Storms, Energy Crisis Threaten Electronics

Electronic equipment worth millions of dollars is damaged every year by lightning strikes and power outages caused by summer storms. These seasonal threats have been amplified by the possibility of rotating blackouts, as well as resulting recent policy changes by major utility companies.

Many electrical utilities have longstanding policies that insure homeowner's equipment and appliances against damage that can be proven to have been the fault of the utility company, such as voltage spikes or grounding problems. California's Pacific Gas & Electric was one such company, but its policies have changed in the wake of a cleverly orchestrated bankruptcy that left its parent company's coffers bulging, but PG&E apparently penniless.

The energy crisis in California and typical summer storms elsewhere cause temporary blackouts. (Weather causes about 67% of all outages. Tropical storm Allison plunged thousands of customers into darkness, causing approximately $2 billion worth of damage in the Houston area.) Equipment left on when the power goes out is susceptible to damage by huge "inrush" currents and "rebound" voltages when service is restored. PG&E executives have made several statements in recent months to the effect that with ongoing blackouts, consumers should no longer expect coverage for damaged equipment.

The only 100% certain guarantee of safety in unstable conditions is to unplug equipment, an action that often isn't possible. A secondary defense is a good surge protector, combined with a properly grounded electrical system. Surge protectors and power conditioners of every variety are on the market, ranging from "wall-wart" devices that sell for a few dollars each, to elaborate power "regenerators" costing thousands. Their effectiveness varies as much as their price.

The best protectors automatically disconnect equipment from the powerline—and from cable feeds and telephone connections—in both over-voltage and under-voltage conditions. Panamax's Max 8 ($169) and recently introduced Max 5500 ($995) both do this. "It is critical to purchase the right product to safeguard not only the AC line, but also every wire that's connected to the equipment, such as a phone line, TV cable or satellite antenna," says Bill Pollock, president of the San Rafael, CA company. Panamax claims to be the only manufacturer in the surge protection industry to offer this monitored disconnect feature and a lifetime warranty on both its protectors and any properly connected equipment.

Outages aren't the only electrical threats this summer. Although not typically a problem in western areas, lightning causes a tremendous amount of damage in other parts of the country, especially in the southeast and southwest. The annual tab for lightning damage in the US is approximately $4–5 billion, according to the Lightning Protection Institute. The organization's website contains plenty of useful information on protective measures that homeowners can take, and includes lists of recommended equipment and licensed contractors to install it.