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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fighting back against the surge

Several years back, when we had the electrical service to our house redone, the electrician put in a whole-house surge protector. We've got a bunch of little ones between the outlets and our computers, but they look kind of chintzy, and we felt better that there was now a global one for the whole service.

Of course, knowing little about electricity, including being ignorant about how the protection systems work, there was little real basis for our warm and fuzzy feeling. Now an e-mail message from a reader gives us some second thoughts.

The reader recently purchased a surge protector (not the same kind as ours) from her local electricity monopoly, Portland General Electric. And now, she relates, PGE's telling her that the thing might not work. It's giving her a choice between returning it for a refund or waiving any right to complain about it if it fails and stuff inside the house gets fried. She sends along a copy of the letter she received:

The reader's a little peeved that she's being limited to those two options: refund or waiver. She'd rather just have a surge protector that was guaranteed to work. She also complains that she's been asking PGE for the particulars of what has failed and under what circumstances, and getting nonanswers. One thing seems certain -- she won't be signing this thing:

If she does nothing, the letter from PGE suggests that she is canceling whatever warranty rights she might previously have enjoyed. Can they do that?

Meanwhile, without stepping any further into the middle of that particular business-customer relationship, I'm giving the evil eye to the unit that we bought from our electrician several years ago. Will it really work if we need it to?

Comments (14)

What is the brand name and model number on your unit?

Is it the same as the one PGE wrote to their customer about?

Google the brand name and model number of the unit about which you are concerned.

I'd sure doubt that PGE can unilaterally void any warranty coverage on the customer's unit if customer declines to respond by PGE's "drop dead" date.

I wonder what the AG's consumer protection folks have to say? This sounds like an issue which may impact a heck of a lot of PGE customers.

I wonder if PGE did a filing with PUC and got a tariffr approved to install thse things? If so, AG may have no authority under state Unlawful Trade Practices Act, but PUC might have something to say.

Interesting problem.

I'm not surprised that a "whole House Surge Protection" may not work. Surge protectors of that type should be under the control and maintenance of the power company for residences, and either the power company and/or a private electrical contractor to deal with it for commercial purposes. It's too complicated to deal with for the average user and as an electrical engineer, I would have to do studies from the conceptual to the final product before running one myself.

I have surge protection for the computers; that also took some study to determine where I want to go.

A clue: Hospitals have a particularly tight spec on such items, so I looked into hospital protectors for information. All I looked into was the computer/electronics devices, not whole buildings.

If you choose the schmooze dept of the AG consumer division I wish you luck.
I have had an ongoing dispute over auto ins. advertising being figured into the rates we pay to no avail.
With 24 hours of auto insurance on the telly I resent having to pay Ins. Co's. with my premiums. I started with Ins. commission and lost that round and pursued thru Kroger's finest..I lost.
So good luck in your effort with another Oregon do-nothing bureau.

Just what the heck is PGE supposed to do here. They discovered a product doesn't work exactly as advertised. They contacted customers and offered FULL refunds or the option to keep it to maintain some benefit.

What would you have them do?

I think the customer wants it replaced with something that's guaranteed to work. I think she also resents the "If you don't answer, you lose your warranty" approach.

NO surge protector is 100% safe.

I think it's PGE's lawyers telling them to avoid any kind of liability by claiming the surge protector will actually protect stuf now that $2000 LCD TV can get blown up.

So... get the refund (which includes labor cost paid, right?) and buy another one from someone non-PGE. One with a warranty/guarantee.

What's the big issue?

What else is PGE supposed to do?

And btw, I'm no fan of PGE either... I just had the semi-creepy experience of finding out that they (or their contracters) must have scaled our closed and locked six-foot fence to replace our power meter with one of their new "smart" devices while we weren't home. Not nice.

What else is PGE supposed to do?

Offer to replace the ineffective model with a better model, free of charge. It's no sweat off their back -- they pass the liability on to the manufacturer of the bad ones.

They're offering the customer less than what the customer may already be entitled to. They're trying to limit their warranty after the sale. I wonder whether that's legal.

I'm an electrician who has installed numerous surge protectors/arrestors, so I have a few observations to make that may be of some interest.

Trans-voltage surge protectors (TVSS's) protect equipment only - not people. And each surge protector has a limit to the size of the surge it can suppress. So if the surge is greater than the suppressor's capacity, either the suppressor will fail and pass the entire surge through, or it will pass through that portion of the surge that exceeds its capacity. They are intended and designed to protect certain electronic equipment only - they do not offer protection of personnel.

A different device called a ground-fault circuit interupter (GFCI) is what you want in order to protect people. You've probably seen them in bathrooms and kitchens; they are receptacles that have "test and "reset" buttons on them. There are also versions that are built into circuit breakers that can be installed in your circuit breaker panel.

With that distinction made, a whole-house TVSS will at most only offer protection for appliances such as home computers, sound systems, TV/video display panels, etc. Therefore, a loss of one or more electronic appliances in case of a surge is the worst harm that a homeowner could reasonably expect such a TVSS to protect against. In view of that risk exposure, PGE's approach does not seem to me to be unreasonable. But if a homeowner thought that by installing a TVSS she was protecting herself or others from some electrical mishap, she was either misinformed or mistaken.

Who out there sells Scam Protectors?

I am the person who sent the letter about the surge protector. When we bought the surge protector, it came with something that explained what was protected and what we could expect. My big issue is that the waiver and letter say that all bets are off. PGE can decide to deny any claim, as I read it. They told me(on the phone) that the surge protector is still a good thing but they aren't telling me what I can expect them to cover. Since I bought the surge protector with a specific kind of warranty, I believe that warranty should still be in effect. They shouldn't be able to arbitrarily back out. It's a contract and I paid them for it. The warranty is for 15 years. There is no clause that says unless we don't feel like it.

The idea of PGE in their letter saying if one doesn't "reply" then you default in accepting the waiver hits a sore point with me.

Recently in an estate matter, my father's IRA with a large national financial institution (unbeknownst to my father) before his death had his survivorship of children changed to his wife that he recently married at age 85 after 60 some years of a previous marriage. The institution explained that a letter was sent to his address saying "if you don't reply" it will revert to your spouse first, then subsequent survivors. My father never knew of this letter, or could even understand it's content, nor was it ever sent as a certified letter.

Guess what, this spouse gladly took all the IRA and made the request for payment a few days after his death. She most likely understood the letter.

We've been legally advised that this kind of "if you don't reply" consequences would not stand up in court. At least a signature that is notorized with either a "no" or "yes" should be required for something as important and monumental as this.

So beware everyone. And I think PGE should be challenged on this also.

comparing a surge protector and the estate of the deceased is quite a stretch don't you think.

We make computer controls and have researched many types of "surge" protectors.

There are two basic types of power problems:
A SURGE where the voltage goes too high for what may be a tiny fraction of a second. A surge of sufficient magnitude can destroy equipment just like a lightning strike.

A SAG is where the voltage goes too low. It can cause equipment malfunctions but generally does not destroy anything.

The power quality industry has been around a long time and while nothing is totally perfect you can purchase "power conditioning" equipment that will "guarantee" that the power (voltage and other parameters, if desired) does not deviate from a given specification.

Just like anything there are different grades of power quality equipment and you get what you pay for. What usually happens is that the power quality protection equipment is more expensive than the equipment it is supposed to protect.

Often insurance will cover lightning caused/surge damaged equipment so it's cheaper to "let it fry" and replace everything.

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