Weather or Not

How to protect your technology from power loss and surges

Weather, especially storms, can be threatening to electronic equipment. It is important to be weather-savvy and apply protective measures to keep your computers in good shape. You’d be surprised what a bad storm can do to your technology. Over the years, I have seen several “fried” computer systems. The worst case was in a basement that had suffered water damage from a leak. After a severe thunder and lightning storm, the client noticed a bad smell from the area where the computer was located. The power supply had been burnt from an electrical surge. Severe power surges can even start fires. Such extreme cases are rare, but you should still take sensible precautions.

If you have a lot of technology, you should install surge protectors into your house’s electric wiring. My technicians do not recommend power strips; a simple power strip surge protector can be “zapped” after only a few surges, and you might not even know it. It will still work fine as an electrical distributor, but it will no longer protect your devices against surges. In freaky storms, sometimes electricity can shoot right through the TV cables and telephone lines. If your outside lines get hit by lightning, the electricity might “blow up” your router/modem and possibly even the TV set/computer, too. Consider installing special surge protection devices into these lines as well.

Even with these protective steps, a power outage can still impact your computers. Every laptop has a built-in battery that can keep things running for a while, but a desktop doesn’t. Without this battery buffer, a total power loss will cause a device to shut down abruptly. This can cause physical damage and/or file corruption, especially if your computer was in the process of a Windows update. This type of power fluctuation can also blow out the circuits. Have you ever had a light go bad after you switched in on and off quickly? It’s something like this.

Luckily, there is an affordable device available to protect your electronics from power losses and electrical surges – the UPS, or Uninterruptible Power Supply. A UPS is a big, heavy power tower with multiple electrical outlets to plug your devices into that offers surge protection and backup battery power. But be aware, not all the power outlets are equal on a UPS. All outlets usually provide surge protection, but only about half of them provide power from the built-in battery packs in case the power goes off (these are generally labeled “battery backup”).

Use the UPS’s battery backup outlets to plug in things you need to keep running, such as your desktop computer, screen, and the router. When the power goes out, these devices will then continue working on the battery’s power. Once you notice that the UPS has kicked in, you should save and close your files, and shut down your computer normally. The time you have to take care of these essential tasks depends on how powerful your UPS is and how much power each device drains. Do not plug in something like a laser printer into the battery backup outlets; the moment you lose power in your house, the battery will try to take over, and the high demand of a laser printer will drain the batteries in seconds.

How do you know your UPS has kicked in? It emits a high-pitched beeping noise when power is lost, to alert you to the fact that your devices are now dependent on its batteries. It is important to be alerted when this happens so you can take care of your devices and shut them down properly, otherwise, especially during the day time, you might not even notice that the power went off. However, this noise can be obnoxious, and unplugging the UPS from the wall will not stop the beeping (because the unit perceives being unplugged as a power outage). The UPS will have a button to turn off the noise, and another button to power down the UPS itself, but remember, powering it off completely cuts off the power to devices still connected to it. Don’t press the wrong button by accident.

But what happens when there is a power outage and you are not around to shut down the computer properly? Well, if the power comes back on within the UPS’s capacity limits, everything’s good. But if it’s a long outage, once the batteries in the UPS are emptied, all connected devices will abruptly turn off, which could damage them.

One way to avoid this is to purchase a UPS with a USB connection. Through the USB cable, a special software on the computer can then monitor the status of the UPS. It can be set up to shut down the computer after a certain number of minutes during a power outage so there’s no harm to the system.

But whether or not you suffer from weather this year, don’t forget to backup your data on a regular basis. In the case of bad storm damage, your homeowners policy should cover the cost of new hardware, but what about your software and data? Your personal files and photos are irreplaceable. A few summers ago, the home of one of our favorite clients experienced a severe lightning strike while they were away, and it killed all of their technology. Their home office and personal computers were completely “fried.” But even though the hard drives were toast, a full image of their most important disk had been backed up recently. We were then able to get their new system set up with their old data and programs. Whew.

Klaus Fuechsel
About Klaus Fuechsel 9 Articles
Klaus Fuechsel owns the local award-winning computer repair store Dok Klaus. He and his team deal with all kinds of computer issues; data preservation is one of their top priorities. You may contact Dok Klaus via phone 540-428-2376 or visit his website.

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