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August 08, 2022

6 min

Surge Protector vs. Power Strip vs. UPS

What's the difference between a surge protector, UPS and power strip? Learn when you should use one instead of the other in this helpful guide.

CDW Expert CDW Expert

What's Inside

Computers rely on steady and constant power to provide a reliable working environment. Uninterruptible power sources (UPS)surge protectors  (also known as surge suppressors) and power strips offer power and protection to your devices and PCs. But it’s important to know what a power surge is to begin with and how each of these devices works, so you can determine which you need to protect your equipment.

What is an Electrical Power Surge?

Power surges can commonly occur when something boosts the electrical charge in power lines. This causes an increase in electricity through power lines and into the outlets of one’s house or workplace.

Refrigerators, elevators, moving walkways, and electronics are the most frequent victims of a power surge. There are many ways to power and protect these devices, including the use of power strips and surge protectors.

What is a Power Strip?

Power strips are devices that can be useful when it comes to feeding power to devices. Most strips have a built-in LED light system that indicates when the strip or individual sockets are functioning properly. Equipped with numerous wall outlets, power strips have energy-saving features that can power off an outlet momentarily if a device goes on stand-by mode. These strips can also include surge protectors built within them, decreasing the likelihood of a power surge causing damage.

Power strips are an excellent choice for anyone looking to power multiple devices safely. The energy-saving features and dual functionality of these strips allow people to work at a fast rate and never have to worry about issues with power not working. 

What is a Surge Protector?

Surge protectors, like power strips, can come in the form of a wall mount with USB ports extending outwards for easy access to plug in devices. They also, however, can come in different forms that plug into the wall containing parts specifically designed to block a power surge.

Additionally, these come with a spike suppressor, surge diverter, and a surge protection device (SPD). Some also come with a transient voltage surge suppressor for max defense against a power surge. Surge protectors are meant to defend against a spike in voltage coming from a power line and are made to absorb power to keep it from going out or malfunctioning.

Instead of plugging a surge protector directly into a wall socket, you can also mount your surge protection device to your circuit breaker panel. Or, choose a single-outlet surge protector for one device or appliance. You may also find surge protectors designed specifically for telephone lines, cable and more.

Surge Protector vs. Power Strip

Not all power strips are surge protectors. A power strip may or may not have surge protection. A surge protector, however, functions like a power strip with multiple outlets while also protecting your electronics from sudden power loss due to voltage spikes. This is particularly helpful with lightning strikes or surges from a power company issue. 

While there is surge protection built into some power strips, their primary attributes are equally distributing voltage across a multiplicity of electronic devices and their lower average cost. 

Surge protectors, on the other hand, come in at a bit pricier cost but are specifically designed to protect against power surges.  another. When it comes to using a surge protector versus a power strip for your PC and devices, you shouldn’t have to choose. To safeguard your equipment, you should make sure any power strip you buy is also a surge protector.

Which is Better, Power Strip or Surge Protector?

Both power strips and surge protectors are useful, but surge protectors hold up to  long-term use and prevent the worst-case scenarios from occurring at only a slightly higher cost.

Surge Protector vs. UPS

While a surge protector functions like a power strip, uninterruptible power sources (UPS) work like temporary back up power. UPS devices work independently, providing power when the main power supply fails. A UPS protects users as well as devices during disrupted power. UPS devices deliver power almost instantly when the main power ceases, allowing for very little if any interruption in power at all. The power supplied tends to come from batteries, supercapacitors or flywheels.

The solution is not long-term, but it does allow you some time to find an alternate power source without losing your work or risking damage to your machine. Most UPS devices allow just three to five minutes of battery backup power while others may keep your devices running for a bit longer. Give some thought to your needs prior to choosing which UPS is right for your system.

When to Use a Surge Protector

It's typically a good idea to use a surge protector most if not all the time, as you likely will not be able to anticipate when a power surge will occur. Surge protectors are best used to safeguard expensive electronics. The microprocessors present in computers and other electronics are very sensitive and become damaged if not protected from power surges. For best results, ensure that the surge protector you choose features an indicator light to show that the surge protection is in effect.

When to Use a UPS

Uninterruptible power sources give peace of mind that your work and your devices are protected in the event of a brownout or total loss of power. Many UPS devices allow multiple outlets for connecting your entire system or several important appliances or accessories. Consider using a UPS all the time for your desktop computer to ensure you never suffer data loss. Understanding that a UPS will not provide a long-term power supply to finish working is important to your satisfaction level as an end user. In the event of power loss, use the UPS to give yourself enough time to save your work and find an alternate power source.

When to Use Both a UPS and Surge Protector

If you are trying to decide between a UPS or surge protector, remember that you may not need both at the same time. That said, you can certainly use these devices independently to prepare your equipment for possible voltage spikes, brownouts and power outages.

Plug your valuable or complex electronics into the power strip and use the UPS for your computer and other devices where you may lose work if the power goes out. Plug printers and other accessories into power strips with surge protection. Divide and conquer to ensure all your devices are safely protected from excess voltage during unexpected power surges.

Tips for Using UPS and Surge Protectors

When using UPS and surge protectors for PCs and devices, especially when using them both at the same time, there are some important safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Don’t plug a surge protector into a UPS outlet. Always use a wall socket instead to avoid drawing too much power from your UPS, resulting in an inefficient user experience and possibly triggering an overload.

  • Don’t plug a UPS into a surge protector. Likewise, it is not generally advisable to plug your uninterrupted power source into a surge protector either. Plugging the UPS directly into the wall helps to ensure the most consistent power goes directly to the UPS and limits the times it will go to battery when it should remain online. This helps the UPS to remain charged for immediate response and built-in surge protection adds that layer of defense that also comes standard with a surge protector.

  • Get the right number of outlets. When purchasing either a UPS, surge protector, or power strip, one important consideration is the number of outlets. Of course, you want to buy a device with enough outlets to support the number of devices that you want to plug in. It can be a good idea to purchase a device with more outlets than you need now so you’ll have some extra room to plug in any new devices you add to your setup.

  • For surge protectors, check absorption ratings and clamping voltage. When purchasing a surge protector, two important specs are the absorption rating and clamping voltage. The absorption rating is how much power the surge protector can withstand in a surge. Look for surge protectors with an absorption rating of at least 600 joules. The clamping voltage is the voltage at which the surge protector will be activated to protect your equipment. Look for devices with a clamping voltage of 400V or lower.

Protect Your Devices

UPS battery backup products safeguard your work and typically protect your electronic devices against damage from power surges as well. Surge protectors protect your sensitive electronics from power surges. Power strips (which may or may not offer surge protection) provide a convenient way to plug in all your devices in one location.

We hope this guide has helped you to understand the differences between UPS, surge protectors, and power strips. Find the equipment you need to power and protect your devices on today.

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