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Surge Protectors

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Surge suppressors don't save electricity

A company is trying to sell me a surge suppression system (TVSS) for my [commercial] building they say will reduce electricity use by 20%. Is this B.S.? -- Glynn Moran, Feb. 2004

Yes, it's B.S. It won't save any electricity at all. Companies like RediVolt are scam artists who have never substantiated their claims. Sure, they guarantee the savings, but to file a claim you have to do things like submit daily temperature readings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a four-year period! Note that the link goes to an affiliate site; there are lots of different websites littering the net marketing the same exact Redi-Volt product.

Let's explain what surge protectors are and what they're not. Every once in a while there's an extremely brief surge of power in your electrical lines caused by things like your refrigerator kicking in and equipment switching at the power plant. These surges can damage electronic equipment like computers. You can protect your equipment by plugging it into a surge protector, which diverts the excess electricity to the ground. This kind of device is called a TVSS, or Transient Voltage Surge Suppressor.

But this doesn't save any meaningful amount of electricity, because the savings happens for only a fraction of a second. In the case of a plug-in protector you don't even save that, because the surge has already gone through the meter and you've already been charged for it. (Well, not really, because the surge is so small it doesn't even amount to a fraction of a penny, but if you could be charged for it, you would have been.) The company selling the sham TVSS system installs it at the electrical panel so it keeps you from getting charged from surges that come from the power plant but not inside your own building. Even so, like we said, the savings happens for only a fraction of a second, so small you can't really measure it.

Let's assume you had a 100% spike every three hours and that it lasts a millisecond, which is pretty long for a surge. (We're being generous.) Three hours is 10,800 seconds. So:

Without Spikes
With Spikes

* 10,800 seconds at 120V

* 10,799.999 seconds at 120V, plus
* 0.001 seconds at 240V

So that means instead of using 10,800 seconds worth of 120V electricity, you're using 10,800.001 seconds of electricity. Put another way, every three hours you use an extra 0.001 of electricity. Now, if you think that's a lot, do you think you would save a lot of energy by turning off your lights for 0.001 seconds? Do you think you will pay a lot more for electricity by keeping them on for an extra 0.001 seconds?

Here's what it looks like in graphical form:

What? You say you can't see the surge? Oh, it's there. It's just that it's only 0.00000000003 inches wide, so it's a little hard to see. The table would need to be over 8000 miles wide in order for the surge to be represented by a one-pixel line. I made the chart smaller because I figured your monitor is not that large.

By the way, this is the same reason why the brief power surge that occurs when you turn on things like computers is meaningless -- it happens for a tiny, tiny, tiny, amount of time, and the surge itself is only modest. Think about it: If a device used twice as much energy when you turned it on for a full second, then it would cost you a whopping one extra second of electricity.

Please read that last sentence again, it's important.

Remember the motto of our website: Volts x Amps = Watts. Underwriters Laboratories figures that a typical damaging surge from lightning is 6000 Volts at 200 Amps and lasts ten microseconds (ten millionths of a second). So 6000 V x 200 A = 1,200,000 watts, or 1,200 kilowatts.

But the surge would have to last for an hour for that to be 1,200 kilowatt-hours, and in fact the surge lasts for only ten microseconds (0.000001 seconds). Dividing our 1,200 kWh by 3600 seconds in an hour, then multiplying by the 0.000001 seconds the surge actually happens, we get 0.00000003 kWh. It would take thirty million of these surges to eat up a kilowatt-hour, at which point you'd pay about eight cents for it. And remember, this is for a lightning strike; most surges are only a few hundred volts.

Some boring tech background: Most surge protectors clamp down on excess voltage above 330 or 400 volts. The TVSS making the claims of 20% energy savings says it clamps down at anything over 130V. That will certainly protect your equipment better, but again, it won't save energy. Surges usually last for no more than a few nanoseconds to microseconds (a billionth of a second to a thousandth of a second).

More about the TVSS energy-saving scam:

More about surge suppressors

  • Anatomy of a Surge Suppressor by ExtremeTech
  • How Surge Suppressor work by HowStuffWorks

    Incidentally, no surge suppressor you can buy will protect against lightning, which can be thousands or even millions of volts. But some surge suppressors come with a warranty that covers lightning damage, even though they can't protect against it, because the manufacturers are trying to get you to buy their product. They know the chances of lightning getting into your electrical lines is rare so their risk in offering that kind of guarantee to you is small. If you don't already have insurance to cover your electronics equipment then buying a surge suppressor that comes with a lightning guarantee is an easy way to insure yourself.

    Whether or not your insured (and whether with real insurance or a product guarantee), the only way to keep your equipment safe during a lightning storm is to physically unplug it from the wall. Turning it off isn't good enough, and turning off the power strip it's on isn't good enough -- there's enough power in a lightning surge to jump the little gap that turns a switch off. It's up to you whether you want to go to the hassle of unplugging your electronics when there's a storm. Me, I usually leave everything plugged in and just make sure my computer data is backed up.

My own experiences with TVSS scammers

One of the companies pushing RediVolt illegally copied some of my energy saving tips and put them on their own website, and then ignored my requests that they remove my content from their site (2002-03). They've since gone out of business (or at least their website is no longer up).

Damian Smith of TVSS scammer wrote in April 2004 to ask that I take down this whole section about how TVSS's don't save energy because I am supposedly wrong. Typically he provided zero evidence to back his claims. I told him that until he provides any evidence then I wouldn't respond to any more of his messages. He then threatened legal action against me! I provided my address to serve their lawsuit in case they were actually stupid enough to file one.

By the way, VoltTech's site says that a fast food restaurant or car wash experiences over 400,000 surges a day. Given that there are only 86,400 seconds in a 24-hour day, we're expected to believe there are five surges every second. Not.

VoltTech's site is littered with ridiculous Java links and ugly bitmap graphics. It doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

A letter we got on this subject

I can understand your frustration companies that exploit the unknowing public with smoke and mirrors and delusions of power savings with the use of a TVSS unit.  I spent 25 years in the US Navy and started their TVSS program to save ONLY on maintenance costs and and to decrease equipment down times, not to save energy.  A TVSS unit does not modify current usage therefore doesn't save energy.

I have a TVSS / consulting company which recommends TVSS for things such as DC to 4160VAC. For those of us who tell the truth I applaud you!

Steve Salka, VP PhaseFree Inc., Feb. 2006


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