are applied. This surging will often damage surge protectors. First try and avoid using any surge protectors at all and if the equipment you are going to use is sensitive then consider using a UPS power supply.
Other sources of power surges include faulty wiring, problems with the utility company’s equipment, and downed power lines. The system of transformers and lines that brings electricity from a power generator to the outlets in our homes or offices is extraordinarily complex. There are dozens of possible points of failure, and many potential errors that can cause an uneven power flow. In today’s system of electricity distribution, power surges are an unavoidable occurrence.