HT Boot Camp: Grounding and Surge Protectors Page 2

The Aftermath
Thankfully, I had excellent insurance with a business rider and an electronic-equipment rider, both of which really came in handy. Upon proof of death, my insurance ponied up to replace the gear. I bought a less-expensive receiver that was pretty much as good my fried Pioneer VSX-D608 receiver and a pair of very mediocre RCA satellite boxes (which made me really miss my two dead but not forgotten Hughes Network Systems receivers). I was able to fix my iMac with a nifty Diamond Supra Express USB modem, and I picked up an inexpensive Diamond modem for the PC.

Needless to say, I hired a different installer this time—a nice guy named Mike Barry—and watched him like a hawk. He patiently rewired the master cable board in my basement with me looking over his shoulder. One by one, we tested all the cable in the house, finding only a couple of fried runs and a fried antenna amp (the cause of my lack of local signals) on the cable board (the head end). I helped put the dish back up and helped him drive a grounding stake into the ground at the base of the tree.

After Mike was done, I did a couple of other things: I put a coaxial surge protector on the head end and phone-line surge protectors on the computers and satellite boxes—not wanting to repeat my mistakes. I also had to put up a third dish when my tree guy accidentally dropped a branch on the new dish while trying to salvage the tree. Thankfully, I had a sense that would happen and removed the LNB before the tree work was started. I couldn't get the whole dish down due to the stripped screws on the mount (thanks to the first, nameless installers). Since I had a spare dish (doesn't everyone keep one, just in case?), it took me about 20 minutes to restore my DirecTV service.

What You Need to Look For
I actually got lucky. Much more damage could have been done, up to and including a burned-to-the-ground house and a trio of fried kitties. If you want to protect your gear, you need to check all your cable connections coming into the house.

First, look at your AC connections. This is the most likely road to fried gear. If you live in a non-urban environment and suffer power outages from time to time, you need to worry about this. Blackouts tend to be caused by only a couple of things: car accidents that lead to wires being torn down or transformer failures, which are often caused by lightning strikes. In either case, assume you'll get a brief power spike when something like this happens and then again when the power comes back on.

Where I live, the power goes out all the time (four two-hour-or-more outages in the first four months I lived in my house). Twice, the surge blew the breakers in not just one surge protector but also in a second one I use in series to protect my most expensive gear (all of which was unplugged when the lightning struck). Even if you live in an urban environment, you can expect major fluctuations in power, especially during the summer.

While garden-variety power strips will offer some protection, a good rule of thumb is that the more expensive your gear, the better protection you need. There are two reasons for this. High-end gear tends to be a bit more sensitive, so something that might not faze a $400 receiver could injure or destroy a more finely balanced $2,000 pre/pro. Second, it's like insurance. You'd probably feel OK spending $20 to protect a $400 piece of gear. So, if you're protecting $10,000 worth of gear, $400 should seem like a small price to pay.

A good rule of thumb: More surge protection is better than less. There are excellent units made by Panamax and others that are designed to protect your home theater system from surges (some of which have the added benefit of smoothing out current fluctuations, which means better-sounding and -performing gear). While you may not want to spend a few hundred dollars right now, consider the cost in insurance deductibles, if not fried kitties.

Also consider coax surge protection. Since satellite dishes and antennas generally need to be outside and somewhat in the air, both are excellent candidates for lightning strikes. If, as in my case, all your sources come in at a single point, you can protect your whole network with one protector. I have one on each of my DBS sources and another on the antenna at my head end. If your connections are less organized, put a coax surge protector between the raw cable and your TV, DBS receiver, or VCR. Those of you smugly noting that you have cable may not be as safe as you think. Lightning and other problems can lead to surges on cable lines, as well. Do you really expect your cable company to buy you a new TV if it happens? I don't think so.

Finally, look at phone-line surge protectors. Modems love to fry. Just a simple discharge of static electricity can send them to modem heaven. You need to protect all PCs and Macs, as well as WebTVs, DBS receivers, TiVo or Replay units, and anything else that gets a phone connection. A $20 investment here can save you untold amounts of grief.

Better Safe Than Sorry
Now, I guess you can call me the surge-protection fairy (although I draw the line at the little costume with wings). But if you went through what I did, you'd feel the same way. When all the dust settled, I had just short of $3,000 in damages. Yes, everything was ultimately replaced, in some cases with gear that wasn't as good. However, the grief and the time spent dealing with the insurance company, shopping (in one case, waiting half an hour at an establishment, only to be told they had no Hughes satellite systems despite having one on display), and getting everything up and running made this experience a complete nightmare.

All things considered, I wish I had had the proper grounding and surge protection. It might have made sense on paper to me before, but now I take it very seriously. Aside from the damage to your gear (and, if you're like me, you really like your electronics), only a lot of luck kept me from being homeless on that Friday night. Although I'm really trying to make this lighthearted, sometimes we need to be serious and make sure we have the proper protection. It won't take all that much time or money. If you consider the peace of mind you'll get afterward, it's worth it.