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What Is a Flat Plug Surge Protector?

Nicole Madison
Updated: May 16, 2024

A flat plug surge protector is designed to protect a person’s electrical equipment from potentially damaging electricity surges while also saving space. This type of surge protector is built with a flat plug, which means it doesn’t stick out from the wall and require a lot of space between the outlet and furniture, appliances, and decorative objects. Instead, the plug portion of a flat plug surge protector lies flat and takes up very little space.

One of the problems a person may have with a basic surge protector is that the plug sticks out from the wall. This makes for inconvenient placement in some cases. For example, a surge protector with a regular plug cannot be placed behind a bookcase, bed, dresser, appliance, sofa, or chair, unless the user doesn’t mind leaving a gap between the wall and the furniture or appliance. To avoid this issue, many people choose flat plug surge protectors that do not require a person to deal with gaps or puzzle over a better placement.

When a person is in the market for a flat plug surge protector, he may do well to take some time with choosing one. This is because power strips are easy to mistake for surge protectors. Unfortunately, however, power strips don’t do the same job. Basically, a power strip provides multiple outlets that can be used to power a range of devices. A surge protector, on the other hand, not only allows a person to plug in multiple devices, but also keep those devices protected from power surges.

A flat plug surge protector works the same way other surge protectors do; the only real difference is its design. A flat plug surge protector helps to prevent damage to electrical devices when there is an increase in voltage. Without a surge protector, an increase may damage an electrical device and render it inoperable. Even if the device is still usable, repeated surges may slowly damage it. When a surge protector is in use, excess electricity is diverted to a grounding wire, and electrical devices are kept safe.

Some flat plug surge protectors are also designed with plug heads that curve to the side rather than extending downward. This extra feature may make the surge protector even more convenient. Since the plug curves to the side, it will not block other sockets, even if it is used in an outlet’s top socket.

How Does a Surge Protector Work?

When you plug in a surge protector, it takes the incoming electrical current from the outlet and routes it to other devices that are plugged into its strip. The surge protector allows that current to flow to the plugged-in equipment.

Each surge protector contains a grounding wire, a neutral wire and a hot wire. These three wires run parallel to each other, with the neutral and hot wires normally transmitting current. If the incoming voltage exceeds acceptable levels, the surge protector channels the extra voltage into its grounding wire.

Surge Protectors Vs. Power Strips

It's sometimes easy to confuse a surge protector with a power strip. However, there are some important differences between the two. As mentioned earlier, surge protectors have hot, neutral and ground wires. Power stripes, on the other hand, simply expand a wall outlet's capacity to power more devices. Some may have internal circuit breakers for safety's sake, but they don't offer the same safeguards that a surge protector does.

Each power strip has a maximum load capacity. Overloading a strip can have dire consequences: It can melt and burst into flames, starting a fire inside your home. Meanwhile, surge protectors' capacities are measured in joules. As a quick review, a joule is a unit of work or energy. When measuring electricity, a joule is equal to one watt-second: the energy put out by a one-amp current with one ohm of resistance. The higher the joule rating, the greater a surge protector's capacity to handle unexpected surges.

How Long Do Surge Protectors Last?

Depending on usage conditions, the average power strip lasts between three and five years. That lifespan can be shorter if you experience a lot of power surges, blackouts or brownouts. Each time electrical lines are hit with surges, spikes, blackouts or brownouts, the resulting current can impact any devices plugged into your outlets.

Surge protectors divert excess current away from devices plugged into them. A surge protector's joule rating indicates how much power through spikes and surges that it can divert before it's no longer able to protect your equipment.

Power Surges Vs. Power Spikes

To understand how current fluctuations can affect a surge protector's useful lifespan, you should know the difference between a power surge and a power spike. Both can damage electrical equipment. But power surges are short-term increases in voltage carried by power lines. Surges carry less power than spikes, but they tend to last longer. Conversely, power spikes are short bursts of high-voltage current on a power line. They typically don't last more than a few milliseconds, but they can inflict a lot of damage. Even when equipment doesn't immediately daily, power spikes can seriously reduce its useful lifespan.

Power surges and spikes can carry quite a bit of energy. To understand just how much energy they may generate, a quick review of how alternating current works may be helpful. The United States uses alternating current, in which voltage rises and falls in a natural rhythm. At any moment, its voltage ranges between 0 and 169 volts. Anything above 169 volts results in a surge or a spike.

Power surges can be minor, perhaps only a couple of hundred volts. Major surges can send thousands of volts through your power lines. Either way, a surge can last a few seconds. Spikes, however, hit your lines with thousands of volts in less than the blink of an eye.

How To Tell If a Surge Protector Is Bad

Since you can't directly measure the energy output of spikes and surges, there's no sure-fire way to tell when a surge protector has outlived its usefulness. Some newer models, however, have visual displays that tell you when they can no longer guard your equipment. Others automatically shut off when their protection capabilities run out. At this point, these units stop passing power to plugged-in devices.

While the average surge protector won't tell you when it can't guard against surges and spikes, you can still take steps to keep your equipment safe. If you haven't seen many power fluctuations and there have been no major surges or spikes, you can probably replace your surge protectors every two to three years. But if you live in an area with inconsistent power flow with spikes and surges on a regular basis, you may want to swap them out every year or so.

Some communities run on dirty power — in other words, they experience a lot of electrical abnormalities. You can end up frequently buying surge protectors if this is the case. You may want to consider a high-quality uninterruptible power supply.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a EasyTechJunkie writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By matthewc23 — On Nov 16, 2011

@TreeMan - Good question. The number of Joules you need really just depends on what all is going to be plugged into the surge protector outlets. It is definitely a good idea to plug your TV into a surge protector, since a lot of TVs now cost as much or more than a computer.

The number I have always looked for for my TV is 1500 Joules. That should be more than enough to protect your TV, DVD player, and a cable/satellite converter box. If you search around, you can find special surge protectors that sit flat on the wall allowing you to have your entertainment stand flush with the wall.

Computer surge protectors can be a little more tricky. I always like the go with 3000 Joules just because I definitely don't want those things getting fried. Most people need to protect their computer, printer, external hard drives, and whatever else they may have in that area, so it's definitely worth the investment.

A friend of mine had a lightening strike in his neighborhood that killed his electronics. I do a lot of work from my house, so protecting my files is especially important to me.

By TreeMan — On Nov 15, 2011

@Emilski - I have never heard anything about surge protectors having a certain life span. I am not sure what exactly makes a surge protector resistant to electrical spikes, but whatever it is I think is supposed to last for a while. If you do experience a lightening strike or something, though, it would probably be a good idea to replace the surge protector when you get a chance. I am pretty sure things like that reduce their efficiency.

Someone else here mentioned looking at the Joule ratings of an electrical surge protector before you buy one. What is the typical number that you should be looking for when you get one? I just bought a new flat screen TV and my friend wisely suggested that I connect it to a surge protector, which is something I had never thought about for a TV.

By Emilski — On Nov 14, 2011

@jmc88 - I am completely with you on that. I can understand the purpose of needing a large box for certain things, but things like cell phone chargers and similar small plugs could easily make sideways plugs. I have seen it done, so I know it's possible. I really hate when I have to plug one of those things into my surge protectors. Just having two of those big boxes will take away 4 of your outlets.

As you can probably guess, I have a flat plug surge protector that doesn't curve off to the side, and it is kind of a pain. The next time I have to buy a surge protector, I know what kind I'll be getting.

On a related note, has anyone ever heard that a surge protector is only designed to last 6 years? Someone was telling me that the other day, but they couldn't remember where they read it. I was just curious if anyone had heard this and if it was true or not. If so, I need to think about replacing my surge protectors.

By jmc88 — On Nov 14, 2011

Before I read this, I had no idea that there was a difference between a surge protector and a power strip. I guess I always just assumed that if it was something that had a bunch of outlets that it was a surge protector. I guess maybe I need to check mine to make sure it is really a surge protector.

The thing I don't understand is why companies just don't start going to the system of making all plugs go off to the side instead of coming down. You can always put the plug in the bottom outlet, but a lot of times I will have something larger that might need to be plugged in, so I like to leave the bottom outlet empty. I have never been able to see a good reason for them to keep making plugs that cover two outlet holes.

By Mammmood — On Nov 13, 2011

@hamje32 - Call me one of those people who are forced to learn things the hard way. Years ago I didn’t have a surge protector for my computer. I had a power strip, yes, but no surge protector.

I honestly never thought I would need it. Then the inevitable happened. We had a major lightning strike in our area. It didn’t hit the house but it did strike the ground and sent a spike of electricity into the wiring, and killed my computer.

I mean, that thing was dead in the water – no reboot, nothing. I tried to test it in other outlets that I had tested and did have electricity coming through them, and still nothing happened.

That was a $1,000 computer at the time. Even the best surge protector at the time would have cost less than $80. That’s an expensive way to learn a lesson.

By David09 — On Nov 12, 2011

@hamje32 - I like the idea of a curve head on the surge protector. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to plug something into an outlet or even a power strip, and was unable to use all of the sockets because one of the plugs was so big that it crowded out the nearby outlets.

That being said, I’ve never purchased a flat plug surge protector. I have the regular kind that forces you to displace the furniture a little like the article said. I guess that’s okay for most of my purposes since my major electronics are in the office, where I have plenty of space to run cables and stuff.

But I agree that a flat plug protector would make for a great space saving design for living rooms and other areas like that.

By hamje32 — On Nov 12, 2011

If you want to be clear in choosing a home surge protector over a power strip, become familiar with the term “Joules.” For the surge protector, Joules are the energy ratings used to measure the amount of voltage that a real surge protector can withstand.

All surge protectors will have this information written on them. The higher the rating, the greater the amount of voltage spike that it can withstand. Personally, I see no point in buying anything less than a device with the highest rating.

The only difference is that you will pay more. But trust me; you would pay a lot more for a fried appliance if your surge protector can’t withstand a lightning strike.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a EasyTechJunkie writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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