You probably haven’t stopped and really thought about exactly how many devices you have in your home that plug into a power outlet. So do it now. Go ahead. I’ll wait….
Now, think about how many of those devices have some sort of electronic or digital component. It’s probably way more than you realize. The obvious ones are TVs, video game consoles, Blu-ray and DVD players, audio and home theater equipment, satellite receivers, alarm systems, and computer equipment (including routers, modems, and printers). But there are plenty of additional devices in your house that you may not realize have at least one electronic control board inside — such as your furnace, whole-house vacuum, washer and dryer, garage door openers, security cameras, and pretty much everything in your kitchen from the oven, to the stove, to the fridge, to the microwave, and maybe even your toaster!
And one thing that all these electronic devices have in common is that they hate power surges.
I’d wager that you’re probably already aware of the importance of surge protection for electronic devices… and you may even have a few devices plugged in to surge protectors throughout your house. You probably also believe that if you experience a nearby lightening strike, or some other type of power surge, your “expensive” stuff is fully protected. It probably isn’t. And there’s probably only a handful of homeowners out there with everything protected. That’s why a whole-house surge protector is a crucial element of a comprehensive power protection strategy. But don’t just take my word for it. Spend the next two minutes enjoying some evil laboratory electricity sounds combined with one of the most boring narrators you’ve ever heard:
Or, just check out this photo showing a couple of whole-house surge protectors that blew following a surge caused by downed utility wires in West Chester, Pennsylvania. As ugly as it looks, they actually did their job and nothing else in the house was damaged:
Why Power Surges Suck
What first got me interested in this subject was when my fancy KitchenAid fridge at my Utah house stopped working. I traced the problem to a fried relay and capacitor on the (impossible to replace) control board. And while there’s no way to prove it, I suspect the fried components were caused by a power surge from a nearby lightning strike (which can occur pretty often at certain times of the year in Utah). In fact, they’re pretty common in many parts of the world, as shown by this “lightning map” compiled by NASA (click here for more details on how NASA generated this image):
I also blame power surges (possibly lightning again) for causing my Utah house TV’s HDMI inputs to fail (before I put it on its own surge protector). I was already using surge protectors on all my computer and audio/video equipment, but I never thought to protect all the other electronics in my kitchen, or laundry, or garage, or wherever else. That’s when I started researching whole house surge protection options.
Why Whole House Surge Protection Alone Isn’t Enough
While the main purpose of this post is to compare a few whole house surge protection options and give you my recommendations, I don’t want you to come away with the notion that a whole house surge protector, by itself, is enough for you to feel totally protected. It should help you feel safer, but a perfect comprehensive power protection strategy should incorporate a “cascading” approach — meaning you’ve got a “first-tier” of surge protection at your power meter, then a “second-tier” of protection at your distribution panel, and then a “third-tier” of protection where your devices plug in. Not coincidentally, these three tiers correspond to the three standard classifications of Surge Protective Device (SPD) types: Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3.
Three Surge Protective Device Types
For a quick rundown of the three types of SPDs, check out this admittedly cheesy short video from Leviton:
Type 1 Surge Protective Devices
A Type 1 SPD protects against external power surges, such as those caused by lightning or when your power company switches capacitor banks on your power grid. Type 1 SPDs are installed on the “line side” of your main service entrance, between the utility pole and your power meter, right where power comes into your house. My favorite Type 1 SPD is Leviton’s 50240-MSA meter socket surge arrester:
Type 1 SPDs are the best first line of defense against power surges from the grid. But the big drawback to a Type 1 SPD is that your power company has to get involved in the installation process, since power to your service panel has to be shut off during the installation of a Type 1 device.
I wanted to install the above Leviton unit at my Seattle house, so I contacted Puget Sound Energy to ask them what I needed to do… but they informed me that they don’t allow Type 1 SPD devices at all. Bummer.
When I contacted Provo City Power (who serves my Utah house), I was glad to learn that they do allow them… but they require a special permit, plus I’d have to schedule two separate service calls: one to shut off my power, and another one to turn it back on after the Type 1 SPD was installed.
So while I’d love to have a Type 1 SPD, I can live without it for now and just run with Type 2 and Type 3 devices for now. But if you live in a part of the world that makes it easier for you to have one (or you have an awesome utility company that provides them), I highly recommend it.
Type 2 Surge Protective Devices
A Type 2 SPD is installed at your “branch panel” (more commonly referred to as your breaker panel). It’s called your branch panel because it “branches” the power coming from your service panel out to all the circuits in your house. A Type 2 SPD (sometimes called a “panel protector”) wires directly to a dual-pole breaker in your panel, and can protect all the circuits in that panel, as well as any sub-panels that might be connected “downstream.” Here’s Leviton’s 51120-1 Panel Protector Type 2 surge protector:
One major benefit of a Type 2 SPD over a Type 1 is that they also protect against surges that originate inside your house, like when a large electrical load is switched on (such as a pump, garage door opener, or air conditioner). Type 2 SPDs are what I’l compare and recommend below.
Type 3 Surge Protective Devices
A Type 3 SPD is the one you’re probably already familiar with, such as a surge strip or battery backup unit with surge protection. Type 3s are used at the “point of use,” meaning you plug the device(s) you want to protect directly into an outlet on the Type 3 surge protector, then plug the surge protector into a standard power outlet. Most people use Type 3 devices as their first and only protection for your devices against power surges, but (as their name suggests) they’re actually designed to be the third and final chance to protect your device against a power surge… before your device takes the hit.
I can think of two primary benefits to combining a a Type 3 device (like a surge strip or a UPS unit) with a Type 2 device and/or Type 1 device. First, their effectiveness at preventing damage to your equipment is dramatically increased, because any surges on your system will be partially suppressed by the Type 2 device before it even reaches the Type 3. Second, your Type 3 surge protectors will last longer, because they’ll be required to kick in far less often, and under far less severe conditions, which will extend their service life.
Because they’re so inexpensive, I recommend using some sort of Type 3 device for all your major appliances, as well as for any and all other electronic devices in your house whose cost or inconvenience to repair or replace outweighs the minor cost of the Type 3 surge protector. Here, for example, is the RCA PSAPP1R Appliance Surge Protector I now use on my fridge. You can scroll to the bottom of this post to read all the details.
I’ll only be focusing on Type 2 surge protectors for the rest of this blog post, so I recommend this post from TheWireCutter for Brent Butterworth’s recommendations on a Type 3 device.
Comparing Type 2 Whole-House Surge Protectors
Because I won’t be installing a Type 1 SPD, I wanted to choose a high quality Type 2 whole-house surge protector to act as my first line of defense. During my comparison, I focused my analysis on ten important criteria that should always be considered when evaluating a whole-house surge protection device:
- Most importantly: is the unit UL Certified under the UL 1449 3rd Edition and listed as a Transient Voltage Surge Suppressor (TVSS) on the equipment label?
- What Modes of Protection does the surge protector provide? Ideally, a good whole-house suppressor should protect, at the very least, Line to Neutral (L-N), Neutral to Ground (N-G), and Line to Ground (L-G) on both incoming lines.
- What is the Maximum Surge Current Capacity of the surge protector? This number should be measured in kA (thousands of amps) per phase, and essentially represents how big a jolt the unit can survive. It’s an important rating, but it’s not the only number to consider when evaluating a surge protector’s true capabilities (more on this later).
- What is the unit’s Short Circuit Current Rating (SCCR)? This represents the maximum level of short-circuit current that surge protector can withstand.
- What is the Voltage Protective Rating (VPR) for each Mode of Protection? This is sometimes also referred to as clamping voltage. VPR is like a golf score — lower is actually better. The VPR represents how much voltage is still “let through” to your equipment after the surge protector has done its job. When comparing surge protectors head to head, this rating should be compared based on the same Modes of Protection, and taking the Max Surge Current Capacity into consideration.
- What is the Maximum Continuous Operating Voltage (MCOV)? MCOV is probably the most important factor to consider when evaluating a surge protector. Higher is better, and it should never be lower than 115% of the system’s nominal voltage for both L-N and L-L. For example, if evaluating a 120V/240V unit and following the 115% rule, the L-N MCOV should be at least 138V and the L-L MCOV should be at least 276V. If it’s not, the surge protector isn’t any good.
- What is the surge protector’s NEMA enclosure type?
- What type of warranty is offered?
- What additional connections (phone, coax) are supported? Even if all your power cords are surge protected, surges can still travel through the coax cable that delivers your cable TV/Internet and satellite signal, or phone lines. A comprehensive power protection strategy should also include protection for these connections, too.
- Does the unit’s price represent a good value? If one unit is more expensive than another unit, is the increased price justified based on the increased features and/or performance?
After a lot of research, I narrowed my choices down to a final four. I’ve included their photos below, along with a link to their manufacturer spec sheets, which is where I gathered the comparison information.
Square D (by Schneider Electric) SurgeBreaker Plus SDSB1175C
Square D has a stellar reputation for quality in the electrical products industry, and there’s a good chance you’ve already got at least a handful of their products in use somewhere in inside your house (and probably inside your breaker panel). View spec sheet.
Eaton / Cutler Hammer CHSPT2ULTRA
Cutler Hammer is also a well-known name in the commercial electrical products world, and now that they’re owned by Eaton, they’re still cranking out quality stuff. Home improvement contractor / TV host Mike Holmes always included this brand of surge protector on the homes he remodeled — which eventually landed him an endorsement deal with the company in 2012. View spec sheet.
This whole-house surge protector made my final four because it was recommended to me an electrician who informed me this was the unit they always install to protect houses in Utah against lightning strikes. View spec sheet.
Leviton 51120-1 Panel Protector
I’ve used Leviton products with great success in the past, and this unit is a big seller for them. View spec sheet.
So let’s compare these final four head to head in each category, and see who comes out the winner.
1. UL Listing
All four finalists are UL Certified under the UL 1449 3rd Edition and listed as a Transient Voltage Surge Suppressor (TVSS).
Winners: Four-way tie
2. Modes of Protection
As I said above, a good whole-house suppressor should protect at least, Line to Neutral (L-N), Neutral to Ground (N-G), and Line to Ground (L-G) on both incoming lines.
Square D: L-N / L-G / L-L / N-G
Eaton: L-N / L-G / L-L / N-G
Sycom: L-L / L-G
Leviton: L-N / L-L
I was really surprised, and disappointed, that the Leviton unit didn’t support Neutral to Ground or Line to Ground protection modes.
Winners: Square D SurgeBreaker Plus & Eaton CHSPT2ULTRA
3. Maximum Surge Current Capacity
One of the minimum requirements of my final four was that they have a max surge current capacity of at least 30kA (30,000 Amps). I chose this number because an investigation by the author of a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) guide on power surges found that a 100kA lightning to a pole adjacent to a house would result in a maximum probable power surge into the house of 10kA per wire. Based on those findings, the IEEE recommends that a service panel protector have a minimum rating of 20kA to 70kA (or for high lightning areas 40kA 120kA) per hot wire. Those recommendations are many times over the maximum current that a whole-house surge protector will likely ever be called upon to suppress in any single power surge, but that recommended rating rating will assure that the surge protector live a long service life as it suppresses multiple smaller surges.
Here’s how the finalists did:
Square D: 80kA
All four are above my 30kA minimum, and well within the IEEE’s recommended capacity ranges. But the Eaton and Sycom units are at least 20kA higher than the third place Square D, which is 30kA above the Leviton.
Winner: Eaton CHSPT2ULTRA (followed closely by the Sycom)
4. Short Circuit Current Rating
The SCCR is the the maximum level of current that the whole-house surge protector can handle in the event of a short-circuit condition in the building’s wiring. These ratings don’t need to be anywhere near as high as the surge current ratings, because short-circuits won’t produce currents anywhere near as high as power surges.
Square D: 25kA
Winner: Square D (followed closely by the Eaton)
5. Voltage Protective Rating
Now we’re getting to the really important specs. Often referred to as a surge protector’s clamping voltage, a Voltage Protective Rating (VPR) represents how much voltage is allowed through the surge protector after it’s done its job. VPRs are given for each Mode of Protection supported by the surge protector.
Square D: L-N: 600V / L-G: 700V / L-L: 1000 V/ N-G: 1000V
Eaton: L-N: 600V / L-G: 600V / L-L: 1000V / N-G: 800V
Sycom: L-L: 1200V / L-G: 600V
Leviton: L-N: 800V / L-L: 1200V
By looking at these numbers alone, it appears that the Eaton barely ekes out a win over the Square D unit. But what makes it an even more impressive victory is that fact that while the Eaton allows 100V less through in L-G mode and 200V less in N-G mode, the Eaton’s max surge current capacity (compared above in #3) was 35% higher than the Square D… meaning the Eaton is doing a massively better overall job at handling surges; it can take a bigger “hit,” but still allows less voltage through after the fact.
Winner: Eaton CHSPT2ULTRA
6. Maximum Continuous Operating Voltage
As I said before, the MCOV is probably the most critical factor when evaluating a whole-house surge protector (or any surge protector, for that matter). In this case, higher is better, as it represents how much voltage the unit can handle in a continuous overload condition (vs. just a momentary surge) and still remain operational. A surge protector’s MCOV should always be at least 15% above the of the system’s nominal voltage for both L-N and L-L modes. For example, on a 120V/240V unit, the L-N MCOV should be at least 138V and the L-L MCOV should be at least 276V.
Square D: L-N: 150V / L-G: 150V / L-L 300V
Eaton: L-N: 150V / L-G: 150V / L-L: 300V
Sycom: L-G: 150V / L-L: 300V
Leviton: L-N: 150V / L-L: 300V
So, ignoring the fact that the Square D and Eaton units support more protection modes (which was compared in #2 above), all four units share the same ratings for their respective modes, and all of them are comfortably above the 138V and 276V minimums.
Winner: Four way tie
7. NEMA enclosure type
The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) provides rating standards for electrical enclosures. The higher the NEMA enclosure type, the better they are at keeping out dirt, water, and other elements. A unit’s NEMA rating determines whether or not it can be mounted outside a building. If you’re really interested, you can check out NEMA’s full descriptions of their enclosure types here.
Square D: NEMA Type 1 (indoor only)
Eaton: NEMA Type 4 (indoor or outdoor use)
Sycom: NEMA Type 4 (indoor or outdoor use)
Leviton: NEMA Type 1 (indoor only)
It’s unlikely that you’d want to install any of these units outdoors, but I still value a higher NEMA enclosure type as better in this comparison.
Winners: Eaton CHSPT2ULTRA & Sycom SYC-120/240-T2
Many surge protector manufacturers will try to impress and distract you with their “warranty.” Some will even go so far as to offer a cash equipment replacement guarantee of a certain dollar amount (often between $25K – $75K) in the event that your downstream equipment gets fried.
However, if you read the fine print (and especially if you search for online accounts of customers who’ve tried to cash in on those replacement guarantees), you’ll find that there are plenty of loopholes that allow the companies to get out of paying you a dime. Didn’t have an electrician install it? Denied. Didn’t get a permit to install it? Denied. Violated some local electrical code in even the smallest of ways? Denied. The equipment is “commercial” or “industrial grade” not commonly found in a home? Denied. Don’t have a receipt for the oven, or TV, or computer that got fried? Denied. Didn’t have a separate surge protector on your coax cable to the TV? Well… you get the idea. And here’s a classic taken straight from one of the warranty sheets: “Failure due to direct lightning strikes and temporary over-voltage are not covered.” Sigh.
And in the unlikely event you do happen to get them to cough up some money, they won’t pay the full amount. They’ll pay the lesser of their guarantee amount and your homeowner’s insurance deductible (which is probably lower than $25K). So I didn’t take into account any of the cash guarantees when comparing the warranties, since they’re probably all equally unlikely. Instead, I compared the units’ warranties against defects in workmanship, which is pretty much the standard by which any company warranties its products. In this case, the unit would only be “defective” if it failed to
Keep in mind that surge protector warranties almost never cover damages to a surge protectors after they’ve done their job. If they die after getting fried, that’s not a “defect.” When up against a maximum surge event, their job is to “sacrifice” themselves and burn up so that your more expensive devices will have a better chance of survival. So with all that understood, here’s how the warranties break down (I included a link to each of their warranties, too).
Square D: 3 years (but up to 5 years if you’re also using certain additional Square D products in the chain)
Eaton: Limited Lifetime
Sycom: Limited Lifetime
Leviton: Limited Lifetime
The bottom line is that these warranties are probably only applicable if you can prove the unit malfunctioned… and you probably can’t. So in that case, there are no winners here, and the real loser is the homeowner.
Winner: Not you
9. Additional Connections
It’s important to keep in mind that power surges can travel down any wiring… not just electrical wiring. In fact, the NIST suggests most damage to electronic equipment is from high voltage between power and phone, cable TV, and satellite wires. That’s why a comprehensive power protection strategy is impossible without also protecting all the wiring that comes into your house and connects to your electronic equipment, including phone and coax cables.
So this comparison category shows whether the final four units support protection of those additional wire types.
Square D: 1 coax and 4 phone line included
Eaton: requires additional CHSPCABLE module to protect 2 coax connections and additional CHSPTELE module to protect 3 phone lines
The Square D SurgeBreaker Plus is the only whole-house surge protector in this group that includes built-in protection for coax and phone, so it’s technically the winner here. But it’s a somewhat hollow victory, since (as you’ll see in the next category) the price of the Eaton surge protector plus the two add-on modules is still far lower than the Square D unit by itself. So the Square D gets the win… with a wink.
Winner: Square D SurgeBreaker Plus SDSB1175C
10. Price & Value
For each of the finalists, I’ve included the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, as well as a link to the best street price I could find for the unit.
Square D: MSRP: $630 / Street price: $247 (Amazon)
Eaton: MSRP: $269 / Street price: $118 (Amazon and Home Depot)
Sycom: MSRP: $166 / Street price: $79 (Amazon)
Leviton: MSRP: 410 / Street price: $193 (Amazon)
If this category were judged based on price along, the Sycom would be the clear winner. But value is a much better criteria to measure here, and in order to do that, we have to look at the comparisons in the previous categories. When looking at all the other comparison categories, the price vs. performance winner is clearly the Eaton.
Winner: Eaton CHSPT2ULTRA
Fourth Place: Leviton 51120-1
I had high hopes for the Leviton, as I’m a big fan of their products. But, it only offers two protection modes and was ridiculously low where compared to all the others’ Surge Current Capacity. It barely outperformed the Sycom in the VPR comparison, and but that’s the only category in which it didn’t finish last (or tied for last). Now add the fact that it’s got the 2nd highest prices, but ranks the lowest in overall performance, and it’s an easy call to rank it last in this comparison.
Third Place: Sycom SYC-120/240-T2
The Sycom barely edges out the Leviton for the third spot, but only because it provides a similar (but still inadequate) level of protection when compared to the Leviton at a much lower price. And although it did OK in a few categories, it failes miserably in the all-important protection mode category, and I can’t recommend it as a good option, even with the low price.
Second Place: Square D SurgeBreaker Plus SDSB1175C
Schneider Electric (owners of the Square D brand) are no rookies when it comes to surge protection. They also own the APC brand of battery backup units, which is far and away the most popular computer power protection brand on the planet. It performed well in nearly all the categories, including placing third for surge current, second in the VPR category, tie-ing for first int he MCOV category, and clearly winning for additional connections. However, it’s the most expensive unit in the group — and its street price is more than double the Eaton CHSPT2ULTRA, which beat the Square D in every category except the additional connections comparison. But even if you purchase both Eaton add-on modules to give it similar specs in that category, the Square D is still around $60 more expensive.
Overall Winner: Eaton CHSPT2ULTRA
The Eaton takes top honors in nearly every category, and even though it didn’t win the category for additional connections, you can still purchase the coax and phone add-on units along with the CHSPT2ULTRA and end up with money in your pocket. In fact, Eaton sells a “combo pack” called the CHSPT23PACK that includes the CHSPT2ULTRA whole-house surge protector, CHSPCABLE coax unit, and the CHSPTELE telephone unit. The add-on boxed click into the surge protector, sharing the main unit’s ground. I found the CHSPT23PACK on Amazon for $189. However, I don’t have the phone lines connected in any of my houses, so the best deal for me was to buy a couple of CHSPT2ULTRA units for $118 each at Home Depot, then pick up two CHSPCABLE units on eBay for $59 each, which gives me Type 2 protection for my panel and satellite cables for only $177 per house.
Update: I purchased the two CHSPCABLE units on eBay from Lon Lockwood Electric of Rochester, New York. When the package arrived they had included a note thanking me for my purchase, and telling me they’d thrown in a free CHSPTELE unit at no additional charge. Thanks, guys!
Unlike most of my other home improvement posts, I won’t be discussing installation of Type 2 whole-house surge protectors here. I recommend saving money by shopping for the best deal possible on the Eaton unit, and then spending that money on a qualified electrician to home to your house to install it properly. It won’t take him very long (you’ll probably not even hit his minimum rate), so maybe find a switch or two you need him to re-wire at the same time to get your money’s worth. Installing a Type 2 SPD requires opening your breaker panel, (ideally) installing a new dedicated two pole breaker, and wiring the SPD to your neutral and ground bar. You can potentially zap yourself dead (I’m not exaggerating) if you attempt to install one of these in your electrical panel on your own. So unless you’re an electrician, or have previous experience working with electric panels and know what the heck you’re doing, I highly recommend hiring an electrician for this job. I’m usually all about DIY, but not in this case.
Now, that said, I did install my own — but I killed the main power outside at the meter first, and I’ve done stuff like this before. Here’s what it looked like when I was done (notice I also clicked the compatible CHSPCABLE coax surge suppressor underneath it):
And here it is peeking out of the bottom of the panel with the door put back into place:
Again, the above photos are just for illustration. If you don’t know what you’re doing in your electrical panel, this isn’t the project on which you want to learn. Hire an electrician and watch him (or her) install it. Feel free to ask them questions as they do it. You’re paying them to be there — so maybe you can treat the expense of the service call as “tuition” to learn as they show you.
Don’t Forget Type 3 Point Of Use Surge Protectors
If you can remember all the way back to the cheesy videos at the top of this article, you’ll know that a “tiered” approach is the best way to provide maximum protection to your home’s expensive electronic components (including the ones you probably didn’t realize were “electronic”). A Type 2 whole-house surge protector is a good first line of defense (and a great second one if you can swing an install of a Type 1 device, too), but you should also use Type 3 “plug-in” surge protectors placed strategically around your house on your most expensive and sensitive electronics.
Type 1 and Type 2 Units Should Take Multiple Hits
One of the early questions posted on this article asked whether Type 1 and Type 2 surge protectors will need to be replaced following an “event” — as is the case with most Type 3 devices? I figured it was a good enough question to update the article and include an answer here.
Of the four above units I researched, three have two LEDs indicators that show their protection status for each line (the Sycom has only one). Because their max surge current ratings all exceed what’s likely to be the biggest single hit they’ll ever see, they are designed to suppress multiple events below their max thresholds before they “fry and die.”
If a power event hits your surge protector that either exceeds its upper limit (unlikely) or a smaller hit acts as the final “killing blow” after taking multiple hits over its lifetime (more likely), the surge protectors I researched are all designed to sacrifice themselves to protect everything downstream. At that point, the unit’s LEDs will not light up, indicating that it’s no longer protecting anything “downstream.”
So the answer to the original question is “After a single event? Probably not. But after repeated events (which could take place over weeks, months, or years — depending on your location), then eventually, yes.” That means it’s a good idea to periodically check your Type 1 and Type 2 devices as part of your standard home maintenance schedule… especially after a nearby thunderstorm. Your LEDs will tell you when it’s time to replace it.
Your investment in electronics (and appliances with electronics) in use in your home is probably greater than you realize. For a few hundred dollars (which includes installation by an electrician), you can protect those devices against power surges, which are far more common that you think.
Out of the four finalists I compared, I’d be happy with either the Square D SurgeBreaker Plus SDSB1175C or the Eaton CHSPT2ULTRA connected to my electrical panel as a whole-house surge protector and as part of my overall power protection strategy.
But I’m happier with the Eaton, because it’s a way better deal.
As always, I welcome your questions, comments, and feedback below!
- NIST Publication “Surges Happen!” – How to protect the appliances in your home
- NIST Update on a Consumer-Oriented Guide for Surge Protection
- EWEB Surge Protector Shopping Guide