It’s common for people to use the terms “power strip” and “surge protector” interchangeably.
But in reality, these are two very different devices.
And if you use the wrong one in the wrong situation, it could spell disaster for your electronic devices in your home office.
What is the difference between a surge protector and a power strip?
A power strip provides the ability to get power to multiple devices from a single wall outlet and to turn off and on several attached devices at once. A surge protector is a special kind of power strip that’s designed specifically to withstand a power surge and keep all your electronic devices plugged into it safe.
This article covers the pros and cons of power strips and surge protectors and how you would use each one in different scenarios.
By the way – before we get too far along here, if you want to connect with other homeowners, DIYers, and builders and get more great ideas for your home to make your space the best join my free private Facebook group, Remodel Reality here.
What’s the Difference Between A Power Strip and A Surge Protector?
They may look the same, but a power strip and a surge protector are very different devices.
The main differences between power strips and surge protecters are size, price, and features.
Most power strips are small enough to fit in any standard electrical outlet, but they don’t provide surge protection,
Surge protectors, on the other hand, provide protection from power spikes which is vital to keep your valuable electronic equipment safe.
Power strips typically look the same and can fit various different configurations of outlets, and layouts, just like surge protectors do.
Both power strips and surge protectors are easy to install and use, regardless of whether you’re mounting them to the bottom of a standing desk, to a work bench, or to a wall.
In addition, they both offer additional features like USB charging ports, master power switches, and more.
Some of the newer versions are “smart” and will automatically turn off electricity to devices that don’t need power when they’re powered and can really help reduce power consumption.
What Is a Power Strip?
The power strip is a handy device that allows you to connect several electrical appliances at once.
In most situations, wall outlets will only have two sockets to power your devices, regardless of whether that’s in your home office or in a regular office, or somewhere else.
That’s just one of the reasons why power strips are a fantastic solution for connecting multiple devices to that single outlet.
A power strip plugs into a standard wall socket and but also has a number of outlets for connecting various household items.
The best way to think of a power strip is to think of it as an extension cord with multiple outlets available to you.
It gets you power to where you need it with multiple options.
It could be that you simply don’t have room where your plugs are, or it could be a scenario where you want to connect multiple tools in a single place.
Main Uses for a Power Strip
A great example of where you’d use a power strip would be in a garage or on a work bench to provide power to your power tools.
Imagine a scenario where you’ve got a corded drill, and a corded table saw, along with several other corded tools that you use in your space, but you don’t want to go through the trouble of plugging and unplugging each tool in order to use it.
Another great option where using a power strip makes sense is to turn all your devices on or off at once. Many power strips have a single master power switch that you can use to instantly turn on everything that’s connected, or conversely, turn off everything at once.
The main uses for a power strip is to extend your power needs and get multiple devices connected.
That includes powering all your electronic equipment at once, getting additional power in hard to reach areas, and you can even get a travel-sized power strip, so that you will have more power options when you travel.
How To Select a Power Strip
The best way to choose a power strip is by using our guide to choosing a power strip. It will tell you what features you should look out for and give you some tips on where to find them.
Overloading a Power Strip
If you overload a power strip by plugging too many things into it at once, it could cause damage.
to your electronic equipment.
In a typical 120 volt home, a standard power socket can handle up to 1800 watts. If you’ve never used a power strip before, the wattage is usually printed somewhere on the box or on the bottom side of it.
Plugging in too many devices that use too much power can result in overheating and even an electrical fire. Your device can also get overloaded when you plug in the wrong type of device.
As an example, stand-alone space heaters should never be plugged into a power strip.
Space heaters must be plugged directly into a wall outlet, because can handle the higher demand for wattage.
Also, they should be the ONLY item plugged into that wall socket. Space heaters can easily overheat a power strip as well as an extension cord and potentially cause a fire, making it quite dangerous.
What is a Surge Protector?
A surge protector is a device that protects your home from electrical surges by stopping a dangerous power spike before it reaches your valuable electronic devices. It does this by using capacitors to absorb any excess voltage.
The surge protector works to stop voltage in the line that exceeds a pre-planned, pre-engineered threshold.
It utilizes a pair components called MOVs (Metal Oxide Varistor) that act like a fuse to protect against excessive voltages by disrupting the current and passing around another circuit.
When power spikes occur in the line your surge protector suddenly adds resistance via the MOV and drops the voltage to a lower level which suppresses the surge.
A surge protector is an absolute must-have tool for your home office because you have so many delicate electronic devices in there!
Also keep in mind that they don’t last forever, so it’s important to replace them regularly. In most instances, the lifespan of a surge protector is roughly 3-5 years, but if you live in an area where you’re more subject to fluctuations and power outages, like we are here in Tallahassee, you should probably replace them every 2-3 years to ensure you’re protected.
Main Uses for a Surge Protector
Surge protectors are available in all shapes and sizes.
They usually fall into three broad categories: standard, surge station, and smart.
Standard power strips are simple and inexpensive; they provide basic protection from surges and spikes in electricity and look like the power strips that we all know and are familiar with.
Surge station surge protectors offer more features and sometimes even include a built-in circuit breaker.
In addition, it will also have options to plug USB devices in directly, protection for your ethernet cable, or to provide protection for your coaxial cable (the big cord that runs through your wall from your cable company), along with superior voltage protection and power conditioning, but are still easy to use.
Smart surge protectors are more advanced and even allow you to control them remotely using an app.
The great thing about surge protectors is that they’re incredibly convenient for getting more options for power.
However, many devices will continue to draw power even when you’re not using them. Things like TVs, printers and computers can keep your power bills high, even when they’re turned off because they’re still pulling power!
Smart surge protectors have the capability of monitoring the devices you have plugged into them, when they sense a power shift beyond a certain threshold, a sensor will detect that you’ve turned your device on or off and will trigger power to the outlets accordingly.
How to Select a Surge Protector
The best way to choose a surge protector is by figuring out what specifically you need to plug into it, where it’s going to be place or mounted, then compare that with the rating provided by the manufacturer.
First off, figure out what you’re going to be plugging into it. Some chargers come with large transformers that obscure linear-aligned plugs taking out opportunities to plug in additional items. Surge protectors come in a variety of shapes and sizes to accommodate these awkwardly shaped and sized chargers, so knowing what you need to plug into the strip is the first thing you need to know.
The size and shape of your surge protector will be dictated by the space you’re planning on using it.
For instance, if you’re planning on mounting it to a wall, then you can use a variety of sizes and configurations, like a strip with two rows of four outlets, for instance.
If you are mounting your strip to the bottom of your standing desk, then you may prefer a linear surge protector, with a single row of 12 outlets.
Just find a configuration that’s going to work best for you for where you plan to place it.
When it comes to protection, it’s best to read the fine print.
For the most basic protection, you can choose a surge protector with a joule rating of at least 200 to 400.
But if you’re plugging delicate and/or expensive electronic equipment, like a computer, a display monitor or audio/video equipment into it, then you should look for something with a joule rate of 1000 at the very least.
A joule level rating of 2000 or more indicates maximum protection.
You should check for a UL seal, make sure that it’s a transient voltage surge suppressor.
Power Strips vs. Surge Protectors
When does it make sense to use a power strip vs. a surge protector?
Here’s a real-life example that will illustrate the difference.
On my desk in my home office, one of the items that I have is a small mixing sound board that I use for audio controls to record my podcast and for audio on my videos.
One time, a few years back, all I had was a power strip in place, and we had a lightning strike nearby that cause a power surge in my home.
That lightning strike sent a burst of power into my home, some of which made its way through the circuit breaker and into my office and hit my sound board.
Thankfully the only thing that was damaged was the transformer used to power the mixing board!
But the transformer that was used to power it was toast.
If I’d had a surge protector in place instead of that power strip it would have saved me all the time and effort I had to go through to figure out what specifically it was, and how to find a replacement.
These days, in most home offices, you’ve got your computer, a computer monitor, speakers, and other things like wifi routers, mobile devices and their chargers, and all kinds of other stuff.
They’re delicate and power strikes can fry those devices.
Is There A Cost Difference Between A Surge Protector And A Power Strip?
The great thing is that both power strips and surge protectors are relatively inexpensive options.
You can get a high-quality surge protector for ~$50 from Amazon.
In many instances a surge protector will be a little more expensive than a simple power strip, but the difference isn’t really all that much.
Always check the ratings and reviews of other customers to see what their experience has been so that you know that you’ve got something that’s high quality.
Can You Plug A Power Strip Into A Surge Protector?
Yes, you can can plug a power strip into a surge protector, so long as you do not exceed the power rating of the surge protector.
This can be a convenient way to manage those devices that have large power supply units, commonly called “wall warts”, that come with your computer monitor, or other electronic devices with large transformers.
However, there can be a downside to this.
By plugging a power strip into a surge protector, you run the risk of overloading your circuit which will cause your breaker to trip because it’s drawing too much power.
And in worst-case scenarios, it can even be fire hazard, so make sure that you understand the load capacity for your power strips and surge protectors.
What is an Electrical Power Surge?
An electrical power surge is a sudden increase in current flow through a circuit. It happens when something causes a large amount of electricity to pass through to your system at once.
The most common cause of this kind of power spike is a lightning strike, but it can also happen from a faulty appliance or device.
How Often Do Power Surges Happen?
The average home has three outlets – two standard ones and one high-amperage one. If you have a lot of devices plugged in at once, it’s likely that they will all draw power from the same outlet. That means if something goes wrong with that outlet, it could cause damage to all of your devices.
Power surges are a common occurrence unfortunately. The standard U.S. voltage for homes is 120 volts, but in reality the actual voltage can oscillate up to 169 volts. It’s when the power spikes exceed 170 volts where they’re deemed be harmful and can damage your stuff.
What Electrical Items Are at Risk in a Surge?
The most common cause of damage from a power surge is a short circuit. If you see smoke coming out of your device, immediately unplug it. In addition, if you notice any flickering lights, this could mean that your device has suffered a damaged internal component.
Which is Better a Power Strip or Surge Protector?
The best way to decide whether you should invest in a power strip or surge protector is by looking at what you plan to plug into them.
If you plan to power up and power down several relatively low-tech small appliances, then it makes sense to buy a power strip.
On the other hand, if you plan to plug in expensive and sensitive appliances, then buying a surge protector makes more sense.
How to Tell the Difference On The Packaging
The packaging will tell you what it does and if it has any special features.
The language the manufacturer uses on the package or their online listing is important.
You want to look for words like, “surge protector” or at least “protection” or “suppression.”
It’s common that power strips and surge protectors are placed next to each other in retail stores, and they don’t look very different from one another.
As long as you’re aware that you’re specifically looking for surge protection, the info provided will make it easier to find what you’re looking for.
Another Alternative – UPS
If you’re looking to protect your desktop or laptop computer from power outages, you might want to look into an uninterruptible power supply (UPS).
Not only do they offer a battery backup in the event of a sudden power outage, but they also provide surge protection, and the ability to plug in multiple devices. They give you the time to save documents and power down your computer gracefully should you lose power.
These devices usually come with a USB port so you can charge your phone at the same time in the event of a power loss. They are not always cheap though, but they will give you peace of mind knowing that if your power goes out, you still have time to save important documents to protect from data loss and power down appropriately.
Some UPS devices will only provide a few minutes of backup power, but that’s usually enough to get things in order while you power down.
Other more expensive devices provide even more time to power your devices so you can still access all your important files and documents from your computer.
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