Buying a surge protector remains hard

A recent article on surge protectors just adds to the difficulty.

Buying a surge protector has always been hard. First, you need to have some understanding of the technology, then you need to find unbiased reviews from a qualified reviewer. Good luck with that. Consumer Reports, for example, has punted on the topic.

Then too, there are many auxiliary decisions with any surge protector: how many outlets does it have, are the outlets child-proof, does it offer phone line and/or coax protection, are there widely spaced transformer outlets, is the plug flat so it can easily fit behind furniture, how long is the cord and more.

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A surge protector in its native habitat

Given this, I was excited to run across new surge protector recommendations from TheWireCutter.com, a site that does very thorough reviews. My enthusiasm was raised even more, when I read that they recommended a particular model for a Defensive Computing reason - what happens after it dies.

Over time, surge protectors lose the ability to protect from surges. Then what? Normally an LED light goes on or off or changes color, something easily missed. As I wrote back in 2012, I prefer a surge protector that will not provide unprotected power. It may be a pain, but its safer.

The Wirecutter recommended model, the Tripp Lite TLP1008TEL, was chosen "not because it's a better performer, but because it will actually stop working when its protection circuits wear out ...". The article also pointed out that the Accell Powramid D080B-015K will likewise, not provide unprotected power. These are apparently exceptions, the article says that most surge protectors continue to supply power when the protection fails.

All that said, there is a downside to this protection.

There may well be times where unprotected power is preferred over no power at all. For example, consider a camera monitoring a remote location. It may well be that you'd rather risk the death of the camera from an unlikely electrical surge, as opposed to losing the remote visibility.

The authors of the report, Brent Butterworth and Mark Smirniotis, note how rarely surge protectors are reviewed, something I can easily confirm. And, it should not be a surprise that their "tests showed significant differences in performance between models."

So, I was all set to write a glowing recommendation for the WireCutter article. Until I read the comments.

Anonymous comments are frequently worthless, but a recent comment caught my eye. The unknown person claimed to have spoken to Tripp Lite Technical Support and was told that the TLP1008TEL does not shut itself down.

Who to believe? Perhaps the features have changed over time?

Nowhere in the Wirecutter article did the authors say that they confirmed that the TLP1008TEL did, in fact, turn itself off when it could no longer provide protection. In fairness, the article is scheduled for a revision after the holidays.

The home page for the TLP1008TEL says that it features a "Failsafe shutdown mode". Exactly what this means, it doesn't say. Many other Tripp Lite surge protectors do not have this feature. For example, the User Guide to the much more expensive ISOBAR6DBS says it features "an internal protection that will disconnect the surge-protective component at the end of its useful life but will maintain power to the load - now unprotected." 

A Surge Protector Buying Guide from Tripp Lite says nothing about failsafe shutdowns. Perhaps they discontinued the feature?

The Owners Manual for the TLP1008TEL says this about the PROTECTED LED:

Indicates the surge suppression components are intact and providing complete protection against surges. If this LED does not illuminate, some of the surge suppression components are not functioning, and the unit should be replaced.

Nothing about a failsafe shutdown. On the other hand, the manual dates back to 2010 and notes that "Specifications are subject to change without notice."

I contacted Tripp Lite, but whose to say, if I even get a response, that it doesn't come from someone just repeating what's in the 5-year old manual?

As I said up-front, buying a surge protector is hard.

Also disappointing about the Wirecutter article is that, by and large, it only covers low end models. Almost all were under $40, and the three recommended models sell for $20-$27. Certainly corners have to be cut in this price range and a comparison to more expensive models might illuminate what they are. 

I paid $80 for my last surge protector and would love to see tests on models in that price range. Maybe next time, Brent and Mark? 

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