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[July 29, 2011]
Should you pay FPL's $9.95 a month for surge protection?
Jul 29, 2011 (The Miami Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- In mailings sent this month to its millions of customers, Florida Power & Light offered "invaluable peace of mind" through a new power surge protection plan for their major home appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators. Cost: $9.95 a month.
Is it worth it? "No," says Richard Kithil, president of National Lightning Safety Institute, an independent advocate of lightning safety based in Denver.
Miami electrical contractor Jim Clark of Benson Electric agrees. "I wouldn't get it, because I already have protection." Both he and Clark use another type of device -- a device that attaches to the circuit breaker panel with surge protection at a one-time cost of about $300 -- to protect their houses against power surges.
But in the mailing to customers, FPL Product Manager Joe Nestor says the FPL device offers "superior protection" with "thousands of dollars in potential savings." An analyst at the state office that represents utility consumers calls it "a legitimate service." Surge protection is a key issue in Florida because the state receives more lightning strikes per year than any other state, according to federal records, and lightning is the overwhelming cause of voltage surges.
("But your state is not 'the lightning capital of the world,' as Florida newspapers often claim," says Kithil. That honor goes to Kigali, Rwanda, which gets annually about three times as many thunderstorms, the forces that create lightning.) All utilities -- including FPL -- work hard to protect their grids against lightning, which otherwise would create havoc with the power. In the past year, FPL's service territory was hit by lightning 190,000 times, according to spokesman Mark Bubriski.
FPL tries to protect substations and transformers from surges, says Bubriski, but it has no way of guaranteeing a home won't be hit by a surge.
Earl Poucher, chief legislative analyst of the Office of Public Counsel, which represents Florida utility customers before state regulators, says state law protects power companies from being responsible for appliance damage caused by their service. Customers call the Public Counsel all the time, complaining of surge damage. On rare occasions, the customers can prove intentional negligence on the part of the utility -- such as not fixing a transformer that the company knew was a problem -- but the vast majority of customers never get a penny.
Associate Public Counsel Charles Rehwinkel says regulators could require utilities to be responsible for damages in the home caused by power surges, but since their rates are based on their expenses, everybody's electric bills would increase to pay for the losses of a few.
Many major utilities offer home surge protection. Progress Energy, the state's other big electric company, sells surge protection for an installation fee of $44.95 and then $5.95 a month. FPL offers free installation for its SurgeShield, but then wants $9.95 a month.
In the FPL-offered program, the protection devices attach to the electric meter on the house. This is an unregulated product, offered by a subsidiary of FPL parent NextEra Energy called FPL Energy Services. The fine print says SurgeShield is not backed by FPL, but there's a guarantee against damage.
What kind of guarantee? FPL says it protects "major motor-driven appliances," including air conditioners, refrigerators, washers, dryers, dishwashers, water heaters, electric ranges and ceiling fans. In most homes, these big appliances are not plugged into small surge protectors.
"The SurgeShield's 15-year limited warranty covers up to $5,000 per appliance, per occurrence, with a maximum of $500,000 over the life of the warranty," says the FPL mailer . Appliances not covered are "sensitive electronics such as computers." The utility recommends that these devices be connected to surge protectors that plug into the wall.
But Kithil, of the Lightning Safety Institute, notes that large voltage appliance such as air conditioners and refrigerators "are very robust," and generally survive power surges.
"Usually, it's the low-voltage -- the garage door opener, the security system, the computers and plasma-screen TVs -- that can get hurt," he says , precisely the ones not covered the FPL plan.
That doesn't mean that Kithil is leaving his house exposed. After a career of dealing with lightning protection, he wants to be as safe as possible: That's why he installed the circuit breaker and surge protection for $300, which he figures is a cheaper alternative than a $9.95 charge every month.
Clark, at Benson Electric, says he has a similar surge protector on his house. He says they cost $75 to $350 installed by an electrical contractor, but he recommends that if families decide they want to go that route, they opt for "the Cadillac model." Clark has installed such protectors on customers' homes. Some have guarantees about paying for damaged appliances, though there's a lot of fine print with those guarantees.
Clark and Kithil note that many computer surge protectors bought at office supply stores have a safety guarantee and also offer to pay for damaged equipment, again with a lot of fine-print exceptions.
In fact, the FPL Energy Services "terms and conditions" cover a page, and the company says it's not responsible for conditions beyond its control, "including hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, severe wind or electrical storm." Still, Clark and Poucher in the Office of Public Counsel believe that the FPL company would be more likely to honor a guarantee than some small equipment manufacturer. "I do believe it's a legitimate service," says Poucher.
Poucher says people should compare the program with their home insurance policy. If it's a low-deductible policy, maybe they don't need FPL protection, but if they have a high deductible, then maybe the $9.95 a month makes sense.
That may or may not be true, says Sam Miller of the Florida Insurance Council, a trade group. He says some policies may cover power surges, some might not.
Bottom line: Don't depend on your homeowners insurance for surge protection, says Miller. "I do know at least one insurance executive who pays Florida Power and Light the $10 per month for the surge protection so he doesn't have to worry about coverage or his $1,000 deductible." Even so, there's still reason to worry. All electrical experts interviewed warn lightning can blast into a home via cable and telephone lines, which would not blocked by the FPL device or any independent protector installed on the circuit breaker.
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