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Review: APC Surge Arrest-Performance Series

January, 2009

APC Surge Arrest-Performance Series



Just 6 feet away from the house, this lightening strike took out several computers despite the typical office strip surge protectors which provided a false sense of security.


Review by Steve Douglas

We spend fortunes on our editing bays and home theater systems. Many of us often think nothing of spending 3 thousand here and 4 thousand there but we don't give a heck of a lot of thought to actually protecting our equipment. I have been guilty of the same thing myself, using several daisy chained inexpensive strips in my editing bay.

Most people use surge protectors simply because they afford you the ability to add multiple components into one power outlet. However, it is the protection a good surge suppression device can provide that is their most valuable asset.

A power surge, or transient voltage, is an increase in voltage significantly above the designated level in a flow of electricity. The normal office or household wiring in the U.S. is 120 volts. If the voltage rises above 120 volts, there may be a problem, and a surge protector helps to prevent that problem from destroying your computer.

Voltage is a measure of potential electric energy. The current travels from one source to another destination with one end of the line having more potential energy than the other. This is basically the same principle that allows you to use the hose in your garden. The water is under pressure to flow out of the hose. The nozzle adjusts the pressure from a greater degree to a lesser degree depending upon how you want the water to come out, lightly and spread over a large area, or with greater pressure for a more direct stream. Thus, voltage is like an amount of electrical pressure.

A problem with voltage may come about when different elements cause an increase, no matter how brief, in the voltage itself. Should the voltage increase last more than 3 nanoseconds, it is called a surge. Should the voltage increase last one or two nanoseconds, it is then called a spike. If either a surge or spike were high enough, damage could occur to your equipment. Power surges usually occur when something boosts the electrical charge at some point in the power lines. This results in an increase in the electrical potential energy, which may then increase the current flowing to your wall outlet.

When we think of electrical surges, we usually think of lightening. When lightning strikes near a power line, 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. If there is a lightning storm, do not rely on your surge protector to save your computer. The best thing you can do is to unplug your computer. However, according to my research, lightening is one of the least common causes of surge or spikes. Common household appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators are a far more common cause of surge and spikes due to the high amount of energy needed to run them and the switching on and off of their motors and components. This switching creates sudden, brief demands for power, which upset the steady voltage flow in the electrical system. While these surges are nowhere near as powerful as a lightning surge, they can be severe enough to damage components, immediately or gradually over time.

Other sources of power surges include faulty wiring, problems with the utility company's equipment, and downed power lines. Between the system of transformers and lines that brings electricity from a power generator to the outlets in our homes or offices, there are dozens of possible points of failure that can cause an uneven power flow. In today's system of electricity distribution, power surges are an unavoidable occurrence. During the summer, when so many resort to their air conditioners and other appliances to keep them cool, tremendous strains are placed on the electric companies resources and our appliances. This often results in 'brown outs' where the voltage can vary with alarming frequency.

However, how many use these AC strips that we hope will protect our equipment should a lightning strike close by? If a poll were taken, my bet is that most people take a big chance on the little power strips that they hope will prevent their gear from frying.

I walked into my computer sanctuary the other day and had an epiphany. The market has been depressed for a year, my funds are drying up and I won't be able to buy new equipment for some time. I thought that I'd better do something more than I have done, to make sure that the computer and peripherals I own stay in excellent working condition. Part of that meant providing significantly better protection against surge and other electrical anomalies than I have provided in the past.

Getting my hands on the APC Surge Arrest surge protector was a definite step in the right direction. Not all surge protectors are built the same or are as capable of providing the protection you need. The type of surge protection strip often found in business offices and the home, while offering some protection, is really quite limited as they are usually rated at around 1000 joules. Those would be fine for protecting small kitchen appliances and the like. However, for your computer equipment or home theater, you will want the absolute maximum of protection and the APC Surge Arrest goes a long way to provide that. The Performance model that I installed offers 3400 joules of protection. And just what does that mean? At first I wasn't quite sure myself so I had to do a little digging. The common method used today to rate surge protection performance is the Joule rating. APC, however, does not believe it is the best way. The most commonly used component in a surge protector is the Metal Oxide Varistor or "MOV". These components absorb excess energy, thereby reducing the amount of the surge or spike that gets through the outlets to the connected equipment. They are rated, in part, by how much energy they can withstand before failing. This energy is measured in Joules. So a Surge Protector's Joule rating essentially is the amount of energy it can withstand before it breaks down. It says nothing, however, about how much of that surge or spike can get through to your equipment. My sources at APC informed me that its possible to design a surge protector with a very high Joule rating, but it might still let most of the transient energy right through the outlets. A common practice is to add up the joule rating for each AC power mode (Line to Neutral, Line to Ground and Neutral to Ground) and combine it with the Joule rating of the data line protection circuit to make one gigantic number. If a power spike happens to come in between Line and Neutral, the user thinks they are getting all the Joules of protection to stop that transient when, in fact, the number of Joules of protection for Line to Neutral is much smaller than the big number printed on the product box. Its been known that companies will add several big high voltage MOVs to the design simply to inflate the Joule rating when, in reality, these MOVs will never see any power transients that may occur. So, Joule ratings can be misleading...they don't really get to the heart of the matter which is: when lightning strikes, how much of that spike will reach my equipment?

A good Surge Protector will use a variety of components to reduce these surges and spikes to harmless levels, and will be capable of doing so many, many times before needing replacement.

The rating that addresses this point is called, the Let-Through Voltage Rating. This is the rating system which APC believes is the best way to judge surge protection performance. Its based on an IEEE test where a surge protector is subjected to a 6000V spike (about the max you'd see at an outlet downstream of the house or building electrical panel. It then measures how much of that spike passes through the outlets of the surge protector. So, the lower the number, the better the performance. APC's ratings for its surge protectors are "<330V" for the Essential SurgeArrest family (good), "<85V" for the Home/Office family (better) and an amazing "<40V" for the high end Performance SurgeArrest family (best) which I am reporting on. APC employs a variety of components to suppress surges. In addition to MOVs mentioned above, most of the APC products also use capacitors and inductors to reduce transients to harmless levels. In fact, the vast majority of transients can be mitigated by these two components. Yet, there are no Joule ratings for them, so a Joule rating does not reflect their benefit in protecting you. The MOVs are typically only engaged for very high energy surges like that experienced during a lightning storm. All of the APC surge protectors are guaranteed for life and are more than capable of handling thousands of large hits. To provide users with further peace of mind, they offer a lifetime equipment protection policy. If your properly connected equipment is damaged as the result of the APC surge protector failing to provide protection, APC will pay to repair or replace that damaged equipment. If the surge protector "gives its life" in the line of duty, APC will replace it with a brand new one free of charge.

The APC Surge Arrest which I installed is certainly heads and tails above that which I was using. It allows for 11 AC inputs, with the outside 6 spaced well enough apart to allow for those dust collecting transformer blocks. Any outlet on the surge Arrest which is not in use has a sliding shutter preventing dust from getting in and accidental contacts. The Surge Arrest can be left flat on the floor or easily mounted as its' AC cord swings 180 degrees in either the left or right so you avoid kinks in the wire and keep it closer to the wall. A small feature, but one I really liked. In addition to the 11 AC outlets, there are 2 coax and 3 telephone surge protection jacks to prevent damage to cable modems, satellite receivers and fax machines.

There are also a few warning lights which may alert you to problems before they even start. The 'Protection Working' light assures you that all is well, while an 'Overload' indicator illuminates should you overload the circuit. Should this come on you unplug equipment until the light goes out. The third indicator is the 'Building Wiring Fault' which comes on should there be potentially dangerous wiring conditions, a reverse polarity or missing or overloaded ground. For this one, it is suggested you contact an electrician.

And finally, since most other surge suppressors continue to let power through even after their circuits have been damaged, leaving your equipment exposed to future surges, with the APC SurgeArrest, once the circuit has been compromised the unit disconnects equipment from the power supply ensuring that no damaging surges reach your equipment.

For almost all of us, once we have installed a power strip, we never pay any further attention to it. After I have educated myself on the subject, I realize just how lucky I have been to live in San Diego where we don't get too many lightning storms. But, I sure use the fridge a lot and now count my blessings that I have never fried my computer. Having installed a quality surge suppressor such as the APC Surge Arrest is really my bottom line for proper protection. Perhaps it should be yours as well.

Steve Douglas is a certified Apple Pro for Final Cut Pro 6 and underwater videographer. A winner of the 1999 Pacific Coast Underwater Film Competition, 2003 IVIE competition, 2004 Los Angeles Underwater Photographic competition, and the prestigious 2005 International Beneath the Sea Film Competition, where he also won the Stan Waterman Award for Excellence in Underwater Videography and 'Diver of the Year', Steve was a safety diver on the feature film "The Deep Blue Sea", contributed footage to the Seaworld Park's Atlantis production, and productions for National Geographic and the History channels. Steve is also feature writer for Asian Diver Magazine and is one of the founding organizers of the San Diego UnderSea Film Exhibition. He is available for both private and group seminars for Final Cut Pro and leads both underwater filming expeditions and African safaris with upcoming excursions to Kenya in Aug.09, the Red Sea and Egypt for Nov.2009, Truk Lagoon and Yap in Micronesia for July, 2010. Feel free to contact him if you are interested in joining Steve on any of these exciting trips.

copyright © Steve Douglas 2009

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