Protecting Your Computer From Power Dangers

Power Surge

Power Surge

While today’s computers are not as expensive as they were a decade ago, they are nonetheless still fairly costly, and they are filled with ever tinier but complex electronic components that are extremely sensitive to changes in the power going into your computer.  These dangers range from component failure due to electrical wear and tear or worse yet, a sudden power surge or an unexpected loss of power (a Blackout.)

Lightning Strike

Lightning Strike

The obvious first power related danger to your computer is of course weather related.  Lightning can strike and the resulting power surge will pretty much fry every one of the electronic components in your home.  Don’t think just shutting them off will protect them either as most devices these days are always on with electronic switches instead of physical ones.

The next danger on this list is a matched pair.  A sudden drop in power known as a “dip,” and its corresponding sudden rise in power called a “spike.”  These are caused by the grid becoming suddenly overextended during peak times of electrical usage.  If the voltage drops below a certain level, it triggers one or more idle backup generators to switch on.  Unfortunately, the devices that govern the speed and power output of the generators cannot regulate the generator until it gets up to full speed there is sudden increase in the voltage on the power grid.  All of this usually happens in less than a second.  I’m sure you’ve probably at some point noticed the lights in your home suddenly dimming, then brightening and going back to normal.  This usually results in modern computers or electronics switching themselves off or restarting because the power loss isn’t long enough to cause the electronic power switches to disengage.  A blackout (or brownouts as they are sometimes called) is like a dip and spike on steroids, except that it can cause major damage to your computer’s hard drive as the power completely cuts off and causes the read/write heads of the drive to crash into the spinning platter of the drive, especially if the power dips before it finally goes out causing the capacitors in the drive to have insufficient power to park the heads before the drive stops spinning.  The electricity kicking back on after the blackout is just as dangerous as it causes a spike too.

The last power related danger we’ll discuss here is due to the way power is generated and distributed in the electrical grid.  Because AC (Alternating Current) power is inherently irregular, mainly from the constant back and forth switching of the flow of electricity at a rate of 50Hz or 60Hz (Hz means times every second) because the generators are constantly spinning to generate power, an extremely common phenomenon occurs known as “dirty” power.  Dirty power is an irregular up and down variation in the voltage being delivered to your home.  As dangers go, this one is more of a silent progressive killer, it eventually results in the tiny components that regulate the power going to vital parts of your computer wearing down and burning out just like an incandescent light bulb.

Depending on the type of computer or electronics you have, there are several solutions that will protect your computer from these various power dangers.

Surge Protector

Surge Protector

Most people are familiar with surge protectors (sometimes called power strips or surge suppressors,) are simple devices with built-in circuit breakers that switch off in a fraction of a second when the power suddenly spikes above a safe level.  Most of them come with a large value warranty for protecting connected components that are damaged due to failure of their surge suppression features.  They will also often have reset buttons that need to be pressed while they are switched on to reset the built-in circuit breakers.  These are great for most electronic components, peripherals, and notebook computers.

Power Tap

Power Tap

Unfortunately, people often mistake a type of power strip called a “power tap” for being a surge protector.  You can usually tell what kind of power strip it is by finding the printing on the back or label and verifying it does not say “power tap” as these do not offer any sort of surge suppression and can lead to your electronics getting fried.  (You can use a power tap to extend the outlets provided by a surge protector, but if you do this don’t connect more than one power tap to the same outlet on a surge protector and make sure that the devices connected don’t exceed the number of amps the surge protector is rated for.)

Notebook computers (also called Laptop/Portable computers) have batteries to keep them running in the event of a power outage and their auto switching AC adaptors combined with the battery and charging circuitry in the computer do a pretty good job of conditioning dirty power.  It’s generally a good idea to make sure that they are plugged into a surge suppressor or are equipped with an in-line surge suppressor as they have no built-in surge suppression.  I generally don’t recommend use of a run of the mill surge protector for non-notebook computer.

Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)

Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)

A UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply, sometimes called a battery backup) is the ultimate solution for these issues.  They are usually reasonably priced, (considering the amount of money you would pay to replace the components you are plugging into them,) and offer many advantages.  The first and perhaps most obvious advantage is that they provide power to your computer in the event of a power outage.  When properly connected, including the data cable being connected to the computer being provided the battery backup, a UPS provides 20-30 seconds or so of backup power giving you either time to shut down or hibernate your computer properly, or if you configure the monitoring software or Windows properly the computer will hibernate on its own.  The other advantage of a UPS is that it also “conditions” the power coming out of the wall socket so there is a constant voltage going into your computer.  This prevents those tiny sensitive power regulators from wearing out and burning up quite so easily.

UPS with cords attached

UPS with cords attached

A few points to note on using a UPS…  Most UPSes have multiple outlets and around half of them are battery backup outlets and the others are surge protected.  The same rules apply for the power outlets on a UPS as the ones for a surge protector, with a few more.  You should try not to extend the battery backup outlets on the UPS unless it is necessary for external hard drives or other necessary components.  If you extend the surge protected ports on the UPS use no more than one power tap or surge protector per port and never daisy chain them.  The UPS should always be connected directly to a wall outlet, and should never be plugged into another UPS unless it’s a whole room/building UPS or combination of such a UPS with a Backup Generator.  If you have the need to use a backup generator to directly power your computer/electronics you should use a UPS to condition the power coming from the generator and plug all the electronics being powered into the battery ports on the UPS, but make sure that the power requirements of the devices receiving the conditioned power don’t exceed the capabilities of the UPS to power them should the power be cut off suddenly.  Never connect a laser printer or other high wattage device to the battery ports on the UPS as they will fry the batteries and circuitry in the UPS.  Always make sure that you use a UPS with the proper backup power capabilities for your computer if it uses a power supply larger than 250W.

Backup Generator

Portable Backup Generator

For home computers, any machine without its own battery backup should be plugged into a UPS, along with any external hard drives or other storage.  For your business, any machine functioning as a server and its associated network/internet equipment should always be connected to a UPS.  This will prevent data loss and keep your services up and running should the power go out.  It’s probably a good idea to get your network and internet connection, PBX system, and client computers onto UPSes also so that your business can continue to function, or at the very least close out whatever tasks the employees are working on for customers without losing any data.

Hopefully this information helps you with your own questions, and gives you some advice for securing your own computer(s) and data from being lost due to the very thing that makes their functioning possible.

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