When PC won't run, check power

January 08, 2001|By Mike Himowitz

It's a sickening feeling: You hook up a new computer, or sit down at one that's been working fine for weeks. You push the power button and nothing happens. No lights, no whir, no clicks. Dead as a doornail.

What do you do? You could panic and call tech support. But often that means waiting on endless hold - all too often for the privilege of paying an outrageous fee, particularly with an older computer. Or you could do some simple investigating yourself.

Having worked both sides of help lines, I'm amazed by how often problems are solved by basic troubleshooting, especially when equipment doesn't appear to be working at all. If this happens to you, you can save yourself time and trouble by looking for the obvious (and for a few things that aren't).

First things first - is everything plugged in? I know this sounds like an idiotic question, but it's amazing how many dead machines are restored to life this way. If your computer, monitor or printer won't turn on, check the power cords at both ends. It's not hard for them to work loose, or be kicked loose. Don't go by eye alone. Unplug them and plug them back in.

Power strips are another source of false alarms. If you're using one, make sure it's plugged firmly into a wall outlet. Then make sure the strip itself is turned on. Many power strips have switches, and it's easy to turn one off accidentally by kicking it with your foot. I know - I've done it more than once. Should this turn out to be the problem, move the power strip out of clodhopper range or tape the switch to the open position.

Also, a light glowing on your power strip doesn't mean your computer or other gadgets plugged into it are turned on. All it means is that the strip is getting power. I once spent an hour troubleshooting a "dead" computer over the phone because the bozo on the other end saw the power strip light and assumed it meant his PC was turned on. It wasn't turned on. He was lucky we weren't in the same city.

Sometimes the power strip itself is the problem. A big electrical surge, which often occurs when the juice comes back on after a power failure, can blow the fuse on a surge-suppressing power strip or destroy it altogether. That's good - the surge suppressor is supposed to take the bullet instead of your computer. If this happens, thank the strip's manufacturer and buy a new one.

The electrical outlet is another candidate for gremlins. No amount of technical support will help you if your computer isn't getting electricity. So test the outlet by plugging in a lamp or radio. If it doesn't work, you could have a blown circuit breaker or fuse.

A breaker or fuse that trips frequently often means an overloaded circuit - one with too many gadgets plugged in. Overloads can be particularly puzzling, because a circuit may work fine for years until somebody turns on the wrong combination of computers, lights and appliances. A new computer system plugged into a circuit that's already loaded can be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

In our previous house, which had an unheated basement office and 30-year-old wiring, I learned during our first winter that my space heater and laser printer couldn't run at the same time without blowing a circuit breaker (lasers are real energy hogs).

When you have an overload like this, you have three choices: turn off some lights and appliances when you're using the computer, switch your system to another circuit if there's one available, or call in an electrician to upgrade your wiring. In my sorry case, there was nothing else on the circuit to turn off, no other circuits available, and I didn't want to spend the money for new wiring. So I spent more than a few chilly nights typing with numb fingers.

Even homes with modern wiring can drive you crazy. One night I came down to my office and found that the equipment on one side of the room wouldn't run. I checked the circuit breaker box but couldn't find anything wrong.

After remembering a problem I'd had with the outlets in our garage, I checked our powder room on the first floor, which has a Ground Fault Interrupter. You'll find these in bathrooms and kitchens of newer homes - they look like standard wall outlets, except for buttons marked "Test" and "Reset."

GFIs, as they're known in the trade, are designed to cut the power off if there's a sudden ground surge in the normal electrical flow - that kind of thing that would happen if somebody tossed a live space heater into the tub while you were relaxing in a bubble bath. While GFIs can save lives, they're often too sensitive and can trip for reasons unrelated to attempted homicide. Unless you try to plug something into a GFI-protected outlet, you may have no clue that it has tripped.

For some reason, the GFI in our powder room controlled the outlets in our garage. On a hunch, I pushed the reset button and my computer downstairs worked again.

Go figure.

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