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Surge Protector vs UPS [Which is Better?]


Depending on the model, UPS is a large surge protector with a battery that will keep your equipment protected from power surges and blackouts. That is definitely more protection than a surge protector can provide.

The most common way to protect your equipment from power inconsistencies is a surge protector, but then why do we need Uninterruptible Power Supply (also known as UPS)? The answer to this question comes down to your needs and usage.<

In this article, I will compare UPS to Surge Protector and also something that is called – “a Power Strip” (which looks like a surge protector but does not protect your equipment from anything):

  • Common power problems
  • Surge protection solutions
  • Power backup solutions
  • Can you use a surge protector with a UPS?
  • What else to consider when choosing between UPS and surge protector?
  • Should you use UPS or a surge protector for PC?

Common power problems

The following are the most common power distortions that occur in utility power and types of devices that are designed to protect your equipment from them. The table below will cover all three units at their best, but keep in mind that they are individually rated by the manufacturer on how much of the protection they actually offer.

Power Problem UPS Surge Protector Power Strip
Overvoltage Protected Protected NO
Voltage Spikes Protected Protected NO
Noise Protected Depends on the model NO
Blackouts Protected NO NO
Brownouts Protected NO NO
Voltage Sags Protected NO NO
Harmonic distortion Protected NO NO

** Check with manufacturer specifications for exact numbers.

Surge protection solutions

Let’s be as clear as possible. Power strip DOES NOT offer ANY surge protection! Even though they look very similar, check carefully the label before buying one.

So, what’s the difference between the power strip and surge protector? Surge protectors will have a clear indication that they are for that specific purpose:

If there is NO light indicator on, assume that what you purchased is NOT a surge protector!

Unfortunately in today’s market, there are quite a few manufacturers that sell simple power strips indicated as “surge protectors”.  There is not much you can really do about it, but simply buy your surge protectors only from reputable companies with some kind of mentioning of joule rating!

REAL surge protectors should also have compliance certifications listed! You may want to look into the warranty that the manufacturer offers as well (in terms of insurance from malfunctioning during power surges and damaging your equipment).

If there is no warranty, then there is a big chance that they don’t believe in the device themselves. Keep all the receipts if you would like to have your item repaired or replaced if something happens.

Power strip

The fact that the surge protector and power strip look almost identical, makes the selection process very confusing. Choosing the WRONG type of power protection can be dangerous because you will be expecting something, that your purchased solution simply cannot deliver.

A power strip is just an extension of your wall outlet, that you can take to another part of the room and plug in multiple devices into. Nothing more than that and it should only be used for that purpose.

If you would like your equipment to be also protected from spikes and surges (that occur rather frequently, without us knowing anything about it), you will need a SURGE PROTECTOR. If you would like to be also protected from blackouts, then UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) will do the job.

A simple power strip looks like this:

Usually, if we see the on/off button, we tend to think that this is a surge protector!

It may or may not be. The REAL surge protector will also have something mentioned about protection right on it along with a LED light to know if it is protecting or not.

Surge protectors

The difference between a surge protector and a power strip (besides the actual protection) is that a surge protector actually indicates protection with a small LED light that will be ON and a label that states that the unit is “protected”. If there is a clear indication of that – it’s a SURGE PROTECTOR, if not – it’s a power strip. More advanced versions of surge protectors may have a small LCD screen where you can check if you are protected or not.

Don’t forget to check any of these indicators once in a while in order to make sure that your equipment is still protected! Surge protectors are designed to absorb excess electricity before it gets to your expensive equipment and damages it. When internal MOV (or Metal Oxide Varistors) burn out, your surge protector unit will turn into a regular power strip and should be replaced immediately (if you want to keep your protection). The following tips will help you with selecting a REAL surge protector:

  • Led light or LCD screen. An actual indication that this is a surge protector.
  • Joule rating. If your surge protector does not provide this information, you can safely assume that it is NOT a surge protector.
  • Reputable company. These companies usually provide a warranty, which means they are sure you will have no problems while using their product.

Automatic voltage regulator (AVR)

You can use this electrical device to regulate your voltage over long periods of time. It regulates voltage automatically and usually has a surge protector built-in. If it does not, a lightning strike or extreme overvoltage will take it down. It is really not designed for surge protecting purposes, even though it has this ability (in most cases). 

This unit will NOT protect from power outages as a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) would, but it will prevent your electronics from getting damaged by giving them the right amount of power every time. The line-interactive UPS system already has this feature built-in. 

UPS power strip

UPS power strip is a more bulky version of a power strip which may come with surge protection or may not (check with manufacturer). It includes a battery and multiple ports for your equipment.

Basically, the difference between “power strip” and “UPS power strip” – is a battery.

Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS)

Most good quality UPS in the market right now, DO offer surge protection along with finer electricity conditioning (noise suppression, etc.) They are also known to produce a pure sine wave (check with individual manufacturer).

Unlike surge protectors, the UPS system is quite heavy. Its primary purpose is to provide an uninterruptible power supply to your equipment during power outages along with protecting it from energy fluctuations.

UPS unit has an internal battery that will allow you to keep on using your plugged-in electronic devices during complete blackouts (no power) and will stabilize current flow during brownouts (weak power).

Similar to surge protectors, UPS has many outlets for your devices to be plugged into. Unlike surge protectors, UPS will protect you from many more types of surge inconsistencies along with giving you a pure sine wave that the most sensitive of your equipment will appreciate.

This giant battery comes in three primary variations:

  • Online. This is a unit that never goes offline and gives you truly uninterrupted power backup.
  • Offline / Standby. This is a standby version of UPS that is the cheapest of them all. It provides power backup, but surge protection is not included. Also, as it “wakes up” from a standby mode, there is usually a small delay (in milliseconds) before it will start giving power to your equipment. This may be ok for some equipment, but computers will have a tendency to reboot.
  • Line-interactive. This is also a standby UPS system that DOES provide surge protection and conditioning of energy. A small delay (again, in milliseconds) should be expected as it will start powering your equipment, which is usually only a problem to a computer (unless you connected it to another system like SMPS that will give you that few milliseconds for the seamless transaction).

All of these units will instantly switch into battery mode if the power failure is detected. Having said that, UPS does not have a long run time, only about 15-20 min for consumer electronics.

UPS backup is generally useful to people who work from home or companies that rely on uninterruptible power sources. Also, anybody who lives in an area with constant power outages or bad weather would benefit from this kind of protection.

Here are some tips on what to look for in consumer UPS:

  • Surge protection rating. Measured in Joules, the more, the better.
  • Enough power that will cover your needs. You can more information on UPS sizing here: “Uninterruptible Power Supply Questions and Answers
  • Good software included. Let’s face it. Most of us keep our computers in standby mode all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice if the software that comes with your UPS system could shut your computer down safely on its own when power failure is detected?

These extra elements your commercial UPS system will need:

  • Resistance to weather conditions. UPS systems are usually very delicate “creatures” that cannot withstand dust or humidity. The more rugged your UPS is, the better it is for the business since it is not always possible to keep it in an extremely clean location.
  • A mounting design is needed. Check what kind of UPS mounting will be appropriate for your needs. Many companies make anything from din rail, cabinetized, rack mount, tower, and even hybrid versions of their systems.
  • Generator compatibility. Some UPS power supplies work with generators better than others. Consult the manufacturer of your unit for compatibility.
  • Extra battery connection. Your UPS system needs to have the ability to be connected to multiple batteries if needed.

If you are running a business and need uninterruptible full-scale protection against power failure, you will need UPS to work alongside a standby generator (link to another article).

Feel free to save this infographic about surge protectors and UPS .

Why we need power protection?

No one really thinks of a power failure as a problem until it actually occurs. But when it does, unexpected computer shutdown could lead to data loss and internal errors.

No one thinks that lighting could strike their satellite dish, but even a second of such power could fry all your connected electronic equipment! So why would you wait until something bad happens and costs you money and headache?

Power backup solutions

If you ever worked on the laptop (assuming that its battery is fully operational) and the main power source went off, you were probably very happy that it was running off the battery and you did not lose any unsaved data! Same with UPS. If you happen to do a lot of work on computers that don’t have a backup battery like laptops do, then having a UPS power backup is essential.

All other computer peripherals and devices will probably don’t suffer much if you are out of power. That does not include WiFi, modems, routers, monitors, etc., which you will still need to finish your work and be able to save your data.

Surge protection does NOT offer any power backup and UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) was specifically designed for that purpose. This is a battery+inverter system that protects your equipment from power failure and therefore, YOU, from losing your unsaved data.

Unfortunately, batteries can only last for so long, but they will give you enough time to press that “save” button and maybe even finish some of your work.

If you need to be able to survive without utilities for a longer period of time, you will need:

  • Larger UPS system. If you get a UPS system that is much larger than your wattage requirement, it will give you a longer run time.
  • Extra batteries. The more, the merrier! Each one of them will give you extra backup time. This option is extremely important in areas where having a generator is impossible or impractical.
  • Standby backup generator. There are all kinds of ways to generate backup power, including having your own solar power plant. But usually, a regular small generator is enough for household needs and a bigger one for your business. Along with the UPS system (which eliminates the startup delay), it will give you a solid backup in case of a power outage.

Can you use a surge protector with a UPS?

Some companies do not recommend this, but people usually say that this gives them an extra layer of protection, especially if you are getting a cheaper version of UPS that offers no surge protection.

A most important rule to this setup is to plug the surge protector into the wall outlet and NOT into the UPS system! UPS should go AFTER the surge protector (if you decide to use them together), otherwise, it may get damaged.

As a side note, some companies will void their warranty if you plug in a surge protector into their UPS system! Surge protectors may trigger UPS to draw more energy to your equipment than it is supposed to, which leads to overloading and shutdowns.

They also mention that plugging UPS into the surge protector may take some energy away from it and it will start going frequently off/on the battery. The reason for this is that other connected to surge protector equipment will draw the energy needed for the UPS system to be online (and not on batteries).

To be on the safe side, just make sure that your UPS system offers surge protection and plug it into the wall.

Other power protection features of UPS and surge protector

If you already decided on what you wanted, what other features play a big role in choosing either UPS or surge protector? Here is the list:

1. Warranty

Many surge protectors and UPS manufacturers do provide a warranty or a type of limited insurance for your equipment, in case their device fails. If you connect everything properly and follow their instructions, they will cover the costs of your damaged equipment, if something happens.

2. Power protection ratings

This is an energy absorption rating that is measured in Joules. Many UPS and surge protector companies provide this information and in case they don’t, feel free NOT to purchase it!

The more Joules, the better (cheaper versions go under 1000 Joules and more expensive over 3000 Joules).

3. Clamping voltage rating or Voltage Protection Rating

This rating refers to how much voltage will be let through by your UPS or surge protector before it cuts the load. The lower rating, the better with the ideal being at about 330V.

4. Auto-voltage regulation

This feature is included in the line-interactive UPS system and the purpose for it is to maintain AC power within a safe voltage range (120v, for example). This is achieved without using battery power. 

5. Fuse

This is an extra layer of protection for your equipment when there is a fuse available to be blown if too much power is going through the wires and surge protector or UPS simply cannot handle it.

6. Outlets or ports

Make sure they are the right type and you have the right amount of them! This may sound oversimplified, but if not considered in advance, it could lead to returns and overspending on extra equipment.

7. UPS specific outlets

Not all outlets of consumer version UPS systems provide power backup! Some of them provide surge protection only, so please make sure you have the right amount of power backup outlets on your UPS.

8. UL rating

This label from Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is not very common in UPS equipment, but if you get your hands on one, you will know that it passed the tests and is compliant with very strict requirements.

Should you use UPS or a surge protector for PC?

You don’t really need UPS for ALL your electronic equipment. UPS system is generally used best for the following:

  • PC or computer
  • Servers
  • Monitors
  • Modems and routers
  • Anything else that you don’t want to have suddenly interrupted, like the Xbox console, for example.

Use a surge protector for the rest of it, because it’s cheap and will keep your mind at rest.  Life becomes great when you have one less thing to worry about 😊!

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