The dark days and long nights of winter provide a great opportunity to reassess the safety of your home’s electrical power grid, lest your plans for seasonal lighting become worthy of a parody by National Lampoon, if not worse. To guard against such a dangerous event, we’ve gathered up the handy tips and product recommendations below to help you upgrade your infrastructure with safety and effectiveness in mind.
Did you know that although power cords and surge protectors don’t have established expiration dates, they do have a limited lifespan? In general, it’s recommended to replace active units within 3 to 5 years, since the longer they remain in use, the less effective they become.
In addition to lifespan, all power cords are subject to a voltage drop that is directly related to distance. A longer cord will cause a larger drop than a shorter one, so for maximum safety and efficiency, always select the shortest length cord possible to fit your needs.
Then there’s the choice between a 3-prong (grounded) electrical plug and a 2-prong option, which does not provide grounding to prevent electrical shock. While it is possible to fit a grounded plug with a 3-to-2-prong adapter for use in a 2-prong outlet, when using this option keep in mind that the adapter’s small metal tab must be grounded under the outlet’s faceplate screw or else it provides no protection. Under no circumstances should the rounded grounding prong be removed to enable a plug to fit a 2-prong electrical outlet.
To protect against tripping hazards and avoid overheating, it’s best not to run any kind of power cord across a floor or underneath a carpet, floor, or wall covering. Never try to secure a cord using nails, tacks, or staples or any other item that could penetrate the outer insulation.
Another important safety measure concerns plugging multiple electrical cords together—often known as “daisy-chaining”—or plugging an extension cord into a power strip or surge protector rather than directly into a wall socket. While this term might suggest a pleasant rite of springtime, it's the quickest way to overload your electrical system, and a dangerous practice that violates your cord’s UL listing and OSHA guideline compliance, so it’s best to avoid it.
Types of Power Supply: Extension Cords, Indoors and Out
As a long flexible cable of variable length with an electrical plug at one end and one or more sockets on the other, the classic extension cord can stretch anywhere from less than 1 foot to as long as 100 feet, allowing you to conveniently extend the reach of a wall outlet. While often considered to be a household or workshop staple, extension cords are really meant to serve only as a temporary measure and are not rated for continuous usage.
When shopping for an extension cord, you’ll first want to consider whether you want to use the cord outside or if it will only get standard indoor use. Outdoor cords often have a special type of insulation to protect them from sunlight, moisture, temperature changes and sub-freezing conditions, or other factors that could lead the cord to degrade and cause a potential fire hazard. Such heavy-duty cords can be used inside and out, but indoor cords should be strictly limited to those environments. Amperage can differ between indoor and outdoor extension cords, too. An indoor cord is often rated to handle less amperage because it is not expected to power heavy machinery.
Speaking of amps, you should always check the maximum amperage rating—printed on the cord itself or its UL or ETL tag—to determine if it's powerful enough to handle all the items you plan to plug in. Total the amps of all items you wish to use simultaneously to ensure the cord can support your entire load.
Another important consideration is to choose a cord with a heavy enough gauge for the item(s) you plan to plug in. There should be numbers on the packaging and the cord’s outer insulation listing the gauge of the wire and the number of conductors (wires) in the cord. A number like “12 3” means the cord has a 12-gauge diameter and 3 wires. The smaller the first number, the bigger the gauge. A cord with a larger gauge can handle a greater amount of amperage and wattage, and it will also carry power a greater distance with a lesser voltage drop. B&H offers cords in diameters of 12, 14, 16, and 18 AWG. It’s much better to use a heavier cord than one that’s too light and can get hot during use—heat means danger. With that in mind, it’s worth noting that appliances that provide heat (or cooling) draw much more power than other types of items. Therefore, avoid using extension cords with appliances such as hairdryers, microwaves, toasters, coffee makers, irons, air conditioners, refrigerators, and stoves.
Power Strips vs. Surge Protectors vs. Surge Suppressors
Power strips and surge protectors generally offer a more permanent solution to expanding your electrical outlets, yet there are important distinctions to keep in mind between these types of multi-unit power supplies.
Beyond splitting your outlet into multiple ports—basically functioning as an enhanced extension cord—certain power strips are equipped with a circuit breaker, which protects from overloading the device and damaging appliances by shutting down its power. Once the load is reduced, resetting the breaker should allow it to continue functioning.
Whereas a power strip’s circuit breaker protects from an internal overload of amperage, surge protectors guard your electronics from a spike in voltage coming in from the outside. And, although the terms "protector" and "suppressor" are often used interchangeably, a surge suppressor, such as the APC P8GT SurgeArrest, further regulates voltage, making power constant if a surge occurs. Surge protectors and suppressors generally cost a bit more; however, the extra protection is well worth it.
When shopping, look for the following details to narrow the field and confirm you’re buying a quality device. First, check for a UL logo, or the mark of a similar safety certification. In addition to the words "surge protection" or "transient voltage surge suppressor," a clamping voltage measurement indicates the amount of voltage it will take for surge protection to kick in. The lower the number, the better the protection. A rating in Joules shows how much energy the device can absorb from a power spike. In this case, a higher rating equals better protection. Response time measures how quickly the unit will react to a surge, measured in nanoseconds, with a faster time meaning better protection. All this information should be included with the product packaging or listed on the device itself. If there’s no Joule rating, the device is probably just a power strip. Finally, certain manufacturers offer an extended warranty on products if a power surge does get through. Read the fine print to see what’s covered—and what isn’t—as well as how to file a claim in case of failure.
Indicator Lights, Data Line Protection, Power Conditioners, Power Distribution Units, and UPS (no, not the delivery service)
As mentioned earlier, all these units have a limited lifespan, yet they can still operate after protection is diminished or even entirely lost, putting connected items at risk. This makes keeping tabs on their use an essential task. One added safeguard is to purchase a unit with indicator lights to help identify proper functioning.
The circuit breaker mechanism of power strips like the CyberPower GS60304 lights up in red when in use, while surge protectors such as the Belkin BV112050-06 feature two lights—green to designate properly operating surge protection, and a red grounding light to indicate that your wiring is properly grounded. If the lights on your device have gone out or are flickering, it’s time to replace it and/or contact an electrician to further troubleshoot issues with your electrical grid.
A number of robust surge protectors also offer data line, coaxial, and phone line protection to guard against back door surges traveling through these types of conduits, since this can be as damaging to your equipment as surges traveling over power lines.
If you’ve invested in costly home theater equipment, a music studio, or audio setup, you may want to consider getting a power conditioner, which acts as a buffer between the outlet and your system, smoothing out voltage fluctuations as well as radio and electromagnetic interference while distributing power to your gear. In addition to helping prevent power-related failures, this may also minimize those annoying little glitches and lockups that don’t have an obvious cause.
And, if you need to control and distribute electrical power to computer racks and networking equipment in a data center, you’ll want the reliability of a power distribution unit (PDU). While PDUs do not generally provide surge protection, they help to distribute available amperage more efficiently, allowing your equipment to receive the best available power to maintain operation.
Finally, there’s the uninterruptible power supply (UPS), which can combine surge protection with a backup battery to provide several minutes of power in the event of a blackout. For recommendations on the best UPS based on different applications, check out the Explora article Which UPS Should You Choose to Protect Your Setup? by Carroll Moore.
Leading Brands and Useful Features
Another handy way to shop for the best device for your needs is through its application. Do you need a home/office unit, a device for a network/server environment, something to conform to a bench/cabinet, an item that can hold up to industrial use, or a pocket-size unit to accommodate travel?
In terms of construction, surge protectors that feature a metal case—such as this Belkin 10-Socket SurgeMaster or the PDS8u 8-Outlet Surge Protector from ART—can better withstand potential heat and damage than models made of plastic. As a perk, two of the Art model’s outlets are block-size to accommodate extra-large plugs. The Powerstation 360 from ChargeHub can also fit larger-size plugs, due to its space-saving design.
Further options for surge protectors have expanded in tandem with evolving needs. Some devices now feature Wi-Fi or a programmable LCD timer to help you economize on electricity by scheduling days and times to switch off indicated outlets. Another popular feature combines an array of standard plugs with receptacles for charging devices via USB Type A, USB Type B, or USB Type C connections. Still more units feature rotating outlets that make plugs easier to reach, while devices with sliding covers help protect outlets that are not in use from tampering by curious tots, while also preventing dust and debris from entering cracks. Wall tap units incorporate multi-outlet surge protection directly over a power outlet, and a few of these options even add a night light.
Given all these choices, and the aforementioned safety concerns, isn’t it time you considered upgrading the surge protectors, power strips, and extension cords that power all the valuable electronics in your home and/or office?
We’re always here to help, so if you have any questions feel free to add a comment below or contact us via phone or chat.