MICRO CENTER: COMPUTERS AND ELECTRONICS
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In The Lab
What to do in a Power Crisis
by chris

It was a dark and stormy night um... day?

A couple of weeks ago, the remnant of hurricane Ike passed through Indiana, well west of central Ohio. At the same time, a regional cold front that was moving through the aggravated the unstable conditions to produce sustained winds of up to 75 miles per hour for several hours. Very little rain or lightning was involved but high winds battered the area, removing the tops of trees, breaking large and small branches, and downing some very large trees. Power, telephone, and cable lines were snapped. American Electric Power (AEP) reported that up to one million customers in Ohio were without power as a result.

Four large trees were damaged at my home, one of which was a large pine tree that fell almost directly across the utility lines, ripping them off of the house. At least the telephone line was still attached at both ends and operational. Our power was out for only about 24 hours, but our neighbors just across the street were without power for a week. Our cable line was removed at the utility pole, meaning my cable TV, and -gasp- Internet and VOIP phone line was out for a whole week. Wow! Just imagine: no email for a whole week. I never missed those 200+ spam messages that were waiting once service was reconnected. It's amazing how much I take Internet access for granted. I found myself popping open my browser to check for something, and then saying, "Duh, no service..."

Pine Tree
The pine tree took out a section of fence and all of our utility wires, but fell between three bird feeders.
Pine Tree
The top of the sycamore threatens our reattached power lines.
Pine Tree
Davey Tree Service to the rescue!

As with most storms, the Micro Center Service Department sees an increase in equipment repairs shortly after the fact. In a severe storm with localized lightning strikes, there is not much you can do to protect your computers and other electronics short of physically disconnecting them from the power, network and phone connections. The megavolts of electricity involved with lighting make the results unpredictable since the power levels involved can result in electrical discharges that can jump between wires or switches, and can sometimes damage circuitry even though it was turned off. However, there are several things you can do to minimize the risk of damage.

1) Use surge suppressors
Surge suppressors won't help if the power goes off, and they won't help with low-voltage or brown-out conditions. What a surge suppressor is designed to do is redirect high-voltage spikes or surges to the electrical ground before they reach your equipment. In the wind storms we experienced, there was little or no lightning causing massive thousand-volt spikes on the power lines. However as power lines were broken, shorted out, or transformers failed, the flickering power levels can easily include fluctuations both higher and lower than the typical 120 volts of alternating current (VAC). Surge suppressors can filter out short, quick spikes, as well as levels that exceed a level determined by the components used in the device's design. Even an inexpensive suppressor is better that none. Some suppressors have segmented protection, some are designed to handle multiple transformer "power bricks," and many have additional connections for phone, network, or coaxial cable to filter any surges that could come in somewhere other than the power lines. Many companies even back their products up with a connected equipment protection warranty if they fail.

Power Squid
The outlets on the Power Squid protector can easily handle equipment cords or transformers. Neon lights glow in two connectors to indicate power is on.
Power Squid
This Belkin protector has coaxial and telephone protection and three outlets spaced to accommodate "power brick" transformers.
Power Squid
APC backs this inexpensive surge protector with a $75,000 connected equipment warranty.

2) Use a UPS
For any equipment that would be at risk to voltage drops or power loss, use an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). I have my VOIP modem and cable TV signal booster connected to a small UPS in the basement, and another small UPS with my Buffalo TeraStation drive attached. My largest UPS provides power to my computer, one monitor, an external eSATA RAID storage array, the cable modem and my network router. A UPS switches power to the internal battery whenever the wall voltage rises above or drops below a specified level. Expecting a UPS to keep things running for a week when your power fails is not reasonable. Depending on the power load of the equipment, you might expect to have anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes of battery-backed power, up to an hour or two if you use a heavy-duty UPS with a light equipment load. A couple of things to keep in mind: it is primarily the inverter section that determines how much power you can draw and the size of the battery that determines how long it can provide the power. Bigger batteries usually translate directly to longer UPS battery time. How do you know what size UPS to get? One way is to use a configuration form such as the one on the APC web site.

Power Squid
The typical UPS contains one or two rechargeable batteries to provide power when the lights go out. Many have communication ports to report status to a computer through a USB or serial connection.
Power Squid
Smaller UPS units can be hung on a wall or tucked into small spaces to provide power to equipment like a VOIP, DSL, or cable modem.
Power Squid
This UPS consists of two units connected by a heavy power cable. On the left is a stand-alone UPS; on the right is an auxiliary battery that extends the available time the unit can provide backup power.

Power SquidWhen you connect a USB communication cable from the UPS to the computer, Windows Vista adds the device to your hardware list.

Most of the larger UPS units either come with software or you can download versions from the manufacturer's web site. APC includes the PowerChute software for monitoring, testing, and controlled system shutdowns when the power fails.

Performance
The PowerChute performance screen reports the number of interruptions, number of times it shut the computer down, and how long the UPS has provided power. I have the software configured to shut down the computer if the power remains off for more than 5 minutes.

Status
The status screen shows the charge level of the batteries, the amount of power your current equipment is drawing and the current line voltage. The estimated time available to run on the batteries based on your current load is displayed on all pages.

Voltage
These are the default voltage levels that must occur before the UPS will switch to battery. Smaller variations should be easily handled by most equipment. The UPS has built-in surge suppression, and you should never use a surge suppressor on the output of a UPS since a short in the voltage lines to the ground would likely damage the UPS circuitry.

3) Backup your important data
Last, but never least, make regular backups of anything critical. Power fluctuations can lead to equipment failure, however minor, which can create conditions where hard drive storage becomes corrupted or inaccessible unless you pay for costly data recovery services.

Other possibilities
Power conditioners are helpful if you are in an area where you have fluctuating power problems, but not power failures. Conditioners help stabilize the power and can reduce line noise and interference coming across the power lines. Keep in mind, power conditioners might handle those brief flickers, but have no batteries to switch to if some tree rips the power line off your house. If you need to keep going when the rest of us are in the dark, you need a generator.

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