September 25, 2012

Taking Care of Business (Part 5)

In our last episode, I related my experience with two power outages in short succession, with the second outage corrupting my internal hard drive and one of my external hard drives. I have my computer and peripherals plugged into a high-end surge protector, yet the second outage corrupted some of my equipment. I was very lucky they weren’t just fried.

This was just a power outage, but it could have also been caused by a lightning strike nearby. CNNTEch says, “Computer damage and data loss from lightning strikes cost the United States nearly $2 billion in annual economic loss, according to the National Lightning Safety Institute.

“‘Computer damage from severe weather conditions is surprisingly a very common problem,’ said Jim Reinert, senior director of software and services for Ontrack Data Recovery, a firm which specializes in recovering lost or corrupted data.”

Boost the juice

The voltage coming out of your wall socket does not come out at an even rate even under normal circumstances, which can cause small voltage surges that can hurt your computer’s innards. Even static electricity caused by walking across your carpet and then touching your motherboard can fry it, which is why you always touch something metal right before you touch the inside of your computer, or you wear a grounding strap on your wrist, connected to a metal part of your computer.

A power strip and a surge protector are two different things, although they look the same. A power strip is just a way of extending the outlets from your wall. A surge protector has special internal wiring that will interrupt the voltage surge, preventing it from heading on into your computer or peripherals (or expensive TV and entertainment system).

In the event of a power outage, when the electricity comes back on, it can create a large surge of voltage flowing to the outlet, through to whatever is connected to your outlet. Zap.

Even turning on high-power electrical devices such as an air conditioner or refrigerator can disrupt the voltage flow through your outlets throughout your house. This is why you should also have that expensive TV and entertainment system plugged into a surge protector, too.

If the surge protector is turned off, the extra voltage can still go through it to your computer. Your computer’s delicate circuitry can’t cope with the extra voltage, and it fries, or at least corrupts the data on the magnetic hard disk inside your computer.

Thunder and lightning, oh my

In How Stuff Works, the author writes, “When lightning strikes near a power line, whether it’s underground, in a building or running along poles, the electrical energy can boost electrical pressure by millions of volts. This causes an extremely large power surge that will overpower almost any surge protector. In a lightning storm, you should never rely on your surge protector to save your computer. The best protection is to unplug your computer.

While there is nothing that can completely guarantee that a power surge won’t kill your electronics, there are a couple of alternatives to consider if you depend on your computer for your daily bread (and make sure your other electronics are plugged into surge protectors as a matter of course).

Surge Protector alternatives

For your computer, consider an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) and possibly even a line (or “power”) conditioner.

The line conditioner is plugged into your wall. It is intended to improve the quality of power coming out of your wall, keeping the voltage more consistent. Different line conditioners have different features, and some even claim that they can survive a direct lightning hit (to your power supply, even if it’s the electrical station down the street, or the transformer in front of your home) and offer insurance in case it doesn’t. For a home office, it couldn’t hurt and might help. They run as low as $45 and into the hundreds of dollars, depending on your needs.

You can plug a UPS – a surge protector on steroids – into the wall or  line conditioner. It provides a battery backup, which enables you to shut down your computer safely, avoiding data corruption. Some will automatically close computer files and safely shut down your system. The back of the unit has a variety of outlets for you to plug your computer and peripherals into, including your telephone and modem line. Not all outlets will be connected to the battery backup, so you’ll want to keep those outlets for equipment that is particular about how it is shut down, like your computer. Your scanner and printer will not care.

If I’d had my computer plugged into a UPS, it’s unlikely I would have had data corruption, so I wouldn’t have had to spend a couple of hours reinstalling my operating system and my backup. A UPS has been added to my Amazon wishlist.

UPSs can run as little as $40 and up to about $200 or so for a home office version. Decide how many plugs you’ll need overall, and choose a UPS accordingly. You don’t want to get an 8-outlet UPS and find out that you have 9 plugs.

Final tips

Save often. Save often. Save often. Got that?

The National Weather Service’s website says that “A lightning flash can travel horizontally many miles away from the thunderstorm and then strike the ground” – even if the sky above is blue.

If you can hear thunder, you (and your power supply) are close enough to be struck by lightning.

The NWS site goes on, “There are three main ways lightning enters homes and buildings: A direct strike; through wires or pipes that extend outside the structure; through the ground.”

If you can’t afford the UPS, at the very least, unplug your equipment in a thunderstorm. Unless you have a surge protector that can protect your phone line connected to your modem, unplug that in a storm, too, since voltage can travel through your phone line, into your modem, and into your computer. I have gotten the “You’re ridiculous” eyeroll when I tell people about unplugging. Then again, I’ve talked to enough people who have had their computers or TVs fried by a lightning strike nearby. Your choice.

Even with a UPS and/or a line conditioner, if you are able to unplug your electronics after you’ve safely shut down, you should do so. I would rather tell a client I have to push a deadline because of unplugging my computer in a storm than to tell them that because I didn’t, my computer is toast and I have to wait until I replace my computer to work on their project.

Make sure your computer is covered under your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy, just in case you need to replace it because of a power outage or surge, or lightning strike.

That’s it for the basics of Taking Care of Business. There’s plenty more to talk about when it comes to building and running your business, but I’ll cover those separately, so stay tuned.


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