The Problem With Power Strips

My BFF Ana told me that there is a law being considered to stop electronic device manufacturers from making a different power supply thingie, with different connectors, every time they make a different device (such as a calculator, a USB hub, a printer, a charger, a modem, etc. etc.).

I haven’t told too many people this, but I’ll tell you all now. I currently posses every single power supply thingie that I have ever owned. Most of them are in a blue plastic box in the garage. Most of the others are plugged into power strips in the Blog Cave.

Funny thing. Of all the categories of things one can own … books, quaint antique items, cooking instruments … a significant number of those that I have ever owned are distributed in the homes of ex wives and ex girlfriends. But somehow they let me keep all of the items in my power supply thingie collection. But I digress.

It is a problem that the manufactures of electronics cynically produce a different power supply for every single device, even though this is not necessary and is highly wasteful of resources. It is almost as much of a problem that we the people accept this travesty like sheep being led lemmingesque into some multi-metaphoric abyss.

But that is not what I want to complain about in this blog post. What I want to complain about is power strips. In the Blog Cave, I have about 12 devices plugged in. That may sound like a lot, but things do add up. A single computer has a plug, a monitor with a plug, there may be a printer, a USB hub, and the occasional other device such as a wireless mouse or whatever. If you’ve got two or three computers and extra monitors and a phone and a camera battery charger, the number of devices builds up. (Power supplies can be used to reduce the total drain all of these devices cause. For instance, an entire computer and associated devices that is only occasionally used can be plugged into one power strip, which can then be clicked off to make sure any power draining is not happening. But that is not the point of this post.)

Here’s the problem. I’ve got 12 to 15 devices to plug in, and I’ve got about 36 plugs, and I have no room to plug anything else in. This is because all but a few of those 12-15 items are power supply thingies that take up more than one plug because the plugs on most power strips are too closely spaced, and are oriented in such a way that plugging a single item in to the strip can actually cover up to three plugs.

Why do they make power strips like this?

Sure, there are power strips that have the plugs turned sideways, though even these may still be too closely spaced. And there are power supplies with lots of room all round each plug, but they are rare, and it is quite possible to go from a Target to an Office Max to an Office Depot to a Staples and find that in not one of these establishments did the management ever consider making the more sensibly designed power strips available. It’s like they don’t know what a power strip is for.

So, there should also be a law that says that power strips, and for that matter wall sockets, be designed to accommodate those stupid power supply thingies.

That is all.


  1. #1 llewelly
    March 29, 2009

    So, there should also be a law that says that power strips, and for that matter wall sockets, be designed to accommodate those stupid power supply thingies.

    A few laptops (including a dead dell inspirion 5000 laptop which served me well for 7 years) have a power supply with a cord on either end, so that it never takes up more than 1 plug on the powerstrip, no matter how bad the design of the powerstrip. (There were a few power-related things wrong with that laptop, but that one thing was right.)
    It’s quite possible to solve this problem on the power supply end.

  2. #2 llewelly
    March 29, 2009

    I have about 12 devices plugged in. That may sound like a lot, but things do add up. A single computer has a plug, a monitor with a plug, there may be a printer, a USB hub, and the occasional other device such as a wireless mouse or whatever.

    When a ‘wireless’ mouse requires its own slot on your powerstrip (rather than relying on non-device-specific rechargeable batteries), it is a failure.

  3. #3 Pieter B
    March 29, 2009

    There are a number of power strips available with outlets that swivel so that you can get a wall-wart into every single one. Here’s one example.

  4. #4 Heather
    March 29, 2009

    You need Fry’s! Or the overstocked Christmas lighting supplies at the local hardware store. I’m a power strip junkie, largely because of those stupidly bulky power supply thingies. I have been known to spend entire days of my life (while child is in preschool and I could be free, FREE I tell you!) optimizing my cord management. All I can say is, if you are crazy enough it is possible to find the “right” power strips.

    If I were to write a rant about power strips, it would be about how very dumb it is that so few of them have plugs designed to sit flush to the wall.

  5. #5 Chet Murthy
    March 29, 2009

    My friend tells me there are six-inch extension cords, specifically designed to solve your problem.

  6. #6 Lassi Hippeläinen
    March 29, 2009

    Power strips are done that way so that they can sell more power strips.

    The AC distribution system dates back to the days of mechanical devices. Most modern electronic devices need less power than a light bulb, and would work fine with a 5 volt DC supply. Unfortunately there are no standards for 5 V wall sockets.

    Fortunately the phone manufacturers are moving to a common charger that uses the USB plug. (It wasn’t their idea – the Chinese government made it mandatory.) I expect that other small device manufacturers will do the same. Soon there will be power strips with a built-in five volt charger. High power devices (computer, display, printer) will still need their own supplies, but everything else could run from 5 V.

  7. #7 Azkyroth
    March 29, 2009

    Two words: “Power squid.

  8. #8 Who Cares
    March 29, 2009

    When a ‘wireless’ mouse requires its own slot on your powerstrip (rather than relying on non-device-specific rechargeable batteries), it is a failure.

    Then how do you recharge these batteries?

  9. #9 Rev Matt
    March 29, 2009

    Any home improvement store will have a decent selection of power strips far better suited to your needs.

    I recall about a year ago there was talk about China requiring all cell phone manufacturers to use a standard charger for cell phones. I can’t imagine anyone other than cell phone power supply manufacturers who could oppose such a law.

    I like the idea of a standard wall wart design for all devices in theory, but the reality is that different devices have different power requirements, so one design wouldn’t serve all purposes. But there’s no reason for all 4 sets of computer speakers I have (all from the same company) all have identical power requirements yet there are four different form factors for the wall wart and the connectors.

  10. #10 Argon
    March 29, 2009

    Re: China and std. phone chargers…
    It looks like that requirement will go into effect by 2012. Yippee! The standard chosen is the mini-USB plug (a no-brainer).

  11. #11 Matt Penfold
    March 29, 2009

    The late, but still totally brilliant, Douglas Adams got there before you. No shame in that of course 🙂

    Well worth a read:

  12. #12 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    March 29, 2009

    Azkyroth beat me to it. I have a “Power Sentry” power strip which works like the Power Squid.

  13. #13 qbsmd
    March 29, 2009

    Better would be a law that requires “those stupid power supply thingies” to accommodate normal power outlets.

  14. #15 george.w
    March 29, 2009

    Power Squids are awesome, as are the 3-way, T-shaped taps that will support three awkwardly-shaped power blocks with one outlet. Those are about a buck at a lumberyard.

    Having a device standard for block transformers would mean that people would leave fewer transformers plugged in. It would save energy just from that.

    In our storage space at work we have two huge boxes full of hundreds of standard power cords – and that’s just one college. I asked the campus Dell rep, in front of all the buyers on campus, if they could please put in a checkbox that said “No power cord” like they do with the documentation and drivers’ CDs, and she said she’d see what she could do. Fifth year in a row, now. Those checkboxes must be really complicated to set up.

  15. #16 Jon H
    March 29, 2009

    Home Depot sells 4.5′ long power bars with 8 grounded outlets and a circuit breaker. I have one attached to my desk. A bit pricey, though.

  16. #17 Greg Laden
    March 29, 2009

    Better would be a law that requires “those stupid power supply thingies” to accommodate normal power outlets.

    Normal wall outlets in the US are horizontal. If polarized, that means pugging in a transformer in the top plug kills the bottom plug, so you can’t have two transformer pugged into one.

    So, some brilliant person installed a vertically aligned wall socket here in my living room. Mean time, some other brilliant person invented the transformer for my cell phone that runs laterally, so that it won’t cover the other plug. Except in this sideways plug.


  17. #18 Greg Laden
    March 29, 2009

    I am liking a squid with a downstream home depot strip screwed to the bottom of my desk (or the back) and a couple of power strips.

  18. #19 Greg Laden
    March 29, 2009

    Oh, I went and checked. 26 devices in 38 plugs and room for nothing else. This does not count laptops or cell phone chargers and one printer, which are all handled elsewhere.

    Some of those devices are power strips plugged into each other.

  19. #20 DuWayne
    March 29, 2009

    The problem Greg, is that you don’t have someone like me around to take care of that. Why for a mere two grand (roughly (more, a lot more, if you want wood instead of MDF)) I could build you a kick ass computer desk with integrated surge protection that would allow you to not only plug everything in, regardless of powersupply doohickies – it would also make the cords virtually disappear. The one that I actually built for a client, had an integrated USB charger that could switch each device plugged into it from simple charge to connect to computer. (I also do entertainment centers and the anachronistic phone stands)

    I am also capable of wall outlets with that spread, though it’s not legal for me to actually charge money for that kind of work. Which is good, because the materials alone fucking brutalize the wallet. Although by the time you get me the equivalent in groceries for trade, I still don’t come cheap.

    Or you could hit up Ebay, which I suggest only because I am almost certain you would rather fight a polar bear than set foot inside a Wal-Mart.

  20. #21 xavier
    March 29, 2009

    If we only want five volts, we could just have a Tessler coil built into the floor and no plugs will be needed.

  21. #22 Hea
    March 29, 2009

    Thank you, Matt, for the Douglas Adams link. It made my day.

  22. #23 Mike
    March 29, 2009

    You should divide your circuits into two parts: Always on and often off. Then you can flip the switch on the often off easily. It is hard to say what often off might include or how much power would be saved.

  23. #24 AliceB
    March 29, 2009

    Is it still true that power strips “wear out” and must be replaced now and then? Was that ever true?

  24. #25 DuWayne
    March 29, 2009

    AliceB –

    The strips generally don’t wear out, the surge protection does.

  25. #26 AliceB
    March 29, 2009

    That is what I mean. So can I replace the surge protection and keep the strip some how? Is it safe to use a worn out one? How do I know it is worn out? How do I know it worked to begin with?

  26. #27 Thom
    March 29, 2009

    Just counted. House wide, 54 items, 68 plugs.

  27. #28 D. C. Sessions
    March 29, 2009

    Two words: “Power squid.”

    /me runs for cover at the sound of approaching Pharyngulan hordes.

    PS: Yup. Best solution I’ve found — and Squidlike objects are on the shelves at Costco now, too.

  28. #29 llewelly
    March 29, 2009

    When a ‘wireless’ mouse requires its own slot on your powerstrip (rather than relying on non-device-specific rechargeable batteries), it is a failure.

    Then how do you recharge these batteries?

    The recharger does not require space on the powerstrip at all times. At worst it’s overnight once every few weeks or so. So it shares easily with other things that don’t need a slot 24/7.

  29. #30 udall
    March 29, 2009

    Make sure if you use a Tessler coil that you have a short haired cat and not a long haired cat.

  30. #31 Greg Laden
    March 29, 2009

    What is Wal Mart?

    DuWayne, I had no idea. that would be fantastic. I’ll start saving up now. Of course, it will be hard to give up my unfinished hollow core door.

  31. #32 DuWayne
    March 29, 2009

    What is Wal Mart?

    Think Pure Evile, add corporation. Walking into one and spending money is basically like sucking one of Pure Evile’s cocks. Unfortunately, their pharmacy is the one that sells my drugs at a price that makes it possible for me to actually take all of them, as apposed to picking and choosing – so suck away I do.

    Of course, it will be hard to give up my unfinished hollow core door.

    Hollow core? Hell, I could probably work with that… Especially if it’s on cinder block legs.

  32. #33 Greg Laden
    March 29, 2009

    It is sitting on two-drawer file cabinets. Of which I have ten (there are two doors).

  33. #34 Gray Gaffer
    March 29, 2009

    Power. Second on my list of things that mess up the home to Water.

    Bricks-in-wall are a cost-saving measure that lets the equipment manufacturers sidestep the issue of having to get the equipment itself UL approved. They have been with us long enough that somebody must have got the idea by now, about compatibility, fitness to purpose, or the fact that most bricks are mechanically unstable when plugged in, but Noooooo. I’m with ya, Greg. I have seen a recent trend in the smaller chargers to a slim 2-pin variation that can …just… fit side by side in a strip. If the sockets point the right way. The bricks that carry separate AC power cords still leave the floor messed up with stuff. And the short extensions are just a gratuitous cop-out. Made by the same folks who made the unusable power strips in the first place.

    It’s not just the power bricks. Why on earth does every laptop model – even within a single manufacturer’s line – have a different battery? Yes, I see there are differences in power requirements, but that could be handled with a few 10-20W increments.

    The plastic cheapo power strips are a fire hazard. Seriously. When their surge suppressor dies it can burst into flame. The plastic body is not sufficiently flame retardant, and anyway the flames can escape through unoccupied sockets. The warning sign is a slight brown discoloration near the switch. I was lucky to have mine fail as I was plugging something in. Quite a display. Our local fire marshal has seen much worse numerous times. But they are still sold ubiquitously. I use only metal ones now if they are in hidden places.

    The USB charger connector thing is also grudgingly happening on digital cameras. Yet another rant subject in its own right, but pertinent here is that they are not being true to the spirit. Why do they all say you MUST use the cable that came with the camera and not anything else? My camera also double-duties the USB socket with analog A/V output. WTF?? And still does not actually charge the battery through the USB – I have to remove the battery and plug it into a separate little wall charger.


    thanks. I’ll feel better now. Until I buy the next thing.

  34. #35 D. C. Sessions
    March 29, 2009

    What is Wal Mart?

    Think Pure Evile, add corporation.

    Actually, I’m pretty sure the question was rhetorical. However …

    It’s very, very hard to distill Pure Evile. In witness whereof, they actually pay hourly employees annual profit-sharing. It certainly isn’t much (less than $1K/employee) but it’s more than I ever saw as an hourly. In fact, it’s more bonus than I ever got at most of the engineering jobs I’ve had.

    So, alas, the Evile is not quite pure.

  35. #36 Jon H
    March 29, 2009

    Would anyone happen to know if power strips give out a weird smell when they blow out?

  36. #37 DuWayne
    March 29, 2009

    On the one hand it’s definitely easier to drill the hole for the main power line through cabinet steel, on the other, it’s more of a pain to make sure the line is safe inside and requires an additional hole. Still workable though.

    D.C. –

    My distaste for Pure Evile is not the way they treat their actual employees – there are plenty worse. It’s the way they treat suppliers and my underlying distaste for the big box business model. But as I said, I suck away, so I am not really one to speak.

  37. #38 DuWayne
    March 29, 2009

    Oh, and Jon, they won’t necessarily smell funky, but if you have one that does – stop using it. Seriously.

  38. #39 Hank Roberts
    March 29, 2009

    Don’t use plastic power strips. When they arc inside the plastic supports combustion.

    Look into upgrading to “Arc fault circuit interrupters” — this is not the older “ground fault” that only shuts power off if there’s current going to the ground wire (if there is one).

    An “arc fault” interrupter will detect the kind of leakage between hot and neutral that happens, for example, in cheap shit plastic crap power strips put together with inadequate clearance, broken insulation, cold solder joints, loose wires, and the other joys that buying the lowest cost production brings us.

    And don’t trust the notion that plastic can be fireproofed. It costs more to do it right than to make up a few good ones to send to the rating agency to pass the test. They don’t retest this stuff to make sure corners aren’t being cut after production starts or changes.

  39. #40 p.h.
    March 29, 2009

    “…a significant number of those that I have ever owned are distributed in the homes of ex wives and ex girlfriends…”


  40. #41 Glen
    March 29, 2009

    Jon: Yes, a normal power strip does not smell except that “new power strip smell” they have when you first take it out of the box. Throw out that power strip. Do not sell it at a yard sale.

  41. #42 Glen
    March 29, 2009

    Actually, don’t throw it out. Recycle it.

  42. #43 DuWayne
    March 29, 2009

    While I would never recommend that anyone tackle electrical projects without knowing what they’re doing, installing arc fault interrupter breakers is really easy and most Home Depots carry them. Should one choose to do it themselves, the safest way to replace breakers is to pull your meter.

    Or you can install an AFI outlet. The advantage of the breaker, is that you cover the entire circuit without any rewiring or tracking to see that you got the first outlet on the circuit. Works nicely for wet locations too – especially if you have old GFCIs, which don’t necessarily stop pumping out power, when they no longer functionally protect you.

  43. #44 Pieter B
    March 29, 2009

    PowerSquidz are cool, but I wish they weren’t so bulky; one used to take up serious room in my carry-on bag. I also wish that they had ten arms, like a real squid. For sheer unadulterated outlet density per square foot, the Belkin 12-outlet pivot-plug I linked above beats anything else on the market.

    Costco used to sell a ten-outlet stick that had eight pivoting outlets which rotated 180° around the stick; that’s what goes in the carry-on these days. Belkin makes an eight-outlet version of it, but it’s a lot pricier than the Costco one was.

    And here’s another option.

  44. #45 Greg Laden
    March 29, 2009

    I got two squids and a Belkin power plug thingie.

  45. #46 Monado in Toronto
    March 30, 2009

    Ah, Pieter, it’s easier to see what’s going on with the white “UFO power” thing.

    I’d like to see a power bar spaced to take those flat hexagonal plugs that they sell on Black & Decker power tools. They are designed so that, by the time you get your fingers where you can touch the prongs, they are unplugged. An engineer named Bob Dickie designed them when he started thinking about toddlers and electricity. And the cord comes out the side of the plug so the wires don’t get bashed quite so much.

    I think I’ll take a good look at all our power bars tomorrow.

  46. #47 Karen
    March 30, 2009

    Hmmm. Those b&d plugs seem like the way to go. And the squid makes the most sense. There is never a problem with size or shape. I would just add a strap to hold the thing you are pugging in to the squid … tentacle.

  47. #48 Jon H
    March 30, 2009

    Thanks all, regarding smelly power strips.

    I plugged a Mac G4 into the strip, and it gave a pop, stopped working, and shortly thereafter I heard a hissing noise and smelled a nasty ammonia smell. The strip was quickly replaced, since it didn’t work anymore.

  48. #49 Tom
    March 30, 2009

    Add my vote for strip savers, which are basically 1-foot extension cords for your wall warts. Some of them are designed with a secondary receptacle built into the plug, which allow you to stack cords.

    Also, look for surge suppressors with right-angle plugs. Usually found on higher end units. My favorites are the ones with right angle plugs that swivel.

    Velcro everything to the inside of the desk, to get it all up off the floor, add a couple spools of velcro self-tie wraps to control all the cordage, and you are in business.

  49. #50 Industrial Cable
    June 28, 2010

    Once again some great arguments in the discussion on whether knoweldge should be accessible to all. Unanticipated use is exactly how knowledge can be furthered, and networked scholarship also allows those of us outside academia to follow and perhaps even occasionally participate in knowledge creation.
    So keep up the good work!