Why so much talk about power strips?

Power strips and/or surge protectors make it very convenient to protect your electronics quickly and easily in the event of a lightning storm or other surge causing incident, through preventative measures.

We know it makes it easier to ensure all electronics on one strip/surge suppressor are protected during the storm, but how does that help with preventative measures? Easy; you can simply unplug one or a handful of surge protectors when you know a storm is on its way and not even take the risk of a surge making it through to your valuable gadgets and entertainment systems. I mean, why risk your computer or entertainment system if you don’t need to when it only takes a few seconds to physically unplug one cord from the wall outlet?

This, of course, is common sense but so few people do it it’s kind of surprising. Now I’m not saying you should run around grabbing live wires during a storm. You most definitely should NOT! I am merely suggesting that there is usually an opportunity to unplug things before the storm hits – and if you have that opportunity it is well worth taking.

So, in closing…

A power strip is not necessarily a surge protector – and if it costs less than $10, it probably isn’t.

It always pays to have the best surge protectors you can afford – and that offer the best consumer ratings and electronics damage insurance.

When buying something for your PC, consider your cable modem and network surge protection needs as well.

Clockwise or Counter-Clockwise?

“Summertime and the living’s easy…” So goes the old song, but when the temperature outside starts threatening triple digits, the living gets a lot less easy and a lot more uncomfortable. We begin to shrink from outdoor activities and start thinking about what we can do indoors, away from the blazing sun. Of course, when the utility bills come in, we may start thinking twice about whether running the air conditioning full blast has been worth it.

One of the most common ways to reduce those cooling costs is through the use of ceiling fans. They’re relatively inexpensive, with many attractive styles to match practically any décor, and not too difficult to install for the moderately handy home owner (electricity is not something to play around with, however, so if you’re uncomfortable with how your home’s electrical system operates, please call a professional electrician like Robertson Electric).

Now that your ceiling fans are in, which way should they spin? Almost all have a switch that will change the direction of rotation, either blowing air down or pulling it up. Some have suggested that during the winter, the fan should turn counter-clockwise, blowing the warm air which naturally rises to the ceiling back down to the level of the people in the room. Conversely, the suggestion is that the fan should turn clockwise in summer, pulling hot air up and away from a room’s occupants.

This thinking is incorrect, though. In fact, the largest benefit of a fan when it’s hot is from the cooling effect of a breeze, which helps evaporate sweat from the skin more quickly, cooling us faster. And that means that the fan should turn counter-clockwise in the summer and clockwise in the winter. Also, remember that the cooling effect is only useful if someone is in the room – a ceiling fan spinning in an empty room does nothing to lower the temperature.

Stay tuned for more helpful hints from Robertson Electric, and if you have plumbing, electrical, or HVAC needs in Charlottesville, don’t hesitate to give us a call.

Upgraded strips and battery backups

If you are in the market for a power strip for your home electronics, again – consider spending a few dollars more for a good UL listed surge protector instead of a cheap power supply. In addition, if this will be used on your computer, consider making a small upgrade to one that also includes a jack for your network cable (RJ45) and telephone land line (RJ25).

It might surprise you to learn that many power surge issues on computers come through the Ethernet cable (via cable modem, etc.). Even if it does not blow your motherboard it will almost certainly destroy the network card in the computer as well as the cable modem.

If you are buying for an office environment, you may want to take it a step further and buy a surge suppression system that includes a battery backup power supply. Before you get too excited, these are typically not meant for long term usage like making your desktop computer run on a battery like a laptop. They are really meant to give you anywhere from five to fifteen minutes to save your work and shut down the computer properly. Of course, you can get a larger capacity unit that would allow you to work for several more hours, but this gets pretty expensive.

As  for what you can expect to spend, here are some general guidelines:

$5 to $15 for a power strip without surge protection

$15 to $50 for a good surge protector on a power strip

$80+ for a desktop computer batter backup system

Also consider that, on average, the more money you spend for the device – the higher it’s electronics replacement warranty is likely rated. In other words, if you spend $50 on a good surge protector, you should expect it to have at least $1,000 worth of replacement guarantees for any electronics that are damaged due to failure on its part. Be sure to look for this before you buy.

And finally, review any consumer feedback you can find like online reviews from third-party sites. Amazon.com offers hundreds of products like these and people take their ratings pretty seriously on Amazon so this is a great resource.

Landscaping and Your HVAC System

Is your HVAC a work of art? Do you have a bench placed in your yard just so you can relax and enjoy the picturesque beauty of your central air unit as it hums in the heat and cools your home? Probably not. Although most HVAC units are far from atrocities, HVAC manufacturers generally design their equipment for functionality first, with aesthetics somewhere further down the list. After all, what good is a unit that looks like an Italian sculpture if it doesn’t do an adequate job of cooling your home?

So what most of us end up with is something that does a job but doesn’t necessarily add anything to our home’s appearance. The tendency for many is to improve that appearance by creative landscaping around the HVAC unit, camouflaging or hiding it from sight with shrubbery, trees, or hedges. In fact, these are not bad ideas and all and believe it or not, can actually help the functionality of the system. But there are some guidelines for doing this properly, or you might find that your plantings are actually making your unit less efficient.

The number one rule is to make sure any plants are a minimum of 2’ – 3’ away from the unit. Any closer than this and the airflow could be obstructed, which means your air conditioner could stop working. From a practical standpoint, should your unit need servicing, this will give your HVAC service technician more room to work. Ivy and vine-like plants should probably be avoided in the vicinity, as they require considerable maintenance.

Also, keep in mind that if your trees, shrubs, or hedges are tall enough, they can provide shade to the unit, which is a good thing. The air is cooler in the shade, and that means higher efficiency and a longer compressor life. But don’t take the shade thing too far – your unit will also need at least 5’ of clearance above it for maximum airflow.

If you have any questions or need HVAC maintenance in Charlottesville, VA or nearby, call us at Robertson Electric today.

Not all power strips have surge protection.

When you look at a regular power strip side by side, and compare it with a surge protection strip, they might look nearly identical – but they are miles apart in function.

You see, a surge protection strip’s main purpose is to protect your electronics from a power surge. This might be a lightning strike, a black out or even one of those brown outs that we tend to get in Central Virginia from the increased use of AC use in the hot summer months.

Here’s what happens, and how a surge protector – or surge suppression system – can help. A surge of power is just like it sounds; an extra sudden jolt of additional electricity. You see, your household electronics, or anything you plug into a regular home 110V outlet, are set to run at range between 110 Volts and 120 Volts, with the common medium being 115V. A power surge is simply when excessive electricity enters the system uninvited, like from a lightning strike or when the power company’s generators are working overtime to supply three times the normal power requirement during a heat wave.

A surge protector is basically a device that will prevent a sudden burst of electricity from getting from your wall outlet to your electronic device. They can be as simple as a wire that overheats and breaks (like the filament in a light bulb), a bypass that sends the extra power to ground, or more complex like a breaker that trips; closing the gate for electrical travel. The filament type must be replaced when they “pop” while the breaker type can be reset when they “trip”.

And remember that on/off is not the same as trip/reset. If you see on/off it is probably a power supply and not an actual surge protector.

The 20-Degree Rule

One of the most frequent questions we get at Robertson Electric from our customers in the Charlottesville area is, “What temperature should I set my thermostat at?” The simple answer might be, “Whatever temperature you’re comfortable at.” But in truth, there are a few things to take into consideration that might change your mind about where to set that temperature.

One of the most important things to consider is that 43 percent of most home utility bills comes from the cost of heating and cooling, per the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s a big chunk of money, and it should make an impact on your thermostat decisions.

Secondly, if your home heating and cooling is provided by HVAC, you should keep in mind that many HVAC systems are designed for maximum efficiency when they are set to cool within 20 degrees of the outside temperature. That doesn’t mean that if it’s 83 degrees outside, you should set your thermostat for 63. A good rule of thumb for energy expenditures is that every degree you drop the indoor temperature amounts to a 4% increase in your utility bill, so a few extra degrees of cooling can add up pretty quickly.

Now, the 20 degree rule is sufficient for most summer temperatures in the Charlottesville area but when the mercury begins creeping into the mid-90s and up, your inside temperature might not be as comfortable as you like. Rather than moving the thermostat setting, try using fans (we have a great blog on ceiling fans) to supplement your HVAC. This will help keep your utility costs manageable as well as keep from overworking your HVAC system, which means a longer life.

For more info about heating and cooling your home, give us a call at Robertson Electric. We proudly serve the entire Charlottesville, VA area.

Not all power strips are created equal.

After yesterday’s storm, and seeing all of those Virginia Power line service trucks out today, we thought it might be worthwhile to offer some tips about storm preparation. Not generators though. We covered those in pretty good detail in the past few posts so if you have any interest there, just scroll back a ways. Okay, so on to storm prep. Following are three things you need to know:

Number One: Not all power strips are created equal.

Power strips; you probably have a handful of them in your home or office. And why not? They are so handy when you need to plug in more than two items. And this is especially true when it comes to home entertainment systems and computers. But please note, and I cannot stress this enough: Not all power strips are created equal.

When purchasing a power strip, especially for your expensive electronics, there are a few things you need to be aware of:

First – make sure it is UL listed. You’ve probably seen the UL logo a hundred times and never thought too much about it, but it’s a big deal. UL stands for Underwriters Laboratories, which checks and maintains the standards of certain electrical components. if the power strip is not UL listed, it is best to move on to one that is. This is for your safety and that of your home and family.

Second – Just because you have six or so plugs to work with, does not mean you should use them all at once. Carefully read the manufacturer’s enclosed safe usage instructions so you don’t inadvertently cause a problem.

Third – See if it offers any surge suppression. More on that in a minute, but if it does, it’s all that much better.

Say Watt?

Have you ever looked at your electric meter and wondered, “That wheel seems to be moving awfully fast…” But then, how fast is “too fast”? If you don’t know how to read an electric meter, it’s kind of hard to know if you’re using too much electricity at the moment. Never fear, though. Robertson Electric is here to give you a hand (and a little bit of meter reading advice).

First of all, some background info. Your electricity usage is measured in kilowatt-hours or kWh. From the Dominion Power website, “One kWh is 1,000 watts used for one hour (the same as ten 100-watt bulbs left on for one hour).” Your electricity bill is based on a rate per kilowatt-hour.

Mechanical meters have been the standard for decades. They are the ones with a horizontal wheel that spins around and four or five dials that look like small clock faces, with numbers from 0 to 9. Reading them is pretty simple. Starting at the left and moving right, each dial represents a digit in kWh usage. If the hand on the left-most dial points at 7, the next at 3, the next at 7, the next at 1, and the final at 0, then the reading is 73,710. To figure your usage, take the number of a previous reading (you can check for one on your power bill) and subtract it from the current reading. Piece of cake.

Even easier to read are the newer digital meters. It seems silly to include instructions on reading one of those, as the numbers are right there on an LCD display. Regardless of which type meter you have, knowing how to read it will give you the opportunity to check your electricity usage anywhere in the middle of your billing cycle, so you can adjust your usage if necessary and avoid the nasty shock of a surprisingly high bill.

For any electrical needs in the Charlottesville, VA area, call Robertson Electric today.

Safety First and Last

In closing, I will just say that having no backup power system at all is far better that having one that is unsafe. If a storm is coming and you have the option of risking life and limb, with the improper generator, for the convenience of electricity – it’s not worth it. Stock up on batteries well in advance and keep a couple bags of ice at the ready in your freezer.

If the generator is designed for exactly the purpose you want it for, you are good to go. But get that information from the factory, NOT the salesperson on the floor who’s second-cousin’s best friend “has one of these beauties and it works great in storms.” For all we know, this could also be the guy who burned down his house last year while deep frying a turkey at Thanksgiving – and that was using a tool designed for the job.

If you do decide that a generator is right for you, the best advice I can give is to get one that is made for the job and wired into your home to maximize safety and convenience. They are surprisingly affordable and add can value to your home at the time of resale. Whatever type, design, or brand you choose however; just make sure it is certified to do what you need it to and warranted properly. If you do go with a small portable unit that is not really made for the job, you should also contact your insurance carrier and make sure you are covered if the worst happens. As bad as that is to think about now, it’s far worse when the damage is done and there is no money to cover the damage.

I hope these posts helped you determine if a backup generator is right for you. Good luck!

Picking A Winner

While it’s possible to use a simple portable gas powered generator as a home-based backup power resource, like the kind construction workers use on worksites to power tools, there are certain things to consider. To be clear, I do NOT recommend going this route. I am only posting the possible option to provide a few considerations most people forget about until it’s too late.

1. Portable gas powered generators must run in a well vented area – typically outdoors. Running one in your garage can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, and be a fire hazard, among other things.

2. They are not typically designed to run quietly and can be exceptionally loud.

3. Many people put it on the back porch or in the driveway and run extension cords to the house. I probably don’t have to say this, but I would be remiss to not point out that running extension cords, full of 115 volts of electricity – outside in the rain and lightning – is a bad idea.

4. Any outdoor generator needs to be properly installed, grounded and shielded in a protective shelter to operate safely.

5. Small gas powered generators like those we are discussing are not terribly efficient and not usually made to provide days of continual power.

6. Last, but not least, if you do ever use such a generator be certain it has a clean power rating. I don’t mean “environmentally friendly”, I mean that it delivers “clean” power – that is; that it delivers power within an acceptable range for whatever you have plugged into it. many such generators have significant spikes and lags that can destroy household appliances and electronics over periods of prolonged.