Saving With Surge Suppressors

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The APC Back-UPS ES 750 saves energy by cutting off power to the peripherals when a computer is not in use.

A new generation of suppressors offer cost-savings features like auto and remote-off capabilities.


Jul. 01, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Surge suppressors can save the world. Really, they can. Those mundane power strips we use for our computers and our home entertainment systems can help us stave off the effects of global warming.

How exactly? Do they suddenly have carbon dioxide and methane scrubbers in them? Can they sequester carbon within their tiny circuits? Can they recover your paycheck at the gas pump?

No, no and no. But surge suppressors can help us save energy—and lots of it.

That’s because generating electricity produces greenhouse gases. About 40 percent of greenhouse gases come from electrical power plants, many of which burn greenhouse-gas emitting coal to produce energy. That’s one bad thing. Another is that we waste anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of that electricity—depending on the country you’re in—by leaving our electronics in “standby” modes that draw power even when they’re turned off, but remain plugged in. That amounts to an estimated $4 billion in energy costs in the United States alone. And yes, many of our electronics continue to draw power when they’re turned “off.” This is called standby, phantom, or vampire power.

One of the best things you can do, then, is to unplug your precious gadgets when they’re not being used. Let’s face it, though: That’s inconvenient and in many cases, impractical. The next best thing? Plug ‘em into surge suppression strips that have switches, so when you’re done working on your computer or watching a movie, you can switch the whole strip off. All the electronics plugged into it cease drawing power, and they remain protected from electrical spikes. (Switching it off breaks the circuit.)

This is an inexpensive and simple way to save energy and money. The only problem: Most surge suppressors get tucked behind or under computer and entertainment consoles, remaining out of sight and out of reach. (Let’s face it, they aren’t convenient devices - check out my Surge Suppressor Peeve)

Surge suppressor manufacturers are seeing our desire for better energy efficiency, though, and several cool and practical solutions are already available.

Auto Off
APC’s Power-Saving SurgeArrest P7GT, for example, automatically shuts off up to three peripheral devices connected to your computer when it’s turned off or enters sleep or hibernation mode. Plug your computer into the “Master” control outlet and peripherals such as a printer, speakers and monitor in the “Controlled by Master” outlets. Simple relays shut off power to the three peripherals when the computer uses 15 watts or less, then open current to the peripherals when the computer draws 40 or more watts or turns on. This is a great product if you have kids who leave the computer or peripherals on after they’re done.

APC’s Back-UPS ES 750 uninterruptible power supply does the same, along with surge suppression. So if you want some battery backup and energy savings, this may be the way to go.

We expect to see many similar power products that automatically shut down connected peripherals and other devices. Also, look for APC to offer surge suppressors for home theater use.

APC’s new 350, 450, 550 and 650 Back-UPS models due in July also offer surge protection and battery backup, but not the automatic-off feature for peripherals. Like the 750, the units are compliant with the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, which prohibits the use of six hazardous materials in the manufacturing of electronics, including lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, PBB, and PBDE. As a final touch, the packaging for the new units is made from recycled material.

Remote Off
Belkin is taking a different tack with its Conserve surge suppressor, coming out in September. This guy offers a radio-frequency remote control to conveniently shut off six of the eight outlets on the strip. The other two outlets remain “hot” for devices you don’t want to shut off, like a cordless phone, cable modem or DVR.

The remote can be handheld or mounted to a wall like a light switch—and we all know how to use those. “We’re trying to make it easier for people to shut things off,” says Gid Herman, Belkin’s senior product marketing manager.

The Conserve may not be totally green. One should remember that a small amount of power—Herman says under 1 watt—is still required for the Conserve’s remote sensor to await a signal. Herman says the net savings in electricity will far exceed the amount of power required by the remote sensor, though. We expect the convenient Conserve to be a hit among gadget lovers. A 10-outlet Conserve is on the horizon, and both can be used in the home office or home theater.

Other Green Outlets
Perhaps the best of both worlds can be found in Bits Unlimited’s SmartStrip line. These surge suppressors don’t have remote controls, but do feature several switchable outlets that automatically turn off when the master is off, plus always-on “hot” outlets. They are also adjustable, meaning the levels of power detected in the master to turn off other components can be fine-tuned. This is an important consideration for the varied power differences among audio/video components.

Then there’s WattStopper/ Legrand’s Isolé IDP-3050 Plug Load Control, which uses a separate occupancy sensor to shut off six of its eight outlets after someone has left the room. We wouldn’t be surprised to see more devices like it, though an occupancy sensor can jack up the price and cause components to shut off at times you may not want them to. The Isolé, by the way, sells for $90, and WattStopper is reportedly looking to develop less expensive solutions.

Surge suppressors such as these may cost more than others on the shelves of the electronics superstores, but you’ll definitely be doing yourself and the world a favor by investing in one. After all, it’s something you can do now that’s not hard, and can have an impact on your energy use—not to mention your electricity costs.

“Based on the direction we are going in, within five years, surge suppressors may have a lot of this technology built in,” Herman says. “We’re just starting down this path, but it’s a direction that makes the most sense.”

Shopping Surge
How do you buy a good surge suppressor? Don’t run to the electronics superstore and grab the first one you see. First, make sure it says “suppressor” on it and is not just a power strip. Good surge suppressors will have a clamping voltage of 330 volts (the lower the better) and an energy absorption rating of at least 600 joules (the higher the better).

If you’re buying one to shut off electronics components, make sure it has a switch on it. And remember, even a good surge suppressor can’t protect your equipment from a lightning strike. In the event of an electrical storm, it is best to unplug all of your equipment, unless you have a power conditioner or other device that can act as a circuit breaker and break the flow of power when it exceeds safe levels.



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