What is a Power Surge?

A power surge is a spike in voltage that can damage your electrical appliances. In some cases, the damage may be covered by home insurance.
Written by Nick Kunze
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
A power surge occurs when there is a large spike in voltage coming through your electric appliances. While it seems minor, power surges can damage your property and lead to power outages.
Electricity is an incredibly useful and versatile energy source that powers many facets of our daily life. To keep the world running smoothly, it’s important to have a continuous, reliable supply of electricity. However, a power surge can disrupt this electric flow. 
To help you understand the potential hazards of a power surge, car and
home insurance
has created this helpful guide to everything you need to know about power surges—and what to do about them.
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What is a power surge?

The name says it all—power surges are large spikes in electrical power. In the U.S., household electronics operate on an average of 120 volts of electricity, so a power surge is when significantly more than 120 volts come through the wires. 
A power surge can be small, undetectable, and have no impact, or it can cause some real damage to your possessions. Electrical appliances affected by a power surge can stop working or, in certain situations, cause an electrical fire.

How do power surges happen?

There are three main potential causes of a power surge:
  • The flow of electricity is interrupted by faulty wiring
  • A power increase is interrupted by electricity flowing back into the wiring
  • Internal or external forces cause a spike in voltage
A power surge can be as small as one volt over the threshold maximum or can be thousands of volts higher than the norm. 

What are indicators of an oncoming power surge?

While power surges can happen out of nowhere, there are some common warning signs to alert you that a surge could be on its way. Some indicators include flickering lights, frayed wiring, scorching around outlets and wires, smoking or warm outlets, and a burning odor around outlets. 
Alternatively, if your electronic devices are not working or you smell a suspicious smell coming from your electrical devices, it may be a sign of an oncoming power surge. 

What causes a power surge?

Power surges can be caused by a variety of factors, but here are some of the most common:

Electrical overload

If too much power is drawn from one circuit, a power surge may occur. This commonly happens from overusing extension cords or plugging in too many devices. For example, having your microwave, toaster, and refrigerator all drawing from the same circuit can cause a power surge in your kitchen. 
The overworked circuit, which is receiving a massive current, may have a voltage spike from the high amount of power being drawn from one source. To prevent this, try and plug devices that use more energy into separate outlets. 

Faulty wiring

If there is an issue with your home’s wiring, power surges can easily occur, since damaged or exposed electrical wires may malfunction and overdraw power. 
This issue isn’t always obvious to the untrained eye. Worse, these wires are often hidden behind walls, meaning you can’t see the issue. However, there are other signs, like a burning smell or buzzing wires, that could indicate a wiring issue. Frequent problems with the circuit breaker may also hint at faulty wiring. 
Don’t try to fix the issue yourself if you’re not qualified—call an electrician to fix your wires.

Lightning strike

Lightning striking a power line can cause a massive power surge because the extra voltage of the lightning bolt leads to extra current surging through the power lines. 
To combat this, you should unplug all nonessential electronics during serious storms. If they remain plugged in, they could be damaged by an ensuing power surge. 

Power outage 

The aftermath of a power outage can also trigger a power surge because of the influx of power. This sudden jump from no current to full current could damage any plug-in appliances, so it may be smart to unplug any major appliances during a blackout. 

How often do power surges occur?

Power surges are frequent occurrences. However, most power surges are harmless and will go undetected.
Potentially harmful power surges, like those caused by poor wiring or a lightning storm, are more infrequent. Years can pass between powerful power surges in your home.

What can be damaged by a power surge?

Power surges could wreak havoc on your home and cost you a pretty penny. Your appliances and other plug-in electronics can be damaged as the voltage spike can overheat your appliances. Overheating within an appliance can permanently damage the appliance’s circuit board or electrical components. This causes your appliance to work less effectively or break. 
While a large power surge can destroy your appliance all at once, smaller power surges can also deteriorate your electronics over time, causing them to break faster than they normally would.

What should you do after a power surge?

You need to unplug and repower all your electronic devices. If there was a power outage, do this before resetting the circuit breaker.
After that, check your home and appliances for damage. Make sure everything is working correctly, and check for any burn marks on electronics or power outlets.
Finally make sure your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are working properly. If anything is not running correctly, you may need to turn to a professional for a full HVAC inspection. 

Does homeowners insurance pay for power surge damage?

Homeowners insurance
will pay for power surge damage in certain scenarios.
If the power surge is caused by a
named peril
like a lightning strike hitting a pole or a storm knocking over a wire, your personal property will be covered
However, damage from faulty wiring, overloaded circuits, or many small power surges will not be covered. These types of damages are considered preventable and caused by poor maintenance and upkeep, not sudden, accidental damage.

How to prevent a power surge

Some power surges are in your control. Others are not. 
To stop preventable power surges, don’t overload your circuits. Separate large appliances and unplug inessential electronics when not in use.
To stop power surges from damaging your property, you should invest in surge protectors. These specialty plugs prevent excess voltage from entering your appliances if there is a power surge.

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A surge protector is a small appliance that prevents power surges from damaging your electronics. 
The surge protector is plugged directly into the wall and your appliances are then plugged into the surge protector. 
It works by diverting excess voltage into the outlet’s grounding wire instead of letting it flow freely into your appliances and electronics.
You should not plug a surge protector into an extension cord—this is considered a fire hazard by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the NEC (National Electric Code).
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