A blackout sheds light on ways to protect PCs

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June 29, 2006|By MIKE HIMOWITZ | MIKE HIMOWITZ,SUN COLUMNIST

As I write this, my laptop computer's battery meter shows just over an hour of juice left, so I'll have to get most of this column finished before it runs out. That's because there's no more electricity where this charge came from, at least for now.

Yes, there's no better time to write about the perils facing PCs and other delicate gadgets in this damp early-summer of discontent than in the middle of a blackout.

Actually, when the power died a half-hour ago, some of the precautions we'd taken worked just fine. The little emergency light plugged into a hall outlet switched itself on - just the way it's supposed to.

The chirping from the basement was another good sign. It meant the battery backup units attached to our computers were working just fine. So I should be able to shut down our PCs and other equipment in an orderly fashion.

Only one problem - I couldn't remember what strategic locations I'd chosen to pre-position our flashlights. But then, no emergency plan is perfect. Luckily, my long-suffering wife - awakened by the unaccustomed darkness and silence - has a far better memory than I. She unearthed a couple of flashes, pulled out a battery-operated alarm clock, set it for her usual wake-up time and rolled back into bed.

Leaving me sitting in a pitch-dark kitchen, illuminated only by the glow from the 10-inch screen of a tablet PC, writing about how to protect digital stuff from the elements.

Summer weather, including the days of rain we recently endured, poses real dangers to computers and other electronic equipment. The most obvious is flooding, because computers and water don't mix.

If your basement is normally dry, you probably haven't worried a lot about this, but this week's flooding turned a lot of formerly dry cellars into wading pools.

It certainly got me thinking. Bottom line - if you're using a basement office or rec room for your PC, don't keep the computer on the floor under a desk.

You're probably safe keeping a system on the desktop because most basements don't flood all the way to the ceiling. But having seen what nature can do this year, I'd think about moving a basement PC upstairs before I left on vacation. Same for backups of important data, correspondence, financial records, digital music collections and so forth.

A common threat

No matter how high and dry your home or apartment is, power outages pose the most common threat to your electronic tools and toys. These sudden increases in voltage levels typically occur when the power sputters back after a blackout.

Sometimes the lights will flicker on, then go off a few seconds later, then back on, repeatedly. Each of these cycles can produce a surge with the potential to fry your favorite gadgets. Improper shutdowns can also scramble data on your hard drive and make it difficult or impossible to start up your PC.

At the very least, your computer and every other electronic gadget should be plugged into a surge suppressor. These devices, typically built into power strips, use a component called a metal oxide varistor (MOV) to divert excess voltage to your home's ground wire.

Surge suppressors won't protect against a direct lightning strike on your home or on the power lines nearby - nothing will, except an expensive, whole-house lightning arrestor. But suppressors do a good job with routine power glitches.

Just remember that not every power strip offers protection. Look for an Underwriters Laboratory label that reads "Transient Voltage Surge Suppressor." Suppressors also vary in their capacity to protect equipment, so check the packaging for technical specifications.

The energy a surge suppressor can absorb is measured in joules. Look for one rated at 500 joules or better. Another important spec is clamping voltage - the minimum surge that's necessary to trip the suppressor's power diversion. Look for 400 volts or less. Better surge suppressors will also filter other irregularities in the current.

For delicate computer equipment, stay away from the cheapest surge suppressors. You'll find plenty of good ones in the $20 to $40 range. In addition to standard power outlets, many have jacks that protect your modem, network, and cable feeds.

A word of caution - every time a surge suppressor does its job, it dies a little. In fact, a major blowout may turn the unit into a lump of charred plastic. That's what's supposed to happen.

But most surge suppressors wear out over time. Better units have a light that tells you whether they're still providing protection. Check it from time to time. If it goes out or changes color, it's time to replace the surge protector. If you're not sure, replace a suppressor after a few years, anyway. Why take chances?

For those put off by the notion of multiple surge suppressors, several readers have spoken highly of a little-known, whole-house suppressor marketed under the name SurgeGuard by BGE Home (the consumer products company spun off from the utility).

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