As a four-alarm fire raged through an old, vacant produce warehouse on Jan. 20, 2002, plumes of heavy black smoke filled the air in southeast Portland, Ore. Under spitting rain, 150 firefighters battled the blaze as it tossed large chunks of fiery debris onto streets as far as two blocks away.

Because the abandoned warehouse did not have a sprinkler system, heat built up quickly. As the roof collapsed, a fireball erupted. Whipped by wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour, the inferno spread to two former restaurants. Flying embers from the blaze—or what firefighters call firebrands—ignited the roofs of other nearby buildings.

Heat from the conflagration smashed dozens of windows in nearby offices. “The flames from the center of the building were reaching clear across the street like an arch,” said Ronald Thompson, one of hundreds of onlookers who clogged nearby streets.

Just 75 feet from the blaze, the headquarters of one of Oregon’s leading electrical contractors sustained thousands of dollars in damage from the intense heat, burning embers, and heavy smoke.

Stucco warped and melted, paint peeled, and windows cracked on the front façade and service portion of Oregon Electric’s two-story, 21,000-square-foot office building. The intense heat scorched trees. Several Oregon Electric employees working in the office that day had parked their autos on the street or in bordering lot; two employee autos were damaged and a third was destroyed.

Despite the massive damage, Mark Kenney, Oregon Electric service manager, breathed a bit more easily knowing that the expensive electrical equipment in his office building was safe from the electrical surges caused by the burning utility lines.

Thanks to the two Intermatic Inc. PanelGuard 3000 Series surge suppressors Kenney installed on his building’s services less than a year earlier, the existing electrical equipment, worth tens of thousands of dollars, was protected from the transient voltage and surges that shot through the electrical system.

Before Oregon Electric installed the current systems, the company did not have any type of surge or transient voltage protection. The company’s surge protection devices redirected all of the surges to the ground where they did not cause any harm.

“If we didn’t have the surge protection, the damage could have been tremendous—not only in terms of ruined electronic equipment, but also in downtime as we replaced computers, copiers, fax machines, phones—basically anything that was plugged into a power outlet,” Kenney said.

In addition to electronic equipment, the surge protection defense saved Oregon Electric’s priceless data—accounts payable/receivable transactions, estimating information, project management records, as well as the company Web site and employees’ e-mail address books and files.

Kenney had his technicians install the surge protectors after he tested the electrical system and found transient voltage was the culprit causing computer malfunctions in Oregon Electric’s office.

Transient surges are momentary increases in ordinary voltage. Lightning storms, power station switching conducted by the electric utility companies, and fires (such as the one in Portland) are common causes of transient voltage spikes.

On average, the typical facility or business can expect 2,000 surges per year. Unchecked surges add up to $26 billion a year in preventable electrical damages in North America. The damage may not always be readily apparent because transient voltage doesn’t always cause immediate, obvious damage. Rather, enough surges over time will wear down electric equipment and cause it to malfunction.

The most familiar form of surge protection is point-of-use surge suppression power strips, typically found next to computers in most offices and homes. These strips are an excellent source of protection from the daily minor transient voltages; however, it is a common misconception that the strips are enough protection.

Heavy-duty products installed at the service entrance and often on critical panels are required for protection from major surges caused by lightning, fire, serious utility problems, or other catastrophes.

For the best protection, electrical contractors often suggest multitiered surge protection, using a surge protection device at the service entrance, sub panels and with point-of-use devices right in front of the most sensitive electronics.

Virtually all devices powered by electricity are vulnerable. Surge protection is required for fire alarm systems, security systems, HVAC controls, variable frequency drives, lighting ballasts, lighting control and dimming systems, bar code scanners, programmable logic controllers, CNC machines, as well as pumps, motors and related equipment with electronic controls or starters.

The PanelGuard 3000 Series surge suppressors, such as those Mark Kenney purchased for Oregon Electric, safeguard all of the circuits connected to the building’s breaker panel.

Today, the entire exterior of Oregon Electric has been repaired. All the windows and the front door were replaced. In addition, a portion of the roof was repaired. Damaged trees have thus far survived. Inside the office, fans sucked out the smoke smell, and crews cleaned walls and carpets.

Across the street, the mounds of rubble from the destroyed warehouse have been cleared away.

As Kenney surveys the ground where the warehouse once stood, he still vividly recalls the Sunday afternoon when the raging inferno destroyed an entire city block.

Kenney now says he swears by surge suppressors and cannot imagine leaving a facility unprotected. “Our investment in the PanelGuard saved us thousands of dollars in lost equipment and downtime. As a facility manager, I can say it was one of the most cost-effective investments we have made.” EC

WOODS writes for many consumer and trade publications. She can be reached at patwoods123@hotmail.com.