The very thing that powers your A/V can actually kill it; what I am talking about?

It’s power, and things like surges, power loss, power spikes, and brownouts are very common no matter where you live. I am going to show you how dirty power can harm your precious AV gear and what you can do to protect it.

Protect Your Gear From Dirty Power, Surge Damage

Here is a photo example of a power surge that damaged a TV’s video board. Note how the surge actually came in through the HDMI cable, not the power supply. In my experience, almost half the surge damage I find in a client’s homes didn’t come from the power outlet, but from another copper wire connected to the device, like Ethernet, coaxial or HDMI. This is very hard to guard against and normally goes unprotected in most homes.

Protect Your Gear From Dirty Power, Brownout Example

Another power issue that causes damage is a brownout, which is a voltage drop that can last anywhere from one millisecond to over an hour. This causes the power supplies in your sensitive AV equipment to work harder to keep up with the voltage demands of the unit’s circuits. It often won’t be able to, and that can cause flickering, shutdown, or unintended power cycling. All of this is very bad for a sensitive piece of gear.

Common types of equipment used to protect your gear
  • Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) – These are key to any well-protected system; they can prevent power loss and brownouts and usually include protection for spikes and surges too. I highly recommend a quality UPS at critical gear locations and would use a double-conversion UPS for more high-end audio systems because it does the best job of eliminating harmonic distortion and electrical line noise that a line-interactive UPS often cannot eliminate. Double-conversion is, of course, much more expensive, but ask yourself – what costs more to replace, a UPS, or a $10,000 rack of gear?
  • Power Conditioner – Power can be (and often is), a dirty thing, and by that, I mean it can damage sensitive AV gear with little dips and spikes in voltage that cause small amounts of damage over time. Do some research before buying as I have found that power conditioners vary widely in quality, but my favorite brand is SurgeX. I have not personally seen one die from a surge and I have one protecting my high-end gear at all times.
  • Power Strips – The cheapest and most common power device found today, they typically don’t protect or prevent anything, but sometimes include a very small amount of protection against surge. DO NOT rely on them as your sole protection, but they are better than nothing.
  • Other Surge Protectors – These would include coaxial, RJ45, speaker line level, and HDMI surge protectors. I am not for or against these because they offer protection at a cost; what do I mean? Most of the ones I have used do in fact protect effectively, but they often alter or degrade the data signal, causing poor quality at the receiving end. This doesn’t happen all the time, but I have seen it and they are often expensive and require some extra effort to install. For a system that has been hit by multiple surges, or has very long runs of copper wiring between buildings, I would recommend they be installed. Lastly, it’s also worth considering them if you have gear that operates outdoors, like video displays or speakers. Most times, lightning damage (surge) will invade your system from exterior electronics and enter your home’s wiring this way.

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Pro Tips

I like to use a high-end conditioner before a UPS to clean the power so the UPS can best do its job. All my network, Sonos, Control4, and A/V gear has at least a power conditioner and a UPS protecting it always. I want to prevent over- and under-voltage as well as power loss; those three things do the most damage to any piece of gear. I use power strips when I need more outlets, but never more than two on one circuit and I always watch how many amps are active at full load. It’s a simple setup for my home, but it works 99% of the time.

Question –  Is fiber immune from surges?

Answer – Yes and no. For the most part, fiber is 99.999% safe from lightning damage (surge) and I actually will spec fiber for long runs that have had lightning damage in the past. In my experience, that prevents the problem from happening again. However, nothing is 100% safe from Mother Nature. For example, if lightning were to hit within inches of your fiber run, it would melt the strands in that spot. Have I see that before? No, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it has happened. It’s extremely unlikely, but not impossible.

Question – Should I use lightning rods?

Answer – That depends. This is a controversial question because some say lightning rods attract lightning, but others believe they re-route the lightning harmlessly most of the time. I feel both of those statements are true, so from my experience, larger systems will benefit from rods that re-route the lightning that will inevitably strike; while smaller systems should not, so as not to attract lightning to an already small target. But if you are truly concerned, have a pro come and out and examine your home to see if they’re needed. If you live in small home, they’re probably unnecessary; but if you have a 5000+ square-foot home with a guest building that has multiple runs of cable buried in the ground between, I would suggest lightning rods be used. Never install them yourself, call a pro to do it!

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Things You Should Never Do!
  • Never daisy chain UPSs, this can cause many problems and does not result in extended run time.
  • Never think anything is 100% safe from power damage, even the most well protected gear can be damaged.
  • Don’t daisy chain lots of power strips, it could cause a fire.
  • If you are not a licensed electrician, do not mess with high voltage or install anything yourself behind the wall outlet in a power system.
  • Never try to repair or even open a power supply, UPS, or power conditioner of any type. The power capacitors can hold their charge for days, weeks, or even longer, which can seriously injure or kill you if you touch the wrong thing!
  • I hope this information has helped you to better understand how power can damage your system and I hope you have learned the steps you can take to protect your home and gear from damage. If you have any questions, leave them in the comments below!