Shocking lesson for users of Comcast

July 31, 2000|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

More than 200 Comcast Online customers in Howard and Baltimore counties have discovered that electrical storms can knock you offline a lot faster than signing off yourself.

A series of storms that rolled through the area around the weekend of July 15 fatally shocked the modems and network adapters used by computer owners who connect to the Internet through Comcast. Comcast officials said last week that they had fixed almost all of the problems by replacing the damaged hardware.

But long delays in replacing equipment had many customers grumbling, including several who called The Sun.

Technicians said most of the problems were the result of equipment plugged into ungrounded electrical outlets, according to Scott Allison, general manager for Comcast Online.

Those outlets, standard in homes until the mid-1960s, have no grounding wire to redirect electricity away from sensitive equipment in the event of a surge.

"The question customers want to ask is whether they're using a grounded outlet," said Comcast spokesman Mitchell Schmale. "You can save a lot of hardship down the road by knowing."

Ungrounded outlets make all electrical equipment - not just computers - more vulnerable to power spikes, said Leonard Johnson, electrical plans examiner for Howard County. Ranges, televisions and videocassette recorders take a beating as well.

Johnson said he lost his own computer's most critical component - the motherboard - to an electrical spike several years ago because he lived in an older home and the equipment was plugged into a two-pronged, ungrounded outlet.

For the past 35 years or so, building codes have required grounded outlets. While the outlets in some older homes have been upgraded to grounded outlets, many have not.

Customers who want to know whether they have grounded outlets should check first to see whether their receptacles have holes for three prongs - two flat and one round. Two-prong outlets are not grounded.

But three prongs don't guarantee safety, particularly in older homes. Some homeowners have replaced their old two-pronged outlet with three-pronged receptacles -without installing a grounding wire.

"You can imagine how, over the years people have spruced up their homes and simply put them [three-pronged receptacles] in because the two wire receptacles are hard to find," Johnson said.

To determine if your three-pronged plug is grounded, you can purchase a three-wire circuit analyzer for about $4 at hardware stores. Plug the device into an outlet and lights will indicate whether it's properly grounded.

If it isn't grounded, Johnson recommended hiring an electrician to fix the problem.

Meanwhile, he added, don't rely entirely on your surge protector. A surge protector offers only marginal protection with an ungrounded plug because there's no way to direct the electricity to the ground.

And even with a surge protector and grounded outlet, a direct lightning strike on your home may fry much of your equipment - televisions, computers, CD player - despite all of your preparations.

To be really safe in the event of an electrical storm, get offline, turn off your computer and even unplug your electrical devices, Allison said.

Most of Comcast's online customers had problems stemming from the weekend of July 15-16. Comcast officials got an inkling of how serious the electrical activity was when customers in Ellicott City lost their cable service after a July 16 storm damaged equipment at a local distribution center. Just under 2,000 customers were affected.

In the ensuing days, it became apparent that about 200 Internet service customers throughout Howard and Baltimore counties had more serious problems with the hardware attached to their computers.

Overall, Allison said, the damage affected less than 1 percent of those using Comcast Online.

He declined to say how many online customers Comcast serves locally.

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