ISSUE #1245
FEATURE REPORT

Should You Have the Air Ducts in Your Home Cleaned?
Most people are now aware that indoor air pollution is an issue of growing concern and increased visibility.
Many companies are marketing products and services intended to improve the quality of your indoor air. You have probably seen an advertisement, received a coupon in the mail, or been approached directly by a company offering to clean your air ducts as a means of improving your home's indoor air quality.
These services typically -- but not always -- range in cost from $450 to $1,000 per heating and cooling system, depending on the services offered, the size of the system to be cleaned, system accessibility, climatic region, and level of contamination.

 
 
Also This Month...
Homebuyers: How To Save Thousands of Dollars When You Buy
When you analyze successful homebuyers who have been able to purchase the home they want for thousands of dollars below a seller’s asking price, some common denominators emerge. Although your agents negotiating skills are important, there are three additional key factors that must come into play long before you ever submit an offer.
 


 
 

Surges Happen! How To Protect the Appliances In Your Home
Your appliances are designed to run on the normal 120 volts AC supply, with some tolerance for more or less, but they can be damaged, or their controls can be upset by surges. The result is then frustration and repair bills, and even a fire in rare cases. Learn how you can prevent this from happening to you.
 
Quick Links
Should You Have the Air Ducts in Your Home Cleaned?
Homebuyers: How To Save Thousands of Dollars When You Buy
Surges Happen! How To Protect the Appliances In Your Home

 

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Should You Have the Air Ducts in Your Home Cleaned?

Most people are now aware that indoor air pollution is an issue of growing concern and increased visibility. Many companies are marketing products and services intended to improve the quality of your indoor air. You have probably seen an advertisement, received a coupon in the mail, or been approached directly by a company offering to clean your air ducts as a means of improving your home's indoor air quality. These services typically -- but not always -- range in cost from $450 to $1,000 per heating and cooling system, depending on the services offered, the size of the system to be cleaned, system accessibility, climatic region, and level of contamination.

Duct cleaning generally refers to the cleaning of various heating and cooling system components of forced air systems, including the supply and return air ducts and registers, grilles and diffusers, heat exchangers heating and cooling coils, condensate drain pans (drip pans), fan motor and fan housing, and the air handling unit housing.

If not properly installed, maintained, and operated, these components may become contaminated with particles of dust, pollen or other debris. If moisture is present, the potential for microbiological growth (e.g., mold) is increased and spores from such growth may be released into the home's living space. Some of these contaminants may cause allergic reactions or other symptoms in people if they are exposed to them. If you decide to have your heating and cooling system cleaned, it is important to make sure the service provider agrees to clean all components of the system and is qualified to do so. Failure to clean a component of a contaminated system can result in re-contamination of the entire system, thus negating any potential benefits. Methods of duct cleaning vary, although standards have been established by industry associations concerned with air duct cleaning. Typically, a service provider will use specialized tools to dislodge dirt and other debris in ducts, then vacuum them out with a high powered vacuum cleaner.

In addition, the service provider may propose applying chemical biocides, designed to kill microbiological contaminants, to the inside of the duct work and to other system components. Some service providers may also suggest applying chemical treatments (sealants or other encapsulants) to seal or cover the inside surfaces of the air ducts and equipment housings because they believe the sealant will control mold growth or prevent the release of dirt particles or fibers from ducts. These practices have yet to be fully researched and you should be fully informed before deciding to permit the use of biocides or sealants in your air ducts. They should only be applied, if at all, after the system has been properly cleaned of all visible dust or debris.

Deciding Whether or Not to Have Your Air Ducts Cleaned

Knowledge about the potential benefits and possible problems of air duct cleaning is limited. Since conditions in every home are different, it is impossible to generalize about whether or not air duct cleaning in your home would be beneficial.

You may consider having your air ducts cleaned simply because it seems logical that air ducts will get dirty over time and should occasionally be cleaned. While the debate about the value of periodic duct cleaning continues, no evidence suggests that such cleaning would be detrimental, provided that it is done properly.

On the other hand, if a service provider fails to follow proper duct cleaning procedures, duct cleaning can cause indoor air problems. For example, an inadequate vacuum collection system can release more dust, dirt, and other contaminants than if you had left the ducts alone. A careless or inadequately trained service provider can damage your ducts or heating and cooling system, possibly increasing your heating and air conditioning costs or forcing you to undertake difficult and costly repairs or replacements.

You should consider having the air ducts in your home cleaned if:

  1. There is substantial visible mold growth inside hard surface (e.g., sheet metal) ducts or on other components of your heating and cooling system. There are several important points to understand concerning mold detection in heating and cooling systems:
    • Many sections of your heating and cooling system may not be accessible for a visible inspection, so ask the service provider to show you any mold they say exists.
    • You should be aware that although a substance may look like mold, a positive determination of whether it is mold or not can be made only by an expert and may require laboratory analysis for final confirmation. For about $50, some microbiology laboratories can tell you whether a sample sent to them on a clear strip of sticky household tape is mold or simply a substance that resembles it.
    • If you have insulated air ducts and the insulation gets wet or moldy, it cannot be effectively cleaned and should be removed and replaced.
    • If the conditions causing the mold growth in the first place are not corrected, mold growth will recur.
  2. Ducts are infested with vermin, e.g. (rodents or insects); or
  3. Ducts are clogged with excessive amounts of dust and debris and/or particles are actually released into the home from your supply registers.

Other Important Considerations...

Duct cleaning has never been shown to actually prevent health problems. Neither do studies conclusively demonstrate that particle (e.g., dust) levels in homes increase because of dirty air ducts or go down after cleaning. This is because much of the dirt that may accumulate inside air ducts adheres to duct surfaces and does not necessarily enter the living space. It is important to keep in mind that dirty air ducts are only one of many possible sources of particles that are present in homes. Pollutants that enter the home both from outdoors and indoor activities such as cooking, cleaning, smoking, or just moving around can cause greater exposure to contaminants than dirty air ducts. Moreover, there is no evidence that a light amount of household dust or other particulate matter in air ducts poses any risk to health.

If you think duct cleaning might be a good idea for your home, but you are not sure, talk to a professional. The company that services your heating and cooling system may be a good source of advice. You may also want to contact professional duct cleaning service providers and ask them about the services they provide. Remember, they are trying to sell you a service, so ask questions and insist on complete and knowledgeable answers.

Suggestions for Choosing a Duct Cleaning Service Provider

  • To find companies that provide duct cleaning services, check your Yellow Pages under "duct cleaning". Talk to at least three different service providers and get written estimates before deciding whether to have your ducts cleaned. When the service providers come to your home, ask them to show you the contamination that would justify having your ducts cleaned.
  • Do not hire duct cleaners who make sweeping claims about the health benefits of duct cleaning -- such claims are unsubstantiated.
  • Do not hire duct cleaners who recommend duct cleaning as a routine part of your heating and cooling system maintenance.
  • Do not allow the use of chemical biocides or sealants unless you fully understand the pros and the cons.
  • Check references to be sure other customers were satisfied and did not experience any problems with their heating and cooling system after cleaning.
  • Contact your local consumer affairs or local Better Business Bureau to determine if complaints have been lodged against any of the companies you are considering.
  • Interview potential service providers to ensure:
    • they are experienced in duct cleaning and have worked on systems like yours;
    • they will use procedures to protect you, your pets, and your home from contamination; and
    • they comply with air duct cleaning standards and, if your ducts are constructed of fiber glass duct board or insulated internally with fiber glass duct liner, with the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association's (NAIMA) recommendations.
  • If the service provider charges by the hour, request an estimate of the number of hours or days the job will take, and find out whether there will be interruptions in the work. Make sure the duct cleaner you choose will provide a written agreement outlining the total cost and scope of the job before work begins.

What to Expect From an Air Duct Cleaning Service Provider

If you choose to have your ducts cleaned, the service provider should:

  • Open access ports or doors to allow the entire system to be cleaned and inspected.
  • Inspect the system before cleaning to be sure that there are no asbestos-containing materials (e.g., insulation, register boots, etc.) in the heating and cooling system. Asbestos containing materials require specialized procedures and should not be disturbed or removed except by specially trained and equipped contractors.
  • Use vacuum equipment that exhausts particles outside of the home or use only high efficiency particle air (HEPA) vacuuming equipment if the vacuum exhausts inside the home.
  • Protect carpet and household furnishings during cleaning.
  • Use well controlled brushing of duct surfaces in conjunction with contact vacuum cleaning to dislodge dust and other particles.
  • Use only soft bristled brushes for fiberglass duct board and sheet metal ducts internally lined with fiberglass. (Although flex duct can also be cleaned using soft bristled brushes, it can be more economical to simply replace accessible flex duct.)
  • Take care to protect the duct work, including sealing and re-insulating any access holes the service provider may have made or used so they are airtight.
  • Follow standards for air duct cleaning and NAIMA's recommended practice for ducts containing fiber glass lining or constructed of fiber glass duct board.

How to Determine if the Duct Cleaner Did A Thorough Job

A thorough visual inspection is the best way to verify the cleanliness of your heating and cooling system. Some service providers use remote photography to document conditions inside ducts. All portions of the system should be visibly clean; you should not be able to detect any debris with the naked eye. After completing the job, ask the service provider to show you each component of your system to verify that the job was performed satisfactorily.

How to Prevent Duct Contamination

Whether or not you decide to have the air ducts in your home cleaned, committing to a good preventive maintenance program is essential to minimize duct contamination.

To prevent dirt from entering the system:

  • Use the highest efficiency air filter recommended by the manufacturer of your heating and cooling system.
  • Change filters regularly.
  • If your filters become clogged, change them more frequently.
  • Be sure you do not have any missing filters and that air cannot bypass filters through gaps around the filter holder.
  • When having your heating and cooling system maintained or checked for other reasons, be sure to ask the service provider to clean cooling coils and drain pans.
  • During construction or renovation work that produces dust in your home, seal off supply and return registers and do not operate the heating and cooling system until after cleaning up the dust.
  • Remove dust and vacuum your home regularly. (Use a high efficiency vacuum (HEPA) cleaner or the highest efficiency filter bags your vacuum cleaner can take. Vacuuming can increase the amount of dust in the air during and after vacuuming as well as in your ducts).
  • If your heating system includes in-duct humidification equipment, be sure to operate and maintain the humidifier strictly as recommended by the manufacturer.

To prevent ducts from becoming wet:

Moisture should not be present in ducts. Controlling moisture is the most effective way to prevent biological growth in air ducts.

Moisture can enter the duct system through leaks or if the system has been improperly installed or serviced. Research suggests that condensation (which occurs when a surface temperature is lower than the dew point temperature of the surrounding air) on or near cooling coils of air conditioning units is a major factor in moisture contamination of the system. The presence of condensation or high relative humidity is an important indicator of the potential for mold growth on any type of duct. Controlling moisture can often be difficult, but here are some steps you can take:

  • Promptly and properly repair any leaks or water damage.
  • Pay particular attention to cooling coils, which are designed to remove water from the air and can be a major source of moisture contamination of the system that can lead to mold growth. Make sure the condensate pan drains properly. The presence of substantial standing water and/or debris indicates a problem requiring immediate attention. Check any insulation near cooling coils for wet spots.
  • Make sure ducts are properly sealed and insulated in all non-airconditioned spaces (e.g., attics and crawl spaces). This will help to prevent moisture due to condensation from entering the system and is important to make the system work as intended. To prevent water condensation, the heating and cooling system must be properly insulated.

Should chemical biocides be applied to the inside of air ducts?

Air duct cleaning service providers may tell you that they need to apply a chemical biocide to the inside of your ducts to kill bacteria (germs), and fungi (mold) and prevent future biological growth. Some duct cleaning service providers may propose to introduce ozone to kill biological contaminants. Ozone is a highly reactive gas that is regulated in the outside air as a lung irritant. However, there remains considerable controversy over the necessity and wisdom of introducing chemical biocides or ozone into the duct work.

Little research has been conducted to demonstrate the effectiveness of most biocides and ozone when used inside ducts. Simply spraying or otherwise introducing these materials into the operating duct system may cause much of the material to be transported through the system and released into other areas of your home.

In the meantime...

Before allowing a service provider to use a chemical biocide in your duct work, the service provider should:

1. Demonstrate visible evidence of microbial growth in your duct work. Some service providers may attempt to convince you that your air ducts are contaminated by demonstrating that the microorganisms found in your home grow on a settling plate (i.e., petri dish). This is inappropriate. Some microorganisms are always present in the air, and some growth on a settling plate is normal. As noted earlier, only an expert can positively identify a substance as biological growth and lab analysis may be required for final confirmation. Other testing methods are not reliable.

2. Explain why biological growth cannot be removed by physical means, such as brushing, and further growth prevented by controlling moisture.

If you decide to permit the use of a biocide, the service provider should:

1. Show you the biocide label, which will describe its range of approved uses.

2. Apply the biocide only to uninsulated areas of the duct system after proper cleaning, if necessary to reduce the chances for regrowth of mold.

3. Always use the product strictly according to its label instructions.

While some low toxicity products may be legally applied while occupants of the home are present, you may wish to consider leaving the premises while the biocide is being applied as an added precaution.

Do sealants prevent the release of dust and dirt particles into the air?

Manufacturers of products marketed to coat and seal duct surfaces claim that these sealants prevent dust and dirt particles inside air ducts from being released into the air. As with biocides, a sealant is often applied by spraying it into the operating duct system. Laboratory tests indicate that materials introduced in this manner tend not to completely coat the duct surface. Application of sealants may also affect the acoustical (noise) and fire retarding characteristics of fiber glass lined or constructed ducts and may invalidate the manufacturer's warranty.

Questions about the safety, effectiveness and overall desirability of sealants remain. For example, little is known about the potential toxicity of these products under typical use conditions or in the event they catch fire.

In addition, sealants have yet to be evaluated for their resistance to deterioration over time which could add particles to the duct air.

Most organizations concerned with duct cleaning, do not currently recommend the routine use of sealants in any type of duct. Instances when the use of sealants may be appropriate include the repair of damaged fiber glass insulation or when combating fire damage within ducts. Sealants should never be used on wet duct liner, to cover actively growing mold, or to cover debris in the ducts, and should only be applied after cleaning according to appropriate guidelines or standards.

 

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Homebuyers: How To Save Thousands of Dollars When You Buy


"When you analyze those successful homebuyers who have the experience to purchase the home they want for thousands of dollars below a seller’s asking price, some common denominators emerge."


If you’re like most homebuyers, you have two primary considerations in mind when you start looking for a home. First, you want to find a home that perfectly meets your needs and desires, and secondly, you want to purchase this home for the lowest possible price.

When you analyze those successful homebuyers who have been able to purchase the home they want for thousands of dollars below a seller’s asking price, some common denominators emerge. Although your agents negotiating skills are important, there are three additional key factors that must come into play long before you ever submit an offer.

These Steps Will Help You Save Thousands When You Buy a Home

Make sure you know what you want . . . As simple as this sounds, many home buyers don't have a firm idea in their heads before they go out searching for a home. In fact, when you go shopping for a place to live, there are actually two homes competing for your attention: the one that meets your needs, and the one that fulfills your desires. Obviously, your goal is to find one home that does both. But in the real world, this situation doesn't always occur.

When you're looking at homes, you'll find that you fall in love with one or another home for entirely different reasons. Is it better to buy the 4 bedroom home with room for your family to grow, or the one with the big eat in kitchen that romances you with thoughts of big weekend family brunches? What's more important: a big backyard, or proximity to your child's school? Far too often people buy a home for the wrong reasons, and then regret their decision when the home doesn't meet their needs.

Don't shop with stars in your eyes: satisfy your needs first. If you're lucky, you'll find a home that does this and also fulfills your desires. The important thing is to understand the difference before you get caught up in the excitement of looking.

Find out if your agent offers a “Buyer Profile System” or "Househunting Service", which takes the guesswork out of finding just the right home that matches your needs. This type of program will cross-match your criteria with ALL available homes on the market and supply you with printed information on an ongoing basis. A program like this helps homeowners take off their rose colored glasses and, affordably, move into the home of their dreams.

To help you develop your homebuying strategy, use this form:

What do I absolutely NEED in my next home:

  1. ______________________________

  2. ______________________________

  3. ______________________________

  4. ______________________________

  5. ______________________________

What would I absolutely LOVE in my next home:

  1. _______________________________

  2. _______________________________

  3. _______________________________

  4. _______________________________

  5. _______________________________

How Sellers Set Their Asking Price

For you to understand how much to offer for a home you’re interested in, it’s important for you to know how sellers price their homes. Here are 4 common strategies you’ll start to recognize when you begin to view homes:

1. Clearly Overpriced:

Every seller wants to realize the most amount of money they can for their home, and real estate agents know this. If more than one agent is competing for your listing, an easy way to win the battle is to over inflate the value of your home. This is done far too often, with many homes that are priced 10- 20% over their true market value.

This is not in your best interest, because in most cases the market won't be fooled. As a result, your home could languish on the market for months, leaving you with a couple of important drawbacks:

  • your home is likely to be labelled as a "troubled" house by other agents, leading to a lower than fair market price when an offer is finally made

  • you have been greatly inconvenienced with having to constantly have your home in "showing" condition . . . for nothing. These homes often expire off the market, forcing you to go through the listing process all over again.

2. Somewhat Overpriced:

About 3/4 of the homes on the market are 5-10% overpriced. These homes will also sit on the market longer than they should. There is usually one of two factors at play here: either you believe in your heart that your home is really worth this much despite what the market has indicated (after all, there's a lot of emotion caught up in this issue), OR you've left some room for negotiating. Either way, this strategy will cost you both in terms of time on the market and ultimate price received

3. Priced Correctly at Market Value

Some sellers understand that real estate is part of the capitalistic system of supply and demand and will carefully and realistically price their homes based on a thorough analysis of other homes on the market. These competitively priced homes usually sell within a reasonable time frame and very close to the asking price.

4. Priced Below the Fair Market Value

Some sellers are motivated by a quick sale. These homes attract multiple offers and sell fast - usually in a few days - at, or above, the asking price. Be cautious that the agent suggesting this method is doing so with your best interest in mind.

 

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Surges Happen! How To Protect the Appliances In Your Home

The power you get from the wall outlet is known as "120 volts AC power." The power companies try to keep that voltage uniform. Lightning, short-circuits, poles knocked down by cars, or some other accident can make the voltage jump to hundreds, even thousands of volts. This is what engineers call a "surge." A surge will last only a few millionths of one second (the "blink of an eye" is thousands of times longer than the typical surge). It is enough to destroy or to upset your appliances.

What can a surge do to your appliances?

Your appliances are designed to run on the normal 120 volts AC supply, with some tolerance for more or less, but they can be damaged, or their controls can be upset by surges. The result is then frustration and repair bills, and even a fire in rare cases.

Disturbances

Normal - This is the voltage that we all take for granted, every second of the minute, every minute of the hour, every hour of the day, every day of the year. But occasionally, for a short time...

The voltage falls below normal: a sag. Sags are unlikely to damage most appliances, but they can make a computer crash, confuse some digital clocks and cause VCRs to forget their settings.

The reverse of a sag is called a swell: a short duration increase in the line voltage. This disturbance might upset sensitive appliances, and damage them if it is a very large or very long swell.

Noise is a catch word sometimes used to describe very small and persistent disturbances. These do not have damaging effects but can be a nuisance.

There is, of course, the ultimate disturbance: an outage -no voltage at all!

These disturbances are different from surges, but they should be mentioned because the remedies are generally different. As we will see later, some available devices can help overcome both sensitive appliances in your home.

Your home contains all sorts, types or kinds of appliances. These not only include the traditional household helpers, but also the entertainment electronics, the family's computer(s), smart telephones, control systems (thermostats, garage door, etc.), and all the new things to come.

More and more, traditional large appliances in your home depend on very sophisticated electronics for their control. This can often make them sensitive to surges (as well as power interruptions).

To help sort out which types of your appliances might be damaged or upset, you can describe them in general terms depending on their connections: power, telephone, cable, or antennas. Each of these connections offers a path for a surge to come in, something that might be overlooked when the cause of damage is explained as a "power surge."

The first type includes electronics that are connected only to the power, such as a computer with no modem, a TV set with rabbit ears, a VCR not connected to cable TV, a table-top radio, a microwave oven, etc. Surge protection of these is not particularly difficult, and quite often it is already built-in by the manufacturer.

The second type, for which more protection might be needed, includes electronics that are powered, of course, from your power receptacles but also connected to an external communications system: telephone, cable TV, satellite receiver. A slightly different but similar situation, which also needs attention, is that of appliances connected to a household control system such as garage door opener, intrusion or fire alarm, automatic sprinklers, or intercom.

We will see later why the two kinds of appliances face different risks of being damaged and consequently might require different protection methods.

Where do surges come from?

There are two origins for the surges that occur in your power system: lightning surges and switching surges.

Lightning surges, occur when a lightning bolt strikes between a cloud and objects on earth. The effect can be direct --injection of the lightning current into the object, or indirect --inducing a voltage into electrical circuits.

We will look at ways of protecting your appliances against lightning surges that come by way of the wires -power, telephone, cable, etc. Protection of the house against the direct effects of lightning is done by properly grounded lightning rods. Note also that lightning rods are intended to protect the structure of the house and avoid fires. They do not prevent surges from happening in the wiring.

Direct lightning effects are limited to the object being struck and its surroundings, so that the occurrence is considered rare but it is nearly always deadly for persons or for trees. Well-protected electrical systems can survive a direct strike, perhaps with some momentary disturbances from which they recover (blinking lights and computers restarting during a lightning storm). The key word, of course, is "well-protected" and this information will help ensure your home has a well- protected electrical system.

Indirect lightning effects are less dramatic than from a direct strike, but they reach further out, either by radiating around the strike, or by propagating along power lines, telephone system and cable TV. From the point of view of the home dweller, unwanted opening of the garage door, or a surge coming from the power company during a lightning storm, would be seen as indirect effects.

Switching surges occur when electrical loads are turned on or off within your home, as well as by the normal operations of the power company. An analogy often given is the "water hammer" that can occur in your piping if a faucet is turned off too quickly: the electric current flowing in the wires tries to flow for a short time after the switch has been opened, producing a surge in the wiring, just like the surge of pressure in the piping.

How often, how far, how severe?

So, surges can and do happen!

These questions -how often do surges occur, how far do they travel before hitting your appliances, how severe are they - must be answered, as well as possible, so that you can proceed to the next step of taking calculated risks or making a reasonable investment by purchasing some additional protection. There are several ways of getting surge protection, from the simple purchase of a plug-in device from an electronic store, to the installation of protective devices for the whole house, to be done by an electrician or the power company.

How often?

You are probably best placed to answer that question if you have lived in your neighborhood for several years. Lightning is random but can strike more than one time at the same place. There are now sophisticated means to record the occurrence of individual lightning strikes; electric utilities and businesses seek the data to make decisions on the risks and needs for investing in protection schemes. The reason for mentioning "several years in your neighborhood" is that the frequency of lightning strikes varies over the years and the section of the country where you live.

How far, how severe?

The answers to these two questions are linked: a nearby lightning strike has more severe consequences than an equal strike occurring farther away. There is also a wide range in the severity of the strike itself, with the very severe or very mild being rare, the majority being in mid-range (a current of about 20,000 amperes for a short time) -but still much shorter than the blink of an eye.

Calculated risk or insurance?
The trade off:

A large stack of dollar bills and some change to replace your unprotected computer, if and when a lightning or some other surge destroyed it ...

... or use a small number of bills to purchase a "surge protector" for peace of mind and effective protection.

If you look at it from that point of view, the choice is probably easy and, most likely, you will be looking for one of those "surge protectors" -or some device with a similar name to do the same job, as explained next.

What's in a name?

When you walk in the computer store or electronic supply store, you might ask for something to protect your appliances against surges, but what to call it ? The devices that can protect against surges are called "surge-protective devices" by engineers, but that sounds too much like jargon to some people.

One name that seems to stick is "surge suppressor" with a variety of trademark names. The Underwriter's Laboratories chose to call them "Transient Voltage Surge Suppressor" and you might find that name or the TVSS acronym next to the listing on the product. Always make sure that the product has been tested by a product safety testing organization, such as UL, ETL, or CSA, as indicated by their labels.

You cannot really suppress a surge altogether, nor "arrest" it (although your utility uses devices they call "surge arresters" to protect their systems). What these protective devices do is neither suppress nor arrest a surge, but simply divert it to ground, where it can do no harm.

Decisions, decisions

Surge protectors come in many shapes and forms for many purposes, not just the plug-in kind that you find in the electronic stores. There are several ways to install them on your power supply: plug and play, do-it-yourself, hire a licensed electrician to do it, or even call on your power company to do it. Here is a run down on your options, and who does it:

  • Purchase one or more plug-in surge protectors
  • Install a surge protector at the service entrance panel
  • Have the power company install a surge protector next to the meter
Plug-in surge protectors

This is the easiest solution, and there are a wide variety of brands available in the stores. These come in two forms: a box that plugs directly into a wall receptacle, or a strip with a power cord and multiple outlets. Depending on the appliance, you will look for a simple AC power plug-in, or a more complex combined protector for AC power and telephone or cable. However, before you purchase the right protector for the job, you should think about some details.

There is another decision to make, concerning how a surge protector will power your appliance if the protective element should fail under extreme cases of exposure to a large surge or large swell. Most surge protectors are provided internally with some kind of fuse that will disconnect in case of failure. However, this disconnect can operate in two different ways, depending on the design of the surge protector: some will completely cut off the output power, others will disconnect the failed element but maintain the power output.

Quit and be protected or continue?

For you, it is a matter of choice: would you want to maintain the output power to your appliance -but with no more surge protection? Or would you rather maintain protection for sure -by having the circuit of the protector cut off the power supply to your appliance, if the protective function were to fail? To make an intelligent decision, you must know which of the two possibilities are designed into the surge protector that you will be looking for.

What are the lights telling you?

To help the consumer know what is going on inside the surge protector, many manufacturers provide some form of indication, generally by one or more pilot lights on the device. Unfortunately, these indications are not standardized, and the meaning might be confusing, between one, two - even three or four lights -where it is not always clear what their color means. Read the instructions!

More decisions ...

So far, we have looked mostly at the plug-in surge protectors because they are the easiest to install and they do not require the services of an electrician. The two other possible locations for surge protectors are the service panel (breaker panel) and the meter socket.

Service-panel surge protectors

Instead of using several plug in protectors -one for each sensitive appliance is sometimes recommended -you can install a protector at the service panel of the house (also called "service entrance" or "breaker box"). The idea is that with one device, all appliances in the house can be protected, perhaps with a few plug-in protectors next to the most sensitive appliances. There are two types of devices available: incorporated in the panel, or outside the panel.

Some breaker panel manufacturers also offer a snap in surge protector, taking the space of two breakers (assuming that there are blank spaces available on the panel), and easily installed by the home owner or by an electrician. However, there are two limitations or conditions to that approach:

The snap in protectors generally fit only in a breaker panel from the same manufacturer -possibly down to the model or vintage of the panel.

To install the snap in protector, you must remove the front panel (do turn off the main breaker before you do that). Most cities have codes allowing the home owner to do it, under some conditions. Check with your local authorities to find out if they allow you to do that, or hire a licensed electrician to do the installation for you. There are other surge protectors packaged for wiring into the service panel, either within or next to the panel. That kind of installation is best left to a licensed electrician.

At the meter socket

There might be a possibility that the power company in your area offers, as an option, to install a surge protector with a special adapter, fitting it between the meter and its socket (the dark band in the bubble of the picture). But that type of device and installation is out of the question as a do-it-yourself project, and will require cooperation from the power company, if they do offer the program.

Other types of outdoor surge protectors can be installed near the meter. That kind of installation must be done by a licensed electrician.

Check list

Before you decide which way you want to protect your appliances, there are other points to consider.

Where do you live?

This is an important question because the type of dwelling has some effect on how severe your surge problem might be. In a somewhat simplified way, consider three categories according to the arrangement of the utilities:

  • Detached house with power and telephone and/or cable TV drops at opposite ends of the house -the worst possible arrangement of all. But do not fret, there is a way of compensating, even after the fact, for this unfortunate situation, as we will see.
  • Detached house with all services (power, cable TV, phone) entering on the same side of the house.
  • Townhouse or apartment building with services entering the building at one point and fanned out to the different dwellings - about the same as the case of the detached house with all services on the same side.
What appliances are you using?

From the surge protection point of view, there are four kinds of appliances, with examples listed below by order of increasing sensitivity to surges, either because of their nature or because of their exposure:

  • Motor-driven and heating appliances
    Washers (dish and clothes), food processors, power tools, heating and ventilation motors, pumps, etc.
    Water heaters, space heaters, toasters, incandescent light bulbs
  • Free-standing electronic appliances
    Computers without modem, table radios, TV sets with rabbit ears Compact fluorescent and modern tube type fluorescent lamps
  • Communications-connected appliances
    Computers with modem, TV with cable or satellite antenna, fax machines, telephone answering/recording machines
  • Signal systems
    Intruder alarms, garage door openers, sprinklers, intercom

Let's then take a quick look at each of these and see which might need some form of surge protection.

Motor-driven appliances and heating appliances

For each of these two categories, there can be two or more kinds, depending on the type of control used.

  • Mechanical control (ON-OFF switch, rotary control, etc.), no sophisticated key pad or other electronic control
  • Electronic control (programmable operation, key pad, display, etc.)

Appliances with mechanical controls are generally insensitive to surges and can be expected to withstand the typical surges that occur in a residence. Extreme cases, such as a direct lightning strike to the building, or one to the utility, very close, might cause damage.

Appliances with electronic controls can be more susceptible to damage than those with mechanical controls. Less traumatic but annoying can be upset memory in programmable appliances, although progress is being made in providing more built in protection.

Another difference to be noted is that of appliances permanently connected, as opposed to those in intermittent use. The risk of a damaging surge happening at the time of intermittent use is much smaller than that of an appliance which is on all the time.

What kind of appliances?

Electronic appliances

Power companies sometimes include as bill stuffers the suggestion to disconnect your appliances when a severe lightning storm is approaching. But that is no help if you are not in the house at that time. If, on the other hand, you are in the house, pulling out the power cord of an appliance that remains connected to a telephone line or cable TV might not be the best idea: you would lose the grounding of the appliance normally done by the power cord - possibly a safety problem should a surge come upon the telephone or cable TV.

This information should help you make the choices that fit your needs for surge protection. To make the right choice, it is useful to note that there are two types of electronic appliances. For each of these types, a different type of surge protector might be needed. These types include:

  • Simple, one link connection to power the system
  • Dual connection to both power and communications
One-link connections

Examples of one-link connection of powered electronic appliances include a TV set with "rabbit ears" antenna, a portable radio receiver, a computer with no modem connection or remote printer, a compact fluorescent lamp, etc. In the category of one-link connection we also find an old-fashioned telephone connected only to the telephone system.

Note that most of these have a two prong plug, which is their sole connection to the power system. For the TV set, a simple" AC plug in surge protector on the power cord would be sufficient. For just the Clamp, the cost of a surge protector " would be greater than the cost of simply replacing the lamp, if damaged by a surge -and therefore not be justified.

Two-link connections

This type of appliance is another matter. Typical of these would be a computer with a modem, a video system with cable or satellite link, a phone system directly powered from a receptacle (those with a large adapter plug and a thin cable with jack which goes to the appliance generally have sufficient internal isolation against surges).

The surge problem with this type of appliance is that a surge coming in from one of the two systems -power or communications -can damage the appliance, because of a difference in the voltage between the two systems when the surge occurs. This can happen even when there are surge protectors on each of the systems. Fortunately, you can find a special type of surge protector against the problem, as described next.

Equalizing differences

A simple solution to the problem of voltage differences for two-link appliances is to install a special surge protector that incorporates, in the same package, a combination of input/output connections for the two systems. Each link, power and communications, is fed through the protector which is then inserted between the wall receptacles and the input of the appliance to be protected. This type of surge protector is readily available in computer and electronics stores, and the electrical section of home building stores.

In addition to words on the package, it can be recognized by the presence of either a pair of telephone jacks or video coax connectors in addition to the power receptacles. Some models might have all three in the same package. Do note a few words of caution: (1) Read carefully the instructions or markings to find which is "in" and which is "out" for the telephone wires. It is important to note, before you buy the product, whether your wall receptacles are wired for three-prong power cords. Some of these combined protectors might not work very well if plugged into a 2-blade receptacle, using a "cheater" plug. (On some, an indicating light will signal that.)

Not just power-line surges

Among other disturbances on the power lines, there was a brief mention of sags and outages. You are certainly and unhappily well- acquainted with outages that can occur for any number of reasons beyond the control of your utility. Sags -a brief decrease of the line voltage -can be more subtle and do occur more often than the complete outage. You will notice these when the lights dim momentarily, digital clocks or VCR controls blink, or your computer shuts down then reboots -possibly losing some data.

Industrial and commercial users, health-care facilities and other critical systems have for many years used a device called "uninterruptible power supply" (UPS) that provides continuous power across a sag, or for the first portion of an extended outage (an independent local power generator set can then kick in).

The aggravation of consumers caused by sags and outages has created a mass market for consumer applications, making them affordable when looked at as protection against these annoying (but not damaging) disturbances -and with built in surge protection as a bonus in many cases. These consumer type UPSs have a small battery which is sufficient to ride through any sag and short outages. Some models even include the software to make a computer shut down in an orderly sequence in case of a long outage.

Surges in other systems

So far, we have looked at surges on the power line alone, or on a combination of power and communications lines. Surges of a slightly different kind can also happen in parts of other electrical systems that do not directly involve a power line. Examples of these are: the antenna for a remote garage door opener, the sensor wiring for an intrusion alarm system, the video signal part of a satellite dish receiver. Surges in these systems are caused by nearby lightning strikes.

These other systems just mentioned have not been the subject of standards on surge protection as much as power and telephone systems. Furthermore, protective devices for these other systems are not as readily available to consumers. It is more difficult to offer well-defined guidance on surge protection for these systems. Applying preventive surge protection schemes to an existing system might be difficult when the sensitivity of such a system to surges is not known. When considering installation of a new system, it would be a good idea to ask specific questions on that subject before signing the contract.

Protection for other systems

Some codes or practices aimed at providing safety for persons, when they are correctly applied, can also provide some equipment protection.

For instance, the general practice of telephone companies is to provide a surge protector as part of their services at the point where the telephone line enters the house (in dense urban environments, the National Electrical Code allows an exception). This protector is known as the "Network Interface Device" (NID) and you will find it on the outside of your house.

Another example of code requirement is that of cable TV systems for which the National Electrical Code requires proper safety-oriented grounding practices. The problem, however, is that in some cases, the video equipment can still be damaged by voltage differences.

With the increasing popularity of small-dish satellite receivers, installation by the user as do-it-yourself has also increased. Typical instructions for installation show how to make the connections, for instance in the figure at right. What the figure does not show is the need to provide a combined protector for power, telephone, and cable.

A well pump installed outside the house presents a double challenge: protection the pump motor itself against surges, and protection the house wiring against surges that might enter the house by the line that powers the pump. The first protection is generally built-in for modern submersible pumps. The second protection should be provided by surge protector installed at the point where the power line to the pump leaves the house, using protectors similar to those applied at the power line service entrance.

Intruder alarm systems using wires between sensors and their central control unit can be disturbed -and damaged in severe cases -by lightning striking close to the house. The wires necessary for this type of installation extend to all points of the house and act as an antenna system that collects energy from the field generated by the lightning strike, and protection should be included in the design of the system, rather than added later by the owner. Wireless systems are less sensitive than wired systems.

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