Power Problems Cause Failures

During an unexpected one-day storm, years ago, several electronic items were destroyed in my house - causing a few thousand dollars worth of damage:

* Air compressor in my air conditioning unit
* Dishwasher
* Crock Pot
* Clothes washer
* Stereo system amplifier
* TiVo motherboard

There may have been other items damaged in the storm, but these are what were noticed as having worked before the storm, and did not work immediately after the storm. The sad thing is, this damage could have very easily been prevented.

Notice the distinct lack of computer-related devices in the list above?

There are two defenses against power spikes (too much power at the electrical plug):

* Surge protector
* Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)

Only the UPS option gives you a defense against dips (lower than expected power at the electrical plug), brownouts and even blackouts. A UPS is what you want for your sensitive computer equipment. Each of my computer-related items in my home and office have been protected by a UPS for decades. These computers and peripherals last significantly longer than average, and have fewer problems overall.

Note: items that don’t have problems with losing power such as computer monitors, some printers, television sets, speakers and laptops (because they have a battery inside); can get away with a high-quality surge protector. Any items that need to remain on, such as external hard drives, Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices, and any device that has a hard drive (such as a TiVo or HDR unit) should be connected to a UPS.

If it’s important that you are able to work on your computer during a blackout, make sure you also connect your computer monitor, otherwise you will not be able to see the screen to type.

Just like a generator can provide power for your house during an outage by burning fuel and generating power; a UPS contains a battery which stores power (charges) when the power is on and then releases this stored power during an outage. You connect your UPS to the wall, let it charge, and after the manual-specified amount of time, you can connect your devices to the plugs in the UPS. This way, the UPS is between the wall power plug and your devices - protecting them as a surge protector would, but also providing battery backup power when needed.

All modern UPS devices have automatic and close to instant transfer from mains power to battery during an outage, and then back to mains again when the power returns. Some UPS have front panels which allow you to set certain values, silence the built-in alarm (letting you know there’s a power issue), view power parameters and even see how long your UPS will run - given the current load - if you were to lose power.

Most blackouts are short (less than a few minutes, or even a few seconds), although if a power outage lasts for longer than the battery in your UPS, and your computer is not configured to shutdown when the UPS battery power is low, you may risk losing data when the UPS eventually runs out of power. For safety purposes, make sure you follow the directions of your UPS and configure your computer to shutdown safely when the battery power in the UPS is getting low (10% or less). This works just like the battery in your laptop, and is easy to configure. If you go to work, and a multi-hour outage occurs, your computer will safely shutdown, even if you aren’t there.

One UPS feature that helps to protect your electronic items better is automatic voltage regulation (AVR). This is generally listed on the outside of the box, or in the manual. As this is a beneficial feature, it is usually a selling-point listed on the box, and is almost always listed as either AVR or “Automatic Voltage Regulation.” AVR means that regardless of the voltage coming in to the UPS, the output to your connected devices is constant. Without AVR, there may be minor dips and spikes which “get through,” which may or may not cause problems, depending on the sensitivity of your devices. AVR is just one additional feature that can help prolong the life of your computers, hard drives, and extra-sensitive electronic items. When in doubt, try to purchase a UPS with AVR.

There are many different brands of UPS on the market, although my favorite brand is the mid- to high-product lines of APC (owned by Schneider Electric). APC has been around for decades, and is my go-to brand of UPS. There are many other brands, although when comparing, I try to look for a decent warranty (1 to 3 years), and decent reviews on-line. Before making a purchase, simply take the model number of the unit you are looking at in the store, and pull that model number up on, or your favorite review site, and see what folks are saying about it. Most items that are on-sale are old enough that they are considered a “mature” product - all the bugs have been discovered and complained about on-line. If you see a four- of five-star average review with 400 reviewers, you know you have a good product. If you see three- or two-stars with just as many reviews, you may wish to avoid that product.

I have never had a problem with an APC UPS that was not quickly corrected by a replacement being shipped to me, and generally within a day or two. Purchasing a mid-price ($100-$150) UPS from a reputable company means that you will usually receive better service - higher priority - from technical support; but also, these units tend to break less frequently than the less expensive (sub-$100) models. Don’t forget to register your UPS purchase with the manufacturer, as this sometimes activates - and in some cases even extends - the warranty. When in doubt, save the receipt with the box during the duration of the warranty period.

Also, as a bonus, some UPS companies offer (included for free) insurance for any item properly connected to their product, which is damaged due to a power-related issue. See each product for details, but it is nice to know that some UPS companies will backup their claims not just with a product warranty, but also will pay for any items damaged due to a UPS failure - and that should give you a little more confidence as well.

As noted earlier, you do not need a UPS for items like your dishwasher, television sets, or washer and dryer. The best defense for these is a relatively inexpensive whole home surge protector, which is typically connected in-line with your main circuit breaker of your house by an electrician. The units themselves generally run between $100 and $200, but these protect everything in your house from surges. Coupled with a properly installed grounding rod, these devices are very effective at keeping surges, spikes and sometimes even lightning at bay; potentially saving you a ton of money in the long run.

Although a surge protector isn’t the best option for those devices in your home or office requiring a UPS, it’s a great idea to have both the whole-house surge protection coverage, in addition to a UPS in each area of your house that has a computer or sensitive equipment.

After the big storm destroyed so many items, I had an electrician install a whole-house surge protector alongside my main circuit breaker of my home. Years later, aside from basic wear and tear, all of my electronic items in the house are still running without issues.

In summary: the sooner you purchase and install a UPS between your power plug and your sensitive computer-related equipment, the greater the life expectancy of each of those devices. Also, a whole-house surge protector will help protect other, less-sensitive electronic equipment in your house, and can generally be purchased and installed for less than $400 by a qualified electrician.



Sean G.

Decades of computer and photography experience; patient teacher.

50+ hours
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