Protect your PC in case power fails

January 25, 1999|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

This winter has had its difficult moments, and there are a lot more to come.

In our mid-Atlantic neck of the woods we've had snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain and high winds that brought trees crashing down into power lines, leaving tens of thousands of homes and businesses without electricity.

We were lucky. Our power was out for only 12 hours. Elsewhere in our area, people were in the dark for days. A glance at the Weather Channel shows that folks in other parts of the country have had it just as bad, or worse.

All of this is bad news for people who depend on personal computers. Once I thought that summer thunderstorms were the main environmental dangers to PCs, but after a few bouts with the ice man, I'm convinced that winter may be even tougher.

The major risk to computers occurs when the power goes out - and when it comes back on.

If your power suddenly dies while you're using a computer, you stand a chance of winding up with scrambled data on your hard drive. At the very least, you'll wind up losing whatever you were working on when the lights went out.

But the real danger can occur when the electricity returns, often with a voltage surge that can damage your computer's delicate electronic components. Or you may wind up in the winter equivalent of a brownout, with voltage that's too low for your PC to run properly - although the computer will try its best and may wind up a basket case.

You may also discover that your modem doesn't work, even if the rest of your system is OK. This happens because the modem is even more delicate than the rest of the system. It can be fried by telephone line surges so small that they wouldn't be noticed over regular electrical lines.

Of course, you can do something to prevent this kind of damage. Invest a few dollars in protecting your computer system now, and you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars in repairs or replacement costs.

If you don't have one, buy a surge suppressor today. Surge suppressors are built into most of the power strips sold in hardware and consumer electronics stores. They ``take the bullet'' for your PC when a spike occurs, with circuitry that absorbs the excess voltage from small fluctuations in current or shuts the power off instantaneously if the surge is too strong.

Surge-protected power strips sell for as little as $7 or $8, but you might want to spend a few dollars more for a better model. In addition to offering better protection - particularly from the powerful surges caused by nearby lightning in the summer - good suppressors often have two or three lights that can tell you when the power is on, whether the surge protection is still active, and whether your outlet is properly grounded. Better units also have jacks that will protect your modem against phone line surges.

Remember that repeated surges can wear out the suppressor's protective circuitry. It's a good idea to replace a suppressor after a couple of years, or after a particularly bad season. If you've had a really bad surge, there won't be any question - your surge suppressor will be dead, but your computer will be alive. That's what you hired it to do.

Even the best surge suppressor won't keep your computer running when the power goes out. You're still open to data loss - and if you're in business, the loss of your computing power.

Obviously, you're not going to keep on working if the electricity goes out for a couple of days. But it would be nice to have a gadget that gives you time to shut down your system in an orderly manner - or even keep going for a couple of hours.

Enter the UPS, an acronym for Uninterruptible Power Supply (not to be confused with the UPS truck that delivers it). A UPS is a battery backup unit that plugs into a wall outlet - you plug your computer and other peripherals into the UPS.

In addition to filtering your electricity and preventing surges, the UPS will switch to battery power instantaneously when the power goes out, giving you time to decide how to deal with the problem.

How much reserve power you get depends on how much you pay. Inexpensive UPS units that start at $100 can provide 5 to 10 minutes of power for a PC and monitor. You can spend a few hundred dollars more for a UPS that will provide an hour or two of power to a single system or $1,000 or more for a unit that will keep several PCs or an office server running.

UPS endurance is measured in volt-amps - how much your system needs depends on its size and the number of gadgets you want to plug in. Two of the largest UPS manufacturers have excellent online help in this regard. For information, surf to American Power Conversion (APC) at www.apcc.com or SL Waber at www.waber.com. You'll also find a good shopping and price comparison search engine on the Ziff-Davis Web site (www.zdnet.com).

Be careful about what you plug into a UPS unit. Your best bet is to hook up only your most critical components - meaning your computer and monitor. Chances are good that you can live without your printer, scanner and other gadgets for a while.

Never plug a laser printer into one of the battery-backed outlets on your UPS - the printer contains a heating element that can drain the UPS of power in a few minutes or put the backup out of commission altogether. Most UPS units have additional outlets that aren't backed up by batteries but are protected against surges. Use them for your noncritical components.

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