Surge protector reviews

How much do you need to spend to keep your expensive equipment safe?
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 

01 .Introduction

Surge protector

They say lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place — but it doesn’t have to. A direct strike on your home can burn out every piece of electrical equipment you have connected.

Fortunately, direct strikes of this severity rarely happen, but nearby hits can still produce a surge of excess voltage that can fry the insides of your nice new plasma TV, video, DVD, sound system and computer. If it’s plugged into the wall, it’s vulnerable — and it can still be vulnerable even if the wall switch is turned off, which is why we’re advised to unplug electrical devices at the wall when there’s a storm.  But even low-level surges can, over time, degrade electronic components and shorten the life of your equipment.

According to electricity suppliers, power fluctuations are inevitable. That’s where surge protection comes in. Surge protectors should let only a safe amount of electricity through, taking the excess and diverting it safely away from your valuable gear.

So, on the whole, surge protectors seem like a good idea. But there are questions to be considered:

  • How big a surge will they really protect you from?
  • When they take the sting out of a massive electricity surge, or even a smaller spike, how much electricity are they still letting through?
  • Is this amount safe for your equipment?
  • How much do you need to pay?
  • Should you buy a model that includes a connected equipment warranty so you can replace your prized electronic gear if the worst happens?
  • These are all important questions, so we set out to answer them — and our findings may shock you.

Please note: this information was current as of April 2009 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Brands tested

  • APC P5B-AZ
  • ARLEC SWP-S
  • Belkin F9S620au2M
  • CABAC PB10SP
  • Crest PRPBS6TC
  • HPM D105PA6
  • Jackson PT0888
  • Monster AV800
  • PowerGuard PGCP3906 Computer Protector
  • PowerTech Plus MS4024
  • PowerTech Plus MS4055
  • Thor Smart Board A12F

Video: How we test surge protectors

We simulate lightning strikes on surge protectors to see if they can handle the load.

choice-computer-subscribe-badge
 
 

Sign up to our free
e-Newsletter

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.

 

 The following models scored the best results in our test 

What to buy
Brand Price
Crest PRPBS6TC $43
PowerTech Plus MS4024 $65
APC P5B-AZ $39
Jackson PTO888 $40

Our testing proves that you can get decent surge protection at a reasonable price. Our top performer in the 2kV test, the Crest PRPBS6TC, cost only $43 and the top four ranked boards ranged in price between $39 and $65.

If you live in a city, there's generally less chance for a severe spike or surge making it to your home, but for peace of mind any of the top seven boards in our table will do a good job of protecting your equipment from mains power surges. While some are a lot more expensive than others, you may want to select one of them for other features built into the product.

If you live in an outerlying or country area, rather than go for the cheapest board available, recognise that you will generally need to spend a bit more to get a good board to be on the safe side – in the table you can see the units which didn’t handle the 4kV test, and wouldn’t be a good choice for country areas.

In selecting a board be wary of packaging claims of clamping voltage and joule ratings. We found little correlation between the figures on the packaging and our test results. There’s no hard and fast rule, but as a guide aim for a board that has as high a joule rating you can get for the money you’re willing to spend – and, as our tests showed, you don’t need to spend a lot. Theoretically, a higher joule rating should indicate better performance.

Two of the most important features, however, are a status light to show surge protection is active, and a failsafe to prevent the board continuing to work as a simple power board if the surge protection fails. Finally, don’t let connected equipment warranties influence your decision.

Full results for all models are shown in the table below

Surge table

Table notes

  • Price: RRP in Australian dollars April 2009.
  • Performance: Max clamped voltage measured at 2kV — ranking is based on this result; Max clamped voltage measured at 4kV — supplementary test is indicative of the device’s performance at an extreme surge level, that may be reached in outerlying and country areas.
  • Features: Power outlets number of mains power outlets only; Other connections includes phone/fax, coaxial cable, Ethernet networking, F-type antenna; Protection modes (claimed) types of protection offered by the device including AC power and other modes; Status lights or audible indicators what device status is indicated by lights, including surge protection, power on, safety/earthing and if the device has an audible alarm to indicate a fault/failure; Claimed clamping voltage the voltage claimed on the packaging at which the device should suppress/divert excess power; Connected equipment warranty ($) how much is offered to compensate for damage to connected equipment caused by board failure.
  • Specifications: Weight (g) measured weight of the device in grams; Size (HxDxW) cm measured dimensions of the main body of the device in centimetres; Power cable length (cm) length of the connected power cord in centimetres; Warranty (yrs) length of warranty for the product itself in years.
  • [A] Highest clamped voltage measured out of three series of surge tests (Active to Earth, Neutral to Earth and Active to Neutral). Due to pulse variances, measured voltage can vary. Pulse is additional to mains voltage.
  • [B] Not all warranties have the same provisions or restrictions. Check the documentation carefully.
  • [C] Due to this apparent anomaly we tested a second identical board, with the same result. We sought comment from Monster but didn’t receive one in time for publication.
  • [D] ‘Lifetime’ definitions may vary, check the documentation wording carefully.
  • ns not stated.

How we tested

Testing high-voltage devices requires very specialised equipment and needs to be conducted according to established standards. We employed external high-voltage testing laboratory EMC Technologies and manager Les Dickenson to help test the surge boards. EMC Technologies is accredited by NATA (National Association of Testing Authorities) for surge protection testing.

Each board was subjected to a series of tests in accordance with the Australian Standard AS/NZS61000.4.5:2006 (which is identical to IEC 61000-4-5:2005), designed to test products for surge immunity.

We took each of the 12 surge boards and applied a series of electrical surges through the mains power connection at 1000 and 2000 volts (1kV and 2kV) at 60-second intervals and measured at what voltage the protection circuitry ‘clamped’ (see Jargon buster), diverting any excess charge away from connected equipment.

This tests what’s known as a ‘Class 3 installation’ and represents the severity of electrical surges that can be expected in a normal urban home. We rated the devices on their ability to handle 2kV surges, the upper limit of this class. A 100 Watt light bulb was used to simulate an appliance being connected to it.

We then applied a series of 4kV surges to simulate the type of surge that could occur in outlying or country areas and recorded the result, but didn’t factor this into our product ranking.

We tested only mains power connections, not any other connections, which may have separate anti-surge circuitry depending on the board’s make and model.

Crest PRPBS6TC

Price $43 Crest

Good points

  • Best clamping performance in 2kV tests.
  • Also performed well in 4kV and 6kV extreme surge tests.
  • Phone/fax/modem and coax antenna support.
  • Protected status indicator.
  • EMI noise filtration.
  • Relatively low price.
  • Lifetime product warranty.

Bad points:

  • Nothing to mention.

PowerTech Plus MS4024

Price $65 Powertech plus

Good points

  • Second-best clamping performance in 2kV tests.
  • Performed well in 4kV extreme surge tests.
  • Ethernet, coax antenna, F-type antenna and phone/fax/modem support.
  • Protected status indicator.
  • EMI noise filtration.

Bad points:

  • Nothing to mention.

APC P5B-AZ

Price $39 APC

Good points

  • Third-best clamping performance in 2kV tests.
  • Performed well in 4kV and 6kV extreme surge tests.
  • Has protected status and wiring status indicators.
  • EMI noise filtration.
  • Relatively low price.
  • Lifetime product warranty.

Bad points:

  • Only has mains power connections.

Jackson PTO888

Price $40 Jackson

Good points

  • Performed well in 2kV tests.
  • Performed well in 4kV extreme surge tests.
  • Ethernet and phone/fax/modem support.
  • EMI noise filtration.
  • Relatively low price.
  • Lifetime product warranty.

Bad points:

  • No protected status indicator.

Thor A12F

Price: $300 Thor

Good points:

  • Performed well in 2kV tests.
  • Performed well in 4kV and 6kV extreme surge tests.
  • Ethernet, coax antenna and F-type antenna support.
  • EMI noise filtration.
  • Protected status indicators.

Bad points:

  • Most expensive of the boards tested.

Powerguard PGCP3906

Price: $199 Powerguard

Good points:

  • Performed well in 2kV tests.
  • Performed well in 4kV and 6kV extreme surge tests.
  • Ethernet and phone/fax/modem support.
  • EMI noise filtration.
  • Lifetime product warranty.

Bad points:

  • Second-most expensive of the boards tested.
  • No protected status indicator.

Belkin F9S620AU2m

Price: $130 Belkin

Good points:

  • Performed well in 2kV tests.
  • Performed well in 4kV extreme surge tests.
  • Protected status and earthed indicators.
  • Phone/fax/modem support.
  • EMI noise filtration.
  • Lifetime product warranty.

Bad points:

  • Nothing to mention.

Monster AV800

Price: $149 Monster

Good points:

  • Performed well in 4kV and 6kV extreme surge tests.
  • Coax antenna support.
  • Lifetime product warranty.
  • Protected status and earthed indicators.
  • Audible fault alarm.

Bad points:

  • Third-most expensive of the boards tested.

ARLEC SWP-S

Price: $15 Arlec

Good points:

  • Inexpensive.

Bad points:

  • Relatively poor clamping.
  • No protected status indicator.

CABAC PB10SP

Price: $17 Cabac

Good points:

  • Protected status indicator.
  • EMI noise filtration.
  • Inexpensive.

Bad points:

  • Relatively poor clamping.

PowerTech Plus MS-4055

Price: $16 Powertech

Good points:

  • Inexpensive.

Bad points:

  • Relatively poor clamping.
  • No protected status indicator.

HPM D105PA6

Price: $20 Hpm

Good points:

  • Inexpensive.

Bad points:

  • Relatively poor clamping.

A surge protector can look a lot like a typical power board, but when too much voltage gets shunted down the mains line into the device it lets only a ‘safe’ amount through to the connected equipment. The rest it channels into the electrical outlet’s ‘earth’ or ground wire.

Most commonly for domestic units the crucial component that does this is called a MOV, or Metal Oxide Varistor. This component is made from a material which is a bad conductor of electricity until it receives a higher than normal voltage, then it becomes conductive.

When a spike or surge occurs at a certain level above normal voltage, the MOV becomes conductive and starts to carry the excess electric current back down through the ground wire, so the damaging high voltage doesn’t reach connected equipment. Once the surge ends, the MOV resumes its ‘dormant’ stage of being non-conductive. It’s a bit like an electrical version of a pressure valve.

Australian domestic wiring is designed for a standard voltage of 230–240 volts. If the voltage goes too far above that, it can damage electronic equipment, which usually has many sensitive components. If excess voltage lasts for a very brief time (1–2 nanoseconds) it’s called a spike. If it lasts longer it’s called a surge. Even though a spike or surge can be so brief their duration is measured in nanoseconds, they can still cause damage to sensitive components. All spikes and surges come under the heading of electrical transients.

Levels of protection

Possibly the most noticeable cause of a large surge can be lightning striking nearby, even up to more than a kilometre away. This massive electrical discharge quickly finds its way into the electrical grid and flows along power lines both above and below ground and anything else that is conductive.

A surge can also be caused by other less dramatic and far more common occurrences, such as switching operations in the power supply network, downed power lines, turning on or off large industrial equipment and faults with the electrical supplier’s equipment.

A direct hit by lightning, however, could instantly deliver hundreds of millions of volts that will be far beyond the capacity of any surge protected power board. Saying a surge protector will save your equipment from a lightning strike could be overstating the issue. A nearby strike within a kilometre or two however can send a massive surge in the order of several thousand volts down the line to your home, and here a good surge protector can be up to the task.

Some surge protection devices will specifically say they won’t protect against a lightning strike, while others will claim protection from lightning, as well as spikes and surges. Some will claim protection from spikes and surges but not mention lightning. Check the wording of the included documentation carefully as this could affect your chances of repair or replacement of the device or equipment if damaged.

In a lightning storm, it’s still good practice to unplug equipment completely from electrical outlets. Even turning off the switch might not save you, as the normal household switch only disconnects the active wire, the neutral and earth remain connected. So, if in doubt, pull it out.

Surge protection can also be built into your mains power board by an electrician, in the form or a surge diverter or surge arrestor. These were outside the scope of this test, but can provide a valuable first line of defence against surges.

False sense of security

Some surge protectors can give you a false sense of security. One of the problems with this type of device is that the surge protection component can fail, but the board can continue to work as a normal power board. This means that unless you replace it, the next time a big surge comes down the line it’s going straight to your now unprotected equipment!

Of the 12 boards we tested, only eight had a protection status light: APC P5B-AZ, Belkin F9S620au2M, CABAC PB10SP, Crest PRPBS6TC, HPM D105PA6, Monster AV800, PowerTech Plus MS4024 and Thor A12F.

In most cases, the onus is on users to check the status light frequently to ensure the surge protection components are still working. Out of sight, out of mind could also mean out of luck when that next big surge hits.

Unlike UPS units, for example, there’s usually no audible alarm to indicate a problem. Of the 12 boards we tested only one, the Monster AV800, had a built-in audible alarm. If your board lacks a protection status light, it’s a good idea to replace it every few years to ensure you are covered.

Test to destruction

Intrigued by the durability of some of the surge boards we tested, which passed the extreme surge 4kV test with flying colours, we wanted to see how durable they really are. So, we inflicted a series of even greater surges, of 6kV at 30 second intervals, to see how they’d perform. This test revealed that several models are surprisingly robust. However, as with the 4kV test, we didn’t factor the results into our final ranking.

Very unlikely though it may be, surges of this magnitude can occur in remote areas, where long cable runs and fewer cables can mean greater voltages transmitted from a lightning strike.

The boards that performed well in this test can be seen in the table below.

However, one result this test demonstrated is that with some boards the anti-surge circuitry can be burnt out, yet the board will still conduct power to connected devices.

Destruction test

Surge protected power boards can vary greatly in price, but higher cost doesn’t directly correlate with stronger protection — it might just mean more outlets and other features. Extra features can be useful though, depending on where you deploy the board and the type of equipment it will be protecting.

Here are some features to look for when shopping for a surge protected power board:

  • Building wiring status indicator: Detects potentially dangerous wiring problems in the wall outlet.
  • Circuit breaker: Protects the surge board from overload by connected devices drawing too much current.
  • Fail-safe: If the surge protection fails, this stops the unit working as a normal power board. Many boards lack this feature and continue to work as a power board even after the surge protection has failed.
  • Protected status light: A status light to indicate whether the surge protection is active or not.
  • EMI noise filtration: This reduces or eliminates line noise (electrical interference).
  • Other connections: Surge protected sockets for coaxial cable, modem or Ethernet network, all of which can also conduct high voltage that can damage connected devices.
  • Outlet spacing: Allows more room for one or more devices that use a transformer block.
  • Sockets: Check the number of mains power sockets available, usually from four to eight.
  • Warranty: For the board itself, less important is any connected equipment warranty.

Six-figure insurance

Surge protectors can come with connected equipment warranties for outrageous amounts — up to six figures. But are they worth the paper they’re printed on?

Being covered for accidental damage to connected equipment if the surge protector fails can potentially save you a bundle, but you need to read the fine print.

Half of the devices we tested came with a connected equipment warranty. It ranged from $25,000 for the Crest PRPBS6TC up to $300,000 for the most expensive device in our test, the Thor A12F.

But don’t plan on connecting up to $300,000 worth of equipment to the Thor A12F — when you read the fine print (after you’ve bought the unit and opened the box) you’ll find this coverage is limited to just $10,000 per claim. And you can’t make separate claims for each piece of equipment damaged in a single event, either. To reach the limit of the coverage you’d have to make 30 successful maximum claims — all within three years! And that’s assuming you don’t replace the board after it fails to protect your gear.

The marketing director of an Australian surge protector manufacturer, who asked not to be named, said he believed connected equipment warranties “really didn’t hold much water”. “I’ve been in this industry for eight years”, he said. “I think it’s just a sales tool”.

If you want to maximise your chances of making a claim against a board’s connected equipment warranty, you definitely need to make sure you comply with all the warranty provisions or your burnt out equipment won’t be your last disappointment.

And don’t assume that just because an overseas product is sold here the original manufacturer’s warranty extends to Australia. You may find a separate warranty, with different provisions, for this country.

Jargon buster

  • Amps (Amperes): Maximum spike current is measured in amps. A higher rating means greater absorption capacity against sudden power spikes.
  • Blackout: A short- or long-term total loss of mains electricity power.
  • Brownout: A temporary drop in voltage in an electrical power supply.
  • Circuit breaker: An automatic electrical switch to protect against overload or short circuit.
  • Clamping voltage: The maximum amount of voltage that a surge protector will allow through itself before it will suppress the power surge.
  • Dropout: Momentary loss of electrical power.
  • Joule rating: A measurement of the energy a surge protector can absorb before it fails. A higher joule rating means greater protection.
  • Nanosecond: A billionth of a second.
  • Overload: Also known as overcurrent. A larger than intended electric current that can cause excessive heat or fire.
  • Response time: The time it takes to respond to a surge, usually measured in nanoseconds (billionths of a second). A lower figure is better.
  • Safety switch: Also known as an RCD (Residual Current Device), ELCB (Earth Leakage Circuit Breaker) or GFI (Ground Fault Interruptor). Used in electrical installations to prevent shock and electrocution.
  • Transient: A power disturbance such as a spike or surge.
  • Volt: Used to measure electric potential at a given point, usually in an electric circuit.

If you’re just looking for protection against mains power surges, you don’t have to pay $300 for a ‘high-end’ surge protection board. In fact, you don’t even have to pay a sixth of that! We found three boards under $50 that would protect you from a massive surge of 4000 volts.

However, it’s not always easy to tell from the packaging whether a surge board will give you the protection you want. Seven of the 12 boards we tested performed acceptably in our 1kV and 2kV surge tests, clamping the surge below 900V, and even doing the same in our 4kV massive surge test.

But even though most of the devices we tested survived major surges and would provide adequate protection for connected equipment by clamping at what we deemed an acceptable voltage (under 900V), they still let through more of a jolt than you would expect from their claims.

In fact, only some of the tested devices worked as advertised to protect against surges and clamp excess power at or below the voltage specified on their packaging.

The Crest PRPBS6TC and the APC P5B-AZ were the only two boards tested that passed our 1kV, 2kV and even our extreme 4kV and 6kV tests, while clamping the surge voltage at a level close to that claimed on their packaging, allowing for acceptable variation. Note, however, that the Crest PRPBS6TC specified a lower clamping voltage (775V) than the APC P5B-AZ model (900V). This is one of the problems in selecting a surge board — the specified clamping voltage figures can vary from product to product and were not accurate for most of the products we tested.

In addition, performance claims on the packaging don’t always even use the same terms. The products can use any combination of volts, amps and joules to describe performance (see Jargon buster). Even if these terms are defined on the packaging, it can still be difficult to compare performance claims across brands when shopping.

Key findings

Our testing proves that you can get decent surge protection at a reasonable price. Our top performer in the 2kV test, the Crest PRPBS6TC, cost only $43 and the top four ranked boards ranged in price between $39 and $65.

If you live in a city, there's generally less chance for a severe spike or surge making it to your home, but for peace of mind any of the top seven boards in our table will do a good job of protecting your equipment from mains power surges. While some are a lot more expensive than others, you may want to select one of them for other features built into the product.

If you live in an outerlying or country area, rather than go for the cheapest board available, recognise that you will generally need to spend a bit more to get a good board to be on the safe side – in the table you can see the units which didn’t handle the 4kV test, and wouldn’t be a good choice for country areas.

In selecting a board be wary of packaging claims of clamping voltage and joule ratings. We found little correlation between the figures on the packaging and our test results. There’s no hard and fast rule, but as a guide aim for a board that has as high a joule rating you can get for the money you’re willing to spend – and, as our tests showed, you don’t need to spend a lot. Theoretically, a higher joule rating should indicate better performance.

Two of the most important features, however, are a status light to show surge protection is active, and a failsafe to prevent the board continuing to work as a simple power board if the surge protection fails. Finally, don’t let connected equipment warranties influence your decision.

The need for rotection

Protecting your gear from spikes, surges and other power fluctuations sounds good in theory, but how necessary and effective are they?

Electricity, including that generated by lightning strikes, follows the path of least resistance. In city areas the power grid, sewage system and other underground infrastructure can provide many paths for a lightning strike to be diverted into, fragmenting and weakening as it’s dissipated. This doesn’t mean surge protection isn’t necessary, but city living can help reduce the impact of lightning strikes.

Outerlying suburbs, regional and country areas are fed electricity via long high-voltage links that provide a more direct path for a lightning strike to follow. If you’re at the end of one of these links, it’s more important to have some form surge protection.

Built-in protection

Electricity is a complex subject. Your electronic equipment doesn’t have to end up a blackened, smoking ruin to suffer damage from surges and spikes. It’s a matter of degree. An especially massive surge can short out your system on the spot, but long-term exposure to the more common type of smaller spikes and surges can gradually weaken electronic components and eventually lead to equipment failure. Power fluctuations happen all the time, and most of them happen without us knowing about them.

Manager of the Sydney branch of the independent high-voltage test lab EMC Technologies, Les Dickenson, says modern electronic equipment usually has some form of surge tolerance built in, but the level of tolerance can vary and there’s no easy way of telling exactly how much. That’s because the law in Australia doesn’t specify how much surge protection a piece of home electronic equipment, such as a TV or stereo, has to have, or even that it has any at all.

Not in Australia

Mr Dickenson says the manufacturer’s obligation ends with ensuring the device is electrically safe. That helps protect you from harm, but it does nothing to protect your equipment. He said that in the European Union (EU), for example, there are mandatory requirements for immunity for all products being sold and devices have to be tested to ensure that they comply. But in Australia we have no way of knowing whether a PC, TV or home theatre system we buy has enough inbuilt protection that it doesn’t need an external surge protector.

Surge or drop?

If you sometimes notice momentary dimming of the lights you are likely suffering voltage drops, called brownouts. These can’t be fixed by a surge protector, but might indicate a relatively unstable power supply that could also include spikes and surges.

To deal with brownouts and blackouts you need an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS), which provides a battery backup that will cut in immediately if the unit detects a significant power drop. A UPS will give you enough battery time to shut down your equipment safely.

Depending on the type of UPS, it might also regulate the current to your equipment, evening out irregularities to ensure a smooth flow of power. UPS units usually include surge protection on their battery backup sockets and may also have one or more sockets with surge protection only. See our UPS test.

Surge or circuit breaker?

Don’t confuse surge protection with overload protection, or even a safety switch (see Jargon buster), which is designed to protect you from electric shock. A surge board should be clearly labelled as such. Neither overload protection nor safety switch boards provide any surge protection for your equipment.

Plug in safely

The normal safety precautions should always be observed when using any electrical equipment and this applies to surge protected power boards too. It’s especially important to read the safety instructions that come with the device as procedures may vary slightly from one brand and model to another and not complying fully could void your warranty.

Your say - Choice voice

Make a Comment

Members – Sign in on the top right to contribute to comments