Voltage Spike: Definition, Causes & Protection

Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

When working with circuits or any other electrical components, you have to protect your equipment from voltage spikes and surges that can damage or destroy your components. Learn why and what you can do in this lesson.

Voltage Spikes and Surges

If you are using a computer right now, you are using a piece of equipment that is sensitive to voltage spikes and surges. These voltage spikes and surges can even destroy your computer. What is a voltage spike? What's the difference between a spike and a surge? A voltage spike is a sudden increase in voltage that lasts for less than 3 nanoseconds. A sudden increase in voltage that lasts for 3 nanoseconds or more is called a voltage surge.

Why is this harmful?

Each piece of electronic equipment is designed to operate at a certain voltage level. Your desktop computer, for example, is set to operate at 115 volts in the United States and 220 volts outside the United States. If a voltage spike or surge occurs, raising the voltage to your computer to 10,000 volts, for example, the wires in your electronic equipment may overheat and possibly break or crack open. An overheated computer can also potentially cause some of your components, such as the capacitors, to explode. If either of these things happens, then your computer just got ''fried'' and you won't be able to use it anymore.

Causes of Voltage Spikes and Surges

Thunderstorms can cause voltage spikes and surges when lightning hits the wires that provide power to your electronic components.

Static electricity can also cause spikes and surges. For example, if you touch a piece of electronic equipment after walking around on carpet for a while, you might feel or see a spark come from your finger to your equipment. This spark is like mini lightning that causes a spike or surge of voltage to your equipment.

Another source of voltage spikes and surges are magnets or anything that creates a magnetic field. This magnetic field can increase the voltage of nearby wires thus creating a surge or spike.

Also, electronic equipment that turns on and off by itself, such as the fans that cool down your computer, can cause voltage spikes or surges when they turn off. When they turn off, they don't require that much voltage anymore. This can cause a spike or surge in the rest of the system. For example, when the fan that cools down your computer turns off, it can create a spike or surge in the motherboard of your computer. A large enough spike or surge will damage your equipment.

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