Daisy chaining surge protectors, cords, and power strips
January 30, 2016 1:25 AM   Subscribe

How do I safely connect my computing equipment to a surge protector and a far away wall socket?

I need to figure out the safest possible option for hooking up my desktop computer and various other equipment to a surge protector. Would really like to not fry anything or cause a fire. Right now the computer, monitor, and everything else requires 8 plugs.

My apartment is a really weird configuration. Please assume that other layout options are not possible because, believe me, they are not. Basically I only have one wall outlet (three prongs, two sockets) that is shared with the bathroom. I can only use one socket wall outlet for my computing equipment—the other has to remain available for bathroom / roommate use. It also has to be possible that my computing equipment is on and running at the same time that a roommate is using a hair dryer or a vacuum from the other socket on the outlet.

In a nutshell:

• Only one socket/plug in the wall is available.
• Need 8 plugs for computing equipment.
• Desk is far away from wall socket. Requires extension cord. No way around this.

In this scenario, which is the best option, and why?

Option A: Wall outlet -> surge protector -> extension cord -> non-surge power strip -> computing

Option B: Wall outlet -> non-surge power strip -> extension cord -> surge protector -> computing

Option C: Wall outlet -> extension cord -> surge protector -> computing

Option D: Something I missed?

And as the extension cord is mandatory, is there a special type of extension cord I should get to avoid problems in the chain?
posted by ticktickatick to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wall outlet -> Extension cord -> Powerboard with surge protector -> computer ?
posted by kinddieserzeit at 1:34 AM on January 30, 2016

Actually scratch that, according to the internet extension leads are supposed to be temporary solutions. How about getting an electrician in to put in a new socket in a more convenient location?
posted by kinddieserzeit at 1:41 AM on January 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Best Power Strip. 10 proper outlets mounted in a steel case, with a 15 foot cord. No joke, this power strip is the highest quality product Belkin makes. It's a $30 power strip and worth every penny. When you get one, you'll understand.

If the built-in 15 foot cord is not enough, add a 14-gauge heavy-duty extension cord. I don't think you'll need a 12-gauge cord unless your run is something ridiculous like 100 feet.

The fire marshal may or may not like the extension cord + power strip idea, but there aren't any easy alternatives. Buy a quality cord and power strip and you'll be fine.

Note: If the circuit breaker pops when your roommate uses the hair dryer, then you know you need to get an electrician to wire a new circuit. But I think this is unlikely since circuit breakers take a long time to trip for small overloads (like a few minutes for a 50% overload).
posted by ryanrs at 2:32 AM on January 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

It doesn't matter to any significant degree. Option A protects the non-surge power strip; Option C is cheaper.

Do you rent? Because if not using a surface raceway like wiremold (available at the home improvement Borg near you) can be used to extend circuits and add receptacles in a fairly neat and unobtrusive manner. Certainly less than an extension cord. And as long as you aren't exceeding the circuit loading (in Canada 12 duplex outlets or light fixtures or combination thereof on a single breaker) it is safe and legal for permanent installation.

Really though lots of people use extension cords in this manner even though they are technically for temporary use only. The problem of course is a fire caused by the cord may invalidate your insurance.

Two things really up the up the danger quotient though: running the cords under rugs and running the cords through a doorway (which it kind of sounds like you might be doing). You can mitigate the former buy holding the cord off the floor with 3m Command strip cable clips.

Use an extension cord as close to the correct length as possible so you don't end up with a big coil someplace. Make sure the cord is rated for the expected amperage draw. Personally I'd go with a 12 Gauge UV rated (exterior) cord for protection against someone some day plugging a hairdryer or space heater into the end of your chain.

Many companies make power bars with long cords. Tripp Lite for example sells an 8 receptacle power bar with a 15 ft cord. And that unit has large spacing between outlets making it ideal for locations where you want to plug in wall warts. Maybe that length will allow you to eliminate the extension cord?
posted by Mitheral at 2:33 AM on January 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

BTW, the "surge protection" built into nearly all power strips is largely useless. I wouldn't pay any attention to that aspect of this problem.
posted by ryanrs at 2:39 AM on January 30, 2016

They made surge suppressor a with really long cables. Tripp-Lite makes a 25ft one that one used.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:44 AM on January 30, 2016

Option D: Extension Cord > UPS

A hair dryer on the same circuit as a bunch of electronics is going to cause an overload at some point. Keep your stuff protected. Stuff that can go off temporarily and not hurt things on the surge side (monitors, speakers), and stuff that has data on it on the battery side.

As for what type of extension cord: go to Lowes / Home Depot, and get the largest gauge one you can for the distance you need to cover.
posted by deezil at 4:46 AM on January 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

It also has to be possible that my computing equipment is on and running at the same time that a roommate is using a hair dryer or a vacuum from the other socket on the outlet.

This is going to be the intractable problem, because nothing in the universe of solutions you're considering is going to do anything about this problem. If you're having trouble with the circuit breakers tripping when you run your computer and some other power-hungry device like a hair dryer or vacuum, that's a problem that's related to the total power being pulled from the circuit, and changing the arrangement of plugs and wires is a bit like saying "I know we've got too many people for the weight limit for this elevator, but maybe if everyone stands on one leg ..."

If that's the case, there are really only three solutions:

1) Get the apartment re-wired with a sane number of circuits. (Given the details of your question, I'm guessing you're renting from a landlord who's way too cheap to spring for this.)

2) Avoid tripping the circuit breaker, which probably means keeping your computer equipment off when you use a power hungry appliance in the other outlet.

3) Get an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) which provides a battery backup for long enough for you to find the circuit breaker and flip it back on, but if the circuit breaker is tripping every time you do this, that's probably not a good solution.
posted by firechicago at 7:20 AM on January 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

OP never mentioned circuit breakers tripping.

I think a normal computer setup should be able to coexist with intermittent hair dryer or vacuum use, as long as there aren't other big power draws besides the computer. Things to avoid: space heater, electric kettle, toaster, microwave. Things that are borderline but probably ok: laser printer.

Hopefully that outlet is on a 20A circuit, although from your description that is probably overly optimistic.
posted by ryanrs at 8:02 AM on January 30, 2016

Yes, you are probably very close the edge if not over it with 8 plugs worth of computing equipment plus a hair dryer unless this is a 20A circuit. I would check the wattage on the hair dryer and even consider buying a lower wattage hair dryer if the one in current use is using more than 1500W. Check your vacuum too.

Definitely do not try printing with a laser printer at the same time as the hair dryer is in use. Laser printers draw quite a bit of power when they start up.

If you buy or borrow a watt meter (some libraries have them), you can figure out how much your computing equipment is drawing and then see how much you have left on the circuit for the hair dryer and vacuum.

Options A and C are fine for you and equivalent. I wouldn't do option B just because you encourage plugging in more things at the outlet with a power strip there.
posted by ssg at 8:52 AM on January 30, 2016

The number of plugs doesn't matter; what matters is the total power draw. A high-end desktop computer running at full gaming load can draw about as much as a smallish vacuum cleaner, but everything else associated with the computer (monitors, printers, sound, assorted wall warts) will add maybe 20% to that. In other words, the computer itself is the only really heavy load on your power strip, so get one with as many outlets as you need for everything else and dpn't worry about overloading your single outlet. Won't happen.

I'd put whatever surge protection I had as close to the computer as possible, so it also protects against spikes and noise induced into the extension cord by other heavy loads in the same room. And I would indeed make that surge protector a UPS, just because I can. A line-interactive type is fine for domestic computer use. Get one rated for at least ten minutes of battery life at 1500VA or more, 2000VA or more if your computer is grunty; the smaller ones are usually fairly rubbish.
posted by flabdablet at 9:27 AM on January 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Option D: Something I missed

Get your landlord to bring your apartment up to code.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:28 AM on January 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Get a UPS of sufficiently high rating to keep your computer and important peripherals running for long enough to allow you to shut them down gracefully. Important peripherals would be the CPU, external hard drive, and primary monitor; unimportant peripherals would be the printer, scanner, etc.
posted by ardgedee at 4:05 PM on January 30, 2016

The hair dryer might well be a dealbreaker here. If your roommate's hair dryer is a reasonably modern one, you might be boned in terms of coming up with a truly safe plan. As others have already said, the issue here is about total current draw on the circuit rather than anything else.

Your problem is that most general-purpose household circuits in the US are rated for 15 amps (1800 watts assuming 120 volts) and will overheat and/or trip their breakers if asked to deliver more current than that. Hair dryers, which you mention above as a required appliance for your setup, are often 15-amp/1800-watt appliances all by themselves. (Specialty low-wattage ones do exist and might be a solution if you can persuade your roommate to use one, but they don't work as well.) This is normally fine as the outlets in a modern US bathroom are on a dedicated circuit and generally one does not use multiple high-wattage appliances in the bathroom simultaneously.

However, if you want to run a hair dryer from the same circuit as any other significant power draws (such as a computing setup) you are going to be in trouble. Assuming a modern hair dryer being run at full blast, you will have no remaining amperage budget on that circuit. Trying to run a hair dryer at the same time as your computer will overheat the circuit and either cause the breaker to trip (possibly not right away, if the over-current isn't too major) or, if the breaker fails (because for instance your apartment has ancient wiring that was never installed properly in the first place and has never been maintained or updated since, which sounds likely given that you are in the position of having to run your computer off of a goddamn bathroom outlet to begin with) risk starting a fire somewhere in the wall. Neither of these scenarios can be considered safe.

None of your proposed solutions will help with this, unfortunately. Surge protection on consumer-grade "surge protectors" is for all intents and purposes nonexistent; they might protect your gear from one minor-to-moderate surge, but then the protection is used up and gone. Extension cords are generally perfectly safe as long as they are rated for the current that you want to draw from them and as long as they are not damaged, but can't help reduce the load on the circuit. A cheap UPS might give you enough time to deal with a breaker trip before your computer dies, but that's it. An expensive UPS might be able to give you some genuine surge protection for your gear, but will not make drawing too much power from your two-socket wall outlet any safer.

No combination of extension cords, surge protectors, and/or UPSes can negate the fact that you are asking the circuit to provide more current than it was designed to deliver. If you are really, really lucky then your bathroom might be served by a 20 amp circuit (check your circuit breaker box to find out) but I doubt it. Your options for attaining a safe setup are to either have your wiring upgraded, find some way to get your computer plugged in elsewhere in the house (not possible, you say), reduce the power draw by staggering your usage (not acceptable, you say) or to move. Sorry.

If I were you, I would think hard about finding some way to use a different outlet. Consider outlets that you might not normally think of. What about behind your fridge? If you have a clothes washer, could you possibly run a cord from the laundry room? Both of those appliances will have dedicated circuits at least in modern houses, but do not generally use more than about 600 watts. A 12-gauge extension cord can provide 15 amps for up to 100 feet, so if there's a spare socket on one of those outlets then you can use it, although I understand running a long-ass extension cord from the kitchen or laundry room might not be what you want. Is there possibly a closer outlet being used by something that could be shifted to the fridge or washing machine outlet without having to resort to running a super-long extension cord to your computing setup? Running a single cord to a power strip (you can chain in a heavy-duty three-way splitter and run two power strips if necessary) is perfectly safe as long as nothing in the chain is damaged and everything is rated to accomodate the total power draw of whatever you plug into it.

Basically, full-powered hair dryer + computing rig on the same outlet is inherently unsafe and there's nothing you can do about it unless you are lucky enough to either have an unusually beefy bathroom circuit or an unusually puny hair dryer. You should really try to find some other way if at all possible.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:36 PM on January 30, 2016

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