Research Hub > How to Choose a Surge Protector

November 21, 2023

4 min

How to Choose a Surge Protector

Our buyer guide weighs the pros and cons of different types of surge suppressors to help you decide how you can best protect your electronics.

CDW Expert CDW Expert
What's Inside

A surge protector (also called a surge suppressor) is one of the least expensive yet most important pieces of equipment you can buy, whether you're putting it in a home office or a data center. A surge suppressor protects electronic equipment from sustaining damage in the event of a power surge, faulty wiring or other fluctuations in voltage. This could include complete loss or line-voltage issues where your lights dim for a few seconds and then go back to normal.

Don't risk frying your expensive gaming setup because you didn't spend a few extra dollars to get a quality surge suppressor. Electronic devices are becoming more advanced by the day and feature the newest, most sensitive technology. This makes them more sensitive to power fluctuations. Unnecessary stress that components experience during the shutdown and startup process, especially sudden shutdowns when the power goes off, is a main cause of hardware failures in computers and other electronics. 

How Do Surge Protectors Work?

Surge protectors are designed to suppress any voltage spikes that try to come through your power supply into your computer or other electronic device. You can think of it as a wall between electricity and your computer. When the power surges, the excess voltage bounces off the wall, is absorbed by metal oxide varistors (MOVs) inside the suppressor and is diverted to the suppressor's ground wire. The voltage is blocked by this wall and is unable to make contact with your connected equipment.

Surge suppressors offer protection in a specific amount of joules. If a suppressor is rated for 1,000 joules of protection, it can absorb any combination leading up to that 1,000 — ten 100 volt hits, five 200 volt hits, one 1,000 volt hit, etc. Whether single-outlet, multi-outlet, or USB-compatible or a right-angle model, the design of a protector has no bearing on the joules of protection. 

Unfortunately, sometimes you have no idea how many joules of protection are left in your surge protector. You should buy a protector with an indicator light that signals whether the device is functioning correctly and protecting your equipment or if it has reached the end of its lifespan.

If your surge suppressor does not have an indicator light, take some time to think about the major power events that have happened since you first put it to use. Has there been a lightning strike that caused power failure? Do your lights dim and return to full strength a few times a year? If your surge protector has been in use for a few years, take the time to replace it, especially if you are introducing a new computer or peripheral device into the mix.

What Devices Need A Surge Protector?

The more expensive the item, the more necessary a surge suppressor becomes. You don't need to plug a lamp into a surge suppressor — the worst that could happen from a power surge would be that the light bulb burns out, costing you a few dollars. However, computers are filled with voltage-sensitive components and an electrical spike could wipe out your data, erase years of saved photos and render your computer useless, costing you thousands of dollars, destroying memories and piling excess work onto you. Other high-end electronic equipment, such as a home theater system, can also benefit from the use of a surge suppressor to extend its lifespan and reduce risk of damage from power fluctuations. For no-fail operations, though, critical data center infrastructure like servers might need the extra backup of a UPS.

Looking to protect higher-end equipment? You might be better off with an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) vs a surge protector.

Picking the Right Type of Surge Protector for Your Needs

There are several main types of surge protectors and a few specifications to consider when choosing how to best protect your devices:

Power Strip Surge Protector

The design of a power strip surge suppressor is what most likely comes to mind when asked to picture a surge protector. With a power cord and plug that goes directly into a wall outlet, a power strip surge protector is usually rectangular and features several outlets for plugging in multiple electronic devices. Power strips sit on the floor and feature different cord lengths depending on how far your computer or home entertainment center is from a power source, but not all power strips are equipped with surge protection. These are the ideal choice for your home and personal needs.

Choose this if you want cheap, plug-and-play protection for the electronics you use every day.

Rack Mount Surge Protector

Rack mount surge suppressors are designed to provide power through multiple outlets and protect against surges in network components. Their slim design allows them to fit within racks and enclosures in businesses where there are multiple servers, networking products and other equipment in one central location. Rack mount suppressors come in both vertically and horizontally oriented models, with some taking up as little as 1U of rack space.

Choose this if you're looking to protect multiple pieces of equipment in a data center or if you have a hefty stereo or theater system.

Other Specifications

Surge protectors seems simple, but there's a few other considerations that can help you get the most out of them.

Indicator Light

Keep an eye out for a surge suppressor that has an indicator light so you never need to guess if your electronic devices are protected.

UL Listing

Look for devices that are UL (Underwriters Laboratories) Listed for the entire device (UL 1449), not just the power cord. This ensures that the suppressor is safe and meets the necessary standards.

Power Rating

Power ratings are not one-fits-all. You need to look at the joules of surge protection provided by the suppressor to see whether it's appropriate for the devices you're trying to protect. 

  • 1,000 joules: Suppressors that protect against 1,000 joules are adequate for small electronics that you might use in the kitchen or other areas of your home if you don't want to risk your expensive mixer to an unexpected power surge. 
  • 1,000-2,000 joules: A surge suppressor with 1,000 to 2,000 joules of protection will work for your office peripherals, such as copiers and printers, and is also useful in garages and workshops where power tools will be used. 
  • 2,000+ joules: Surge suppressors with over 2,000 joules of protection should be considered for your most important, and expensive, devices, such as computers, home theaters, gaming consoles and more.


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