Special offer

Whole House Surge Protectors - Do I Need One?

By
Home Builder with WellSwept Chimneys

Had an individual at church today who is a General Contractor and performs Home Inspection on the side, now he has no other education or training other than what he has as a General Contractor.

He had a friend approach him who had their home inspected and were told by another Home Inspector that they needed a device known as a Whole House Surge Protector.  Upon taking to an electrican friend, who told him it would cost $1000 to put in and it was not necessary, he was then telling the home owner and me that the first Home Inspector was in error.

Well, I have to sit down with this individual still and show him a few things.  My original education being in the electrical field (originally educated as an engineer) have bit more theoretical knowledge than most electricians and was playing with Metal Oxide Varistors (the devices surge protectors use) in the late 1970s.

Now lets disect this and see what the real story is if we can.

First what is a surge, how do surge protectors protect against them and do they work?

First What Is A Surge: 

A power surge may last for only a few millionths of a second, but at its worst, it carries tens of thousands of volts, enough to fry circuit boards, destroy computers and home-entertainment systems.
 
A lightning-induced surge is the most powerful and most dangerous, as a 200,000-amp surge entering your home will burn up house wiring.  But if the lightning strike is a mile or more from your home, the actual surge that enters the home is greatly reduced and whole house protection can handle it safely.   A total impact from a lightning strike is seldom experienced, but one a mile or more away may be encountered from time to time.
 
Now, most surge related damage, is actually NOT even related to lightning strikes but created by the utility or inside our homes.  When we say utility, it is usually not something created by the utility company, but carried in on their lines and can while not as dramatic, can be far more frequent and just as damaging to electronic devices.  These surges can be from downed power lines, sudden changes in electricity use by a nearby factory, or even the cycling on and off of laser printers, electric dryers, air conditioners, refrigerators, and other energy-sucking devices within our home or in nearby homes.  The damage inflicted by power fluctuations or surges can be instantaneous or may not show any symptoms for some time, in fact sometimes you never even notice at all and do not connect the dots.  The appliance like a microwave takes ongoing surges time after time, and then all of a sudden one day simply fails to work.
 
These small surges happen frequently and on an ongoing basis in every home.
 
How Do Surge Protectors Work? 
 
Surge protectors or Metal Oxide Varistors are small semi conductor devices that sit in an electrical circuit unnoticed until the voltage rises above a predesigned level (this may for exampel be 150 volts on a normal residential line) and then once the voltage rises above that threshold quickly drain that voltage off or clamp it.  While surges can happen quickly, the response time of the MOV is faster.  While the peak voltage and current is high, MOVs can manage large levels of current and voltage, all be it for very brief periods of time
 
Do They Work?
 
Yes very well in fact, which is why companies who make them offer warranties on appliances and equipment protected by them.
 
Here is an example of one in my house, which is capable of a maximum of clamping 50kA or 50,000 amps and a nominal discharge rating of 25kA or 25,000 amps.  
 
This unit has two green LEDs on it giving the comfort of proper operation.
Intermatic offers a 5 year warranty on the unit, as well as a 5 Year $10,000 warranty on any equipment protected by this unit.
 
So to summarize Whole House Protection Devices.
  1. We have a lot more sensitive electronic devices in our home than in the past - surge protection now more than ever in the past makes sense.  Washers, dryers, refrigerators, everything has electronics and circuit boards today.
  2. While some think of lighting as surge - most surges are NOT lightning related and come form either inside the home or from the utility company.  These can be air conditioners, appliances, many things cause small surges.  It is these small surges over the years that cause electronics to fail most often.  Whole house surge protectors are ideal for this as you will NOT have surge protection on each and every receptacle.
  3. You may ask why a Whole House Surge Protector if the appliances create the surges most often.  Well these appliances are most often on dedicated circuits - will send the surge back along the conductor to the panel where the surge protector will clamp it.  Auto start generators are another culprit, and the surge protector will also protect from these type of surges.
  4. It is still best to layer protection for very sensitive equipment and the power bar with protection comes into play here.  However, in some older homes without ground conductors the power bar surge protection will not work. In these cases the whole house protection is the only answer.
  5. What size to get?  Well most homes will only ever see surges, even from lighting in the 10kA range.  However, while a surge protector rated at 10kA would protect against a hit of this level, that one hit may be end of life for the device.  It is better to look at a 50kA or 80kA unit which will then last you for years to come.  There may also be a nominal discharge rating, one of 3, 5 or 10kA should be sufficient.  

And NO IT WILL NOT COST $1000!!   Perpahs $200 to $300 depending on what the electrician charges for the unit and labor.

Now without being too harsh - lets try to see what went wrong

  1. The first individual, who is a General Contractor and does Home Inspections on the side has zero training in Home Inspection. Now this individual is a great guy, a general contractor, but does not know what he is talking about in some areas of Home Inspection.  Regardless of background, I have yet to see any individual including myself, who had anywhere near enough knowledge to be a good Home Inspector without some additional education and training.
  2. The other individual who performed the original Home Inspection. Now I have no idea who he was, but he indicated on the report that the Whole House protector was required.  This is again incorrect and reflects poor training on their behalf.  Now they may have had some Home Inspection training, but at least from this incident appear lacking in some areas.  The device could have been recommended - but should not have been presented as something that was needed.
  3. The electrician - while coming from the electrical field myself, does not surprise me, is somewhat disheartening.  Bottom line is too many, most in fact, electricians really know nothing more than they learned and never graduate beyond that.  They learned often by working with others, have little if any ability to actually read a schematic or understand how an electrical or electronic device actually functions.  They know how to connect a piece of equipment because somebody showed them.  If they run into anything out of the ordinary they struggle.  While this appears harsh, from my experience, this unfortunately is reality.  I saw it myself years ago, apprentices could take and wire a three phase motor control if you told them what you wanted them to do verbally; but had that same person a schematic or diagram of the same circuit and ask them to connect it and they were lost.  Frankly he had no clue and gave bad advise.
  4. The homeowner - while they were told they needed something they did not. 
    1. They now do not have any protection which could benefit them.
    2. They have reduced confidence in Home Inspectors because of :
      1. poor communication or information from one inspector
      2. mis-information from a friend who pretends to be an inspector and got more mis-information from an electrician friend.

Sham Reddy CRS
Howard Hanna RE Services, Dayton, OH - Dayton, OH
CRS

Thanks for sharing!!!

We have a lot more sensitive electronic devices in our home than in the past - surge protection now more than ever in the past makes sense.  Washers, dryers, refrigerators, everything has electronics and circuit boards today.

Apr 30, 2017 06:34 PM
Robin Wells

Sham Reddy - I do agree.  For the price they are highly recommended; not required but recommended.

May 01, 2017 08:39 AM
William Feela
WHISPERING PINES REALTY - North Branch, MN
Realtor, Whispering Pines Realty 651-674-5999 No.

After 2 lightning strikes and burned out TV's and computers I had one installed.

Apr 30, 2017 06:51 PM
Nick Vandekar, 610-203-4543
Realty ONE Group Advocates 484-237-2055 - Downingtown, PA
Selling the Main Line & Chester County

Good advice, we have small surge protectors for our stuff, not whole house and they have tripped in the past protecting our stuff. Having a whole house seems like a good idea.

May 01, 2017 08:31 AM
Robin Wells

Nick & Trudy Vandekar, 610-203-4543 


They do work and are beneficial.  I would never tell anybody they are required, but then neither is a protected power bar.  Whole house units cost more than power bars, but do protect everything and are better designed with superior components inside.  You can read more from links below:


INTERMATIC Surge Protectors Whole House


EATON Surge Protectors Whole House


Home Depot - EATON Whole House Surge Protector for $118 retail.

May 01, 2017 08:37 AM
MichelleCherie Carr Crowe .Just Call. 408-252-8900
Get Results Team...Just Call (408) 252-8900! . DRE #00901962 . Licensed to Sell since 1985 . Altas Realty - San Jose, CA
Family Helping Families Buy & Sell Homes 40+ Years

Thank you for this education about whole house surge protectors. I'm happy we have GFCI units on almost all of our power outlets. 

Jul 07, 2019 05:52 PM
Margaret Rome Baltimore 410-530-2400
HomeRome Realty 410-530-2400 - Pikesville, MD
Sell Your Home With Margaret Rome

 

We had one installed many years ago. We were struck by lightning and it knocked out the protector and just about everything in the house. Took some doing to get insurance coverage.

Jul 27, 2019 06:18 PM
Robin Wells

They may have a lifespan for protection.  Most of the better ones do have their own insurance if they fail.  However, none of them alone are designed to or able to protect against a direct lightning hit, really there is not much that can protect against a direct hit.  A direct lightning strike is not technically an electrical surge and is really not what these are designed to protect against.  However if you have multi-layer surge protection and a ligthtning protection isystem nstalled you can add protection against all but the most severe hits.  Surges on the lines is something that happens daily on most utility power grids - often several within an hour and many quite small.  These small surges are what slowly kills many electronic devices and what surge protectors exel at eliminating.  A good whole house surge protector should provide protection against line fluctions from a more distant lighting strike, but not a close more direct one.  If you live in an area prone to lightning strikes, then you need more, it will be more costly but should be possible for most locations and most hits.  

Jul 29, 2019 02:49 AM
Patricia Feager, MBA, CRS, GRI,MRP
DFW FINE PROPERTIES - Flower Mound, TX
Selling Homes Changing Lives

Hi Robin Wells - I'm really fascinated with this article you wrote and was wondering if the information is still current or is there something new? Several years ago, I called an Electrician to make a repair at my house built in 1994. He fixed the problem but recommended I get a whole house surge protector. I was skeptical and thought he was just trying to sell me something I didn't need. After reading your article, I'm thinking, it probably is a good idea. After all, houses are like people, they age and they don't get any younger!

I was also intrigued by the following paragraph: "A lightning-induced surge is the most powerful and most dangerous, as a 200,000-amp surge entering your home will burn up house wiring.  But if the lightning strike..."

When I was very young I lived in Chicago. Our home was built in the late 1800's. My sisters and I were on the floor watching T.V. in front of the living room window with the curtains opened with no blinds. Lightning struck the chandelier in our dining room (original from when the house was built) and our electrical wires caught fire. We were without power for a long time.  I was too young to know all the details and my parents are deceased so I can't ask them any questions. 

Any new thoughts or perhaps a revised blog post would be very helpful. Thanks, Robin!

Aug 03, 2019 06:00 PM
Robin Wells

Thanks and perhaps a new post on this is worthwhile.  Lightning is a nasty example and if it is a direct hit there is little one can do to protect against something taking damage.  A surge protector can help, multi-layer surge protectors can be even better, but there may not be a 100% guarantee that there will not be some damage.  The better surge protection companies do offer warranties which vary depending on surge protection offered.   Some of the warranties such as Siemens on their FS140 offers up to $25,000 damage repair/replacement for equipment protected by their device and a 10 year warranty on the unit itself (if it fails within 10 years they replace free).  There however is a limitation on the damage repair/replacement warranty which will not cover direct lightning hits. That particular Siemens unit is also has a 140 kA rating which is significantly higher than the one I have installed.  So may revisit my own unit!   Having said that, this all comes at a cost as the better and more capable units do have better ratings, better warranties and also higher price points.

Aug 03, 2019 06:20 PM
Patricia Feager, MBA, CRS, GRI,MRP
DFW FINE PROPERTIES - Flower Mound, TX
Selling Homes Changing Lives

Robin Wells - Thank you, very much for the additional information. I'm glad I sparked an interest and happy to know you are investigating more current whole house surge protectors. I am very interested. Better safe than sorry!!! 

Warranty companies and Insurance companies are always mysterious and it seems as if many consumers don't even read or understand what type of protection/coverage is offered unless there is a problem. I am guilty of something similar. Back in January 1994, living in Chicagoland I had a house fire caused by aluminum wiring in my home that was built in 1973. Of course, temperatures + wind chill factors was 64 degrees below zero. Of course, there were no warranties or surge protectors. Of course, there were warning signals with my electricity but I didn't know it. I was still recovering from the passing of my spouse starting to believe ghosts really did exist. Which of course was false. Consumers back then didn't know back then aluminum wiring wasn't safe for houses. If insurance companies knew, they weren't telling policyholders.

However, my rude awakening was to discover replacement coverage for the fire wasn't what I expected because of how the policy was written and riders replaced (reduced) my coverage. I didn't know it until I had to face the music with the Insurance Company. The fire marshall really helped me a lot at that time but it still didn't change the outcome for the payout from the insurance company. My loss was much greater than it should have been, if only I knew more about wiring and insurance policies. 

Aug 04, 2019 06:10 AM
Robin Wells

It is so true that insurance is often a mystery and sadly the companies often have loopholes.  As for aluminum wiring it is actually safer than many believe, at least the aluminum made today.  There were a few original problems and many stemmed from the original alloy used.  Aluminum wiring had been used in the utility industry for years before in residential and is still used today.  The idea at the time was simply use the same alloy as used by utilities, it made sense.  But utility wire was designed with a few objectives - being price, weight and strength.  But those were not necessarly the qualities needed in homes.  To compound the problems electricians had not used and were not often trained in the differences between the two.  So problems began to occur right from the beginning. 


 


The main four were: 


Aluminum is a much softer metal than copper. Electricians who had always worked with copper found that it was very easy to nick, cut, or crush the aluminum wiring when removing insulation or making connections. They had to be gentler. Damaged wire creates local hot spots and results in overheating.  


Movement in the metal called creeping.  When electricity flows through wire, the wire heats up. Aluminum wire expands more than copper when it heats up. The repeated expansion and contraction as the wire heated up and cooled down caused to the wire to creep out from under the terminal screws that held the wire in place. This wire creeping resulted in loose connections and overheating.


Oxidizing or rusting.  When exposed to air metal will oxidize or rust. This forms a different substance on the surface, in this case aluminum-oxide or rust. Rust on steel is red, rust on copper is green, and rust on aluminum is white. It’s not a big problem when copper wiring rusts, since the copper oxide that forms is electrically conductive. It doesn’t interfere with the wire’s ability to do its job. When aluminum wiring rusts, the white oxide is not a very good electrical conductor. It does interfere with the flow of electricity, and again, can cause overheating. 


Finally there is the incompatability of different metals - when joined with copper is a commonly known one. 


The problems were solved and proper fixtures designed and the alloy changed in the early 1970s.    Any aluminum since then if installed properly is perfectly safe and is still actually acceptable by code and still used in some commercial installations.  However, by the time the aluminum wiring issues were identified and improved, aluminum had received enough bad publicity that it became unmarketable. By the late 1970s, it was no longer used by most builders, although it is still approved today and is less expensive than copper.  (the irony is that if somebody installed aluminum today with new alloy and fixtures - there would still be a stigma and insurance companies would not like the wiring - although those same insurance companies on the commercial side have no problems with aluminum wiring in commercial installs)

Aug 04, 2019 06:30 AM
Patricia Feager, MBA, CRS, GRI,MRP
DFW FINE PROPERTIES - Flower Mound, TX
Selling Homes Changing Lives

Robin Wells - WOW! This information can be life-saving and very powerful to know! Everyone has their own personal history and stories when it comes to homeownership. Stigma is something that doesn't go away easily and sometimes it never goes away. Misinformation can be costly.

As a consumer, I trust the local electrician blindly. When it comes to original alloys if electricians "were not often trained in the difference" then as an astronaut would say, "Houston we have a problem!" Unfortunately for homeowners who live in a home for a long time or doesn't know about electrical aluminum wires during building construction, they can't or go back to the original builder and the insurance company will simply pay the claim less the deductible or reject the claim. What a quandary and a mystery! Also, in my opinion, owners who have Residential Service Plans who rely on their electricians authorized by the warranty companies may or may not be qualified which also compounds problems. Would you agree? 

Robin, you are a wealth of information. Thank you, so much! I'm in hopes that Sharon Parisi another blogger here on ActiveRain, also local to DFW (Dallas Fort Worth) will agree that information with your type of expertise in the industry is very valuable to consumers and agents too!

Thank you, Robin!!! 

Aug 07, 2019 05:48 AM
Sharon Tara
Sharon Tara Transformations - Portsmouth, NH
Retired New Hampshire Home Stager

I had no idea of any of this...I just thought surge protectors were something to protect your computer. What an education I got! Thank you!

 

Aug 13, 2019 07:44 AM