Power Surges and Spikes

Tech Notes

About a couple of years ago, the transformer that supplied electricity to our block suffered a malfunction. It did not just fail but actually induced an overvoltage (>150VAC each phase) to surge throughout my home. During the event’s initial few minutes, all my lights that were lit including fluorescents grew brighter. The house smelled of melting plastic and I could hear something crackle behind the entertainment center. Frantically, I started turning OFF all the lights and unplugging any device that is plugged in to an electrical outlet. By the time I got to the other end of the house (5 minutes after the surge started) power went out for the whole block. Later on, I found out through my older neighbors that this has happened before but not as catastrophic or as long a duration as this one.

The aftermath of this whole event left quite a few damaged electrical equipment. All of my strip surge suppressors failed/tripped (a few had melted plastic and burnt circuit components) but protected the devices (amps, TV’s, PC’s, etc) that were plugged in to them. Some appliances that were not surge protected survived (fridge, washer, water heater) but others did not (dryer, HVAC). The UPS that provided power to my PBX survived and so did all of my in-wall UPB dimmers but not the UPB in-line fixtures nor the UPB circuit breaker bridge (it partially melted). Overall, I feel lucky that the damage was fairly minimal. Just didn’t like the sinking feeling of powerlessness or rather not having enough time to respond to what could have been a full blown electrical fire.

Some lessons learned from this whole ordeal:

  • Have procedures in place to handle emergencies like fire, earthquake, gas leaks, etc. Location(s) of breaker panel(s), gas/water shut-off valves, and the like should be marked and shown to all family members so they can be mobilized in an emergency. The single most critical act of tripping the main breaker to the home could have saved my electrical equipment. Unfortunately, it was not done .
  • Install a whole house surge suppressor. My UPB in-line  receivers and other appliancces that did not have local surge protection would have survived the surge if I had whole house protection.
  • Install local surge protection for most if not all electrical aplliances/devices. Nowadays, all electrical gear will have circuitry that is susceptible to surges/spikes (there is a difference that will be discussed in another post).
  • Inventory all electrical gear and assess the damage thoroughly. The local electric company will cover the cost of replacement/repair based on what you submit in your one-time claim.

After all is said and done, I now have better appreciation on the importance of surge suppressors, UPS, arresters etc. in our ever growing electronics world.

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