A lightning strike can cause a power surge way above what your house is designed to handle. And, one good zap and your laptop or TV could get fried.

Most home wiring delivers electricity at 120 volts, but lightning can have a charge in the millions of volts. To stop this power from harming your electronics, your first line of defense is to get surge protectors.

To be clear, a surge protector is different than a power strip. A power strip is basically a kind of extension cord—using one means your devices are not any more protected than they would be if they were plugged directly into the wall outlet. A surge protector acts like a shield, blocking excess power from reaching your electronics . If it doesn’t say “surge protector” on it, it won’t do the job.

Surge protectorYou can buy a portable protector in different forms—including battery backups, wall-mounted, and as a power protector strip.

What you need to look for when you shop:

1. Voltage Protection Rating (VPR). Each protector, regardless of form, is rated to handle only so much extra electricity. How much? The VPR tells you how much electricity is going to make it past the protector. Here, you want the lowest number possible. Note: a similar number is an SVR rating (suppressed voltage rating). It’s an older standard but you still want a low number.

2. Joule Rating. The joule rating tells you how much electricity the protector can absorb over time. The higher the number, the longer the potential use. The Home Depot recommends getting one with a joule rating over 600 for normal household use.

3. Response Time. This reflects how fast your surge protector will jump into action. You want the fastest possible—a nanosecond or less.

Other factors to consider:

Warranties. Many surge protectors will warranty the technology you plug into it. Now, some on the Internet say these warranties aren’t any good because you aren’t likely to see any money from them, but hey, if two protectors have the same specs and price and one has a warranty? Well, you decide.

Number of outlets. More is probably better. Think about what device are you buying this for and how many other things in that area it would be nice to protect. Once you start adding them all up, it could be more than you were originally planning. If funds allow, why not get a surge protector that has a few extra outlets, just in case? After all, if you’re going to make the investment, you might as well do it right the first time.

Wear-out warning. Nothing lasts forever, including surge protectors. Many will alert you if they’ve been “zapped” in the line of duty so you know it needs replacing. This is handy because, surprisingly, it might not be obvious if you’ve had a big surge. Sure, they often happen during storms, but power can surge at other times too which can wear down the protector’s parts over time.

Circuit breakers. If you really want to get fancy, you can look for a surge protector that shuts itself off if there’s a big power spike. This protects both your electronics and the surge protector.

Number of surge protectors. If, after reading all of the above, you’re realizing you want to go buy a lot of individual protectors, you might want to consider getting a whole-house one instead. These are installed by an electrician and protect the electrical system in your entire house. This means everything from your microwave to your TV will likely not be damaged by lightening. Rick’s Daily Tips says a whole-home system will cost about $150-250 installed—not too bad if you’re planning on buying 2-3 individual ones.

The one guaranteed way to protect your electronics? Unplug them.

plug2Unplug your electronic devices if you’re home and know a storm is coming and then you’ll know they won’t get zapped. However, never touch electrical wires in the middle of a storm. If you do, you run the risk of being harmed by the same kind of electrical surge that could damage your devices.

If you’re caught outside during a storm, keep yourself safe. Take shelter in a vehicle or building and avoid water, high ground, and open spaces. If there are any problems with your TDS phone or Internet services after a storm, call 1-888-CALL-TDS, to report the problem, 24 hours a day, every day.
Image by Johnny Autery, via Wikimedia Commons


  1. While surge protectors will provide some protection against moderate power line surges, I’m not aware of anything that can react fast enough to protect against nearby lightning strikes. The only real protection is, as you report, to unplug the devices.

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