The Best Defense

Guarding against surges requires a two-pronged approach: a whole-house suppressor to tame the big, dangerous power spikes and an individual circuit (or "plug-in") surge suppressor for vulnerable appliances and electronic devices. Both types essentially act like pressure-relief valves. Normally they just sit there, allowing electric current to flow through them. But with higher-than-normal voltage, the devices instantly divert excess voltage to the ground wire. (The best ones react in less than a nanosecond.) As soon as voltage levels return to normal, the flow of electricity is restored, unless the surge was big enough to melt the fuse built into some units.

Typically, whole-house suppressors are hard-wired to the service panel, a process that takes a licensed electrician about two hours. Whole-house systems should be rated to stop a 40,000-amp surge, at minimum. Features to look for include thermal fuses, and lights or alarms that indicate when a device has taken a hit. Protection for an average house with 200-amp service will run about $500 — including a couple of hours of an electrician's labor. Separate but smaller whole-house units are recommended for the phone and cable lines. These protect fax and answering machines, televisions, and modems.

By themselves, whole-house suppressors can't stop surges completely; up to 15 percent of excess voltage may leak by. That's where "plug-in" surge protectors come in. These buffers between individual appliances and wall outlets come in a bewildering array of options and prices. They range from $70 units not much bigger than a computer mouse to $350 units the size of a pizza box that guard all the components in a home theater. But most plug-in models fall into three basic categories: the familiar multi-outlet power strip; the multitasking surge station that can handle phone and cable jacks as well as power cords; and the UPS (uninterruptible power supply), which completely cleanses electric power of random fluctuations and provides a short-term battery backup in case the power dips or goes out entirely. Expect to pay between $20 and $70 for a quality power strip or surge station, and from $100 to $250 for a UPS.
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