Water and electricity are considered two necessities of life. Here in North America, we often take access to clean drinking water for granted. Once that basic need is met, we can focus on the other provisions that help us live, work, and play. For many of us, that includes smart home technology, electronic devices, and the electricity that powers them.
Just as our bodies need clean drinking water to function at their best, our electronics need clean power to operate at their maximum capabilities. Dirty power that comes from the electric grid and feeds into our devices can damage sensitive gear, shorten the lifespan of sophisticated AV components, and wreak havoc with sound and picture quality when we settle in to enjoy our favorite media. In short, inconsistent power can diminish the technology experience and, the more technology you have in your home, the more you will feel the effects.
“I have been involved in homes that have over $2 million in sensitive equipment installed,” said Arthur Kelm, CEO of Ground One AV Inc., a consulting/engineering firm that addresses power and grounding solutions for professional recording facilities and high-end home installations. “The unfortunate reality is that utility power and generator power and solar power is not adequate for critical load applications like these.”
Behind the Struggles of Today’s Electrical Grid
Just as, today, many areas of the world struggle with the distribution of clean drinking water, the electrical grids here in North America struggle to keep up with the increasing demand for power. Today’s electrical demands are outpacing the existing electrical infrastructure, as new residential and commercial buildings put increasing strain on the system.
The number of households in the U.S. alone has grown from 52.8 million in 1960 to 127.59 million in 2018, according to Statista, while the number of appliances and electronics requiring power within those homes has also increased exponentially, with multiple TVs, laptops, smart appliances, sophisticated lighting systems, home automations, and more all drawing from the existing power supply.
Much like industrialization has polluted clean water supplies, just as population growth created more people who need clean water, the increasing demands on the electrical grid are resulting in inconsistent, unstable power leading to voltage sags, brownouts, and power surges.
Fortunately, for homeowners willing to invest the research time and the money, or to hire a qualified custom electronics integrator to help, there are solutions to today’s power challenges.
“The best way to counter the effects of inconsistent power created by a variable grid is to regulate the voltage going into your electronic components and isolate the equipment from all the problems on the grid,” explained Ken Erdmann, co-founder and part owner of Springville, Utah-based Erdmann Electric, Inc. and the co-author of Fundamentals of Residential Electronic Systems, a CEDIA publication.
“To control power quality,” Kelm added, “one first has to look at the source of the power and how it is being distributed across the system. Ideally, all loads need to be divided into categories and isolated from one another.”
Three Types of Electrical Loads in Today’s Smart Home
The electronic devices in today’s homes fall into three categories:
• Motor loads, which include refrigeration and air conditioning, which are certainly critical within the home but not reliant on clean and consistent power for optimal operation
• Lighting and appliances, such as dimming circuits, microwaves, toasters, etc.
• Sensitive electronic loads, including audio video equipment and control systems, which require stable, clean, and consistent power for optimal performance
The third category is the most susceptible to power spikes, surges, brownouts, and transients, which can be harmful or fatal to these electronic components.
“If you don’t isolate the electrical supply, it can lead to performance problems that users will see in video systems, hear in audio equipment, and experience in digital control and home automation systems,” Erdmann stated. “Fortunately, today’s technology provides solutions to the power problems that plague today’s homes and by following best practices for sensitive electronic loads, users can protect their gear from both sudden, catastrophic events and damage caused by prolonged exposure to unregulated power and improve the performance of their systems.”
Using Power Isolation and Voltage Regulation to Protect AV Gear and Improve Performance
Isolating the power going to sensitive loads is the first step in protecting expensive equipment and improving audio, video, and control system performance. Toroidal isolation transformers specially designed for AV applications provide complete isolation of primary and secondary loads, a clean power supply for electronic systems, and attenuation of power line noise from 2kHz to over 1MHz. The low impedance provides instantaneous and consistent power, with reduction of noise and interference for improved visual fidelity and a brighter, cleaner soundstage. Simply put, audio has better dynamics, imaging, and bass, while video is noticeably crisper with brighter colors, deeper blacks, better contrast, and a more captivating overall image. Perhaps the most significant benefit of using isolation comes from removing artifacts and harmonics on the voltage supply that cause ongoing reliability issues for sophisticated modern home technology systems.
In addition to power isolation, voltage regulation plays a key role in AV system protection and performance. “In a typical North American system, the line voltage can vary from less than 90 volts to more than 130 volts,” Erdmann said. “It is critical to get that variance to a steady output of 120 volts, ± 5 volts.” There are several ways to regulate voltage in sensitive electronic systems, including a full online UPS system, which adds battery backup to the inverter/regenerator design, delivering pure sine wave output even when utility power is lost.
“A battery backup system is important for components with microprocessors, but it shouldn’t be the only method of voltage regulation within a sensitive system,” Erdmann added. Multi-tapped isolation transformers that monitor and control the output voltage are able to seamlessly switch to the correct output voltage, delivering clean, uninterrupted power with no surges, sags, or spikes.
Power and Protect Your Home Technology Systems Like a Professional
Recording and post-production studios have relied on power isolation and voltage regulation technology to segregate sensitive electronic loads for decades, with Kelm playing a role in designing some of that technology. Today’s smart home technology systems require that same level of attention to ensure clean power reaches critical components, improving reliability and enhancing the overall technology experience.
“Power and grounding are the heart of any electronic system,” Kelm noted. “Keeping voltage distortion, current harmonic, Normal Mode Noise, and Common Mode Noise to a minimum in a power distribution system, is absolutely necessary for reliable operation.”
Best Practices to Power and Protect Sensitive Electronic Loads
Choosing the right equipment for power protection and power management is the first step to cleaning up the “dirty” power that makes its way from the electrical grids into today’s homes.
Following documented best practices when choosing and installing power protection can make the difference between an enhanced technology experience that includes fully immersive audio and video and malfunctioning equipment, frustration, and unexpected costs when equipment fails due to inconsistent power.
In addition to ensuring that power loads coming into the home’s most sensitive systems are protected and regulated, these are the eight primary considerations when installing power management systems in a high-end home technology system:
• A properly engineered and installed grounding system
• Components should be connected to an electrostatic shielded isolation transformer
• Power protection device should include low-pass filtering to attenuate EMI, RFI, and harmonics
• Surge protection should be non-sacrificial to protect from power spikes and surges
• Stranded wiring of adequate gauge should be used to feed receptacles
• Distance from isolation transformer to outlets should be no more than 15 meters or 45 feet
• Isolation transformer should use hospital-grade receptacles or equivalent
• Battery backup power (UPS) should be available for components with microprocessors
Legrand brand Middle Atlantic Products offers its High Power DC Power Distribution series, specifically to manage power on the AV rack. Available in 200W and 300W models, both units offer high current capacity to up to 24 devices – maximizing the same voltage in a single unit, 5V, 12V, or 24V, or splitting between 12/24V.
Torus Power Isolation Transformers – not to be confused with power conditioners or surge protectors – decouple and isolate electronic components from the power source to eliminate transients and improve audio quality by dramatically lowering the noise floor while adding better dynamics, imaging, and bass.
Panamax’s single rack unit, 20 AMP 8 BlueBOLT, offers programmable outlets with auto reset capability.g