Power conditioners: Affordable insurance or waste of money?

Power conditioners certainly have their place in data centers, but are they necessary in a home office environment?

electricity stock

A power conditioner’s purpose is to clean and condition electrical power before it reaches the hardware that is plugged into it, but is it really needed with modern hardware?

After all, most of us have our electronic devices plugged into a power strip with a built-in surge protector both at home and at work. In fact, some people confuse the role of a power conditioner with that of a surge protector, but they are two different pieces of equipment that perform different roles.

A surge protector or surge strip does help protect your equipment against power surges and impulses, just as the name suggests. Basically, once the voltage reaches a point known as clamping voltage the impulse is diverted away from your equipment and to the safety ground of your building’s electrical system.

Unfortunately, it will do little to protect against other power-related issues. Also, it should be noted that surge protectors differ in construction and effectiveness, and different types of surge protectors use different methods that balance high clamping voltage and response times. The different methods used by surge protectors is complicated enough to deserve a blog devoted to it, and we will look at it in more depth in the future.

A surge protector may prevent a power surge from causing catastrophic damage, but it doesn’t prevent noise and voltage fluctuations from causing other problems. There is some built-in protection against power fluctuations in modern electronic hardware. Even without any outside protection, modern electronic devices generally have a switch mode power supply (SMPS) that addresses and minimizes most voltage regulation issues.

Unfortunately, an SMPS does little to protect against power line and neutral to ground noise voltage. Where a power conditioner comes in is to make sure that the noise voltage is cleaned up and stable. This will not only help prevent obvious power related failures such as burned out PSUs, it may also minimize “gremlins” in your systems; those little unexplained glitches and lockups that don’t have an obvious cause.

The type of building you are in can also make a difference in how clean the power output is. For example, my house, which also includes my office, was built in the late 1800s. The electrical system has been upgraded a number of times since construction, but I do not have absolute confidence that everything done over the past century was completed according to modern code requirements. I use a power conditioner on my office equipment as well as with my home entertainment system and gaming hardware. I can’t say with certainty that it has improved the service life of my electronics, but I haven’t suffered a power related failure in the past 15 years.

One incident convinced me that a power conditioner is constantly performing an important task. Usually, as long as it is working properly, the only sign of it is that you don’t have any obvious power related problems. The most noticeable instant gratification I’ve ever gotten from using a power conditioner was not with sensitive electronic hardware, it was with an amp used with an electric guitar. Prior to using a power conditioner, there was a constant low hum. Running the electricity to the amp through a power conditioner made that hum instantly disappear. Admittedly, this is a purely anecdotal example, but it does show that the power conditioner was performing its task as advertised and providing a source of clean, quiet (literally in this instance) power. A power conditioner that can make that hum go away may also help minimize those annoying gremlins in your hardware and help extend service life.

One final tip: If you live near a college or university, contact them and ask about their disposal method for surplus property. Some sell unneeded items to the public for pennies on the dollar. In fact, I have a power conditioner currently in use that I picked up for $5 from my local university. Obviously, not all schools sell directly to the public, but it is a great way to pick up quality equipment on the cheap if you find one that does.

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