Lightning & Power Outages – Surge Protection or UPS?

Summertime is just about here.  With it will arrive unscheduled power interruptions, brown-out conditions, spikes and surges of power; this is especially true here in Southwest Florida.

Because of the value of electronic devices the importance of good protection cannot be overstated.  The store bought warranties that  may be in effect on your important devices do not cover products hit by lightning.

Most folk already have some type of power protection installed.  If you don’t here are some things to consider.

  1. Laptops, printers and monitors should have a Surge Protector/Suppressor
  2. Desktops and servers should have an UN-interruptible power supply (UPS)
  3. Don’t replace that UPS – replace the BATTERY!

Laptops, printers and computer monitors (screens) should have, at minimum, protection from electrical “spikes” and the more deadly direct lightning strike to your building wiring.  A surge protector device will do this.

This is NOT a surge protector

What a surge protector is exactly can be confusing.  First, lets look at something that is not a surge protector.  This thing (pictured on the right) is not a surge protector, it is only a simple power strip, which is nothing more than a device that allows you to plug 6 things in while using only one outlet.  It has a red toggle switch that lights up when the power is on.  Turn it off and all six outlets go dark.  Convenient for sure but this $6 item is not going to save anything that’s plugged in and it doesn’t claim it will.

A surge protector is what’s needed if you want to protect your laptop.  Surge protectors are more like electrical shock absorbers and they’re clearly labeled that way.  They are rated in “Joules” which is a measure of electrical work.  Basically, a joule is one watt (one ampere of current @ 1 volt of pressure) flowing for one second of time.  Example: A 100 watt light bulb consumes/expends 100 joules each second.  This means that a surge protector rated at 500 joules can effectively dissipate one second worth of  the energy consumed by five 100 watt light bulbs, or of course a single light bulb burning for five seconds.  There are other factors like clamping voltage and response time that factor into the quality of any surge suppressor you choose to purchase.  When comparing two competing products the better product will have a higher joules ratings, lower clamping voltage (330 volts offers better protection than 500 volts) and faster response time.  Electricity travels very fast but it still takes time for a surge to build to it’s maximum – usually fractions of a second and can be detected in plenty of time for the surge protection circuit to activate.  Some surge protectors react with a response time in the nanosecond range which is quite fast.  One nanosecond is to one second as one second is to 31.7 years.  A nanosecond is one billionth of a second.  Fast.

This looks like a power strip but it's actually a surge protector

This little device to the right is actually a surge protector that looks like a power strip, demonstrating that it’s always a good idea to read the package.  To be fair it won’t really suppress much of a spike compared to larger more capable (and more expensive) offerings but technically, since it has working circuitry and is capable of stopping a spike, albeit a small one; it is an actual surge protector.

To be sure, the more money you spend the better protection you will get.  A surge protector or suppressor (the terms are interchangeable) is another one of those items that’s often bought for simple piece of mind.  Usually it wasn’t even a thought until the sales person suggested it.  Truthfully, except here in Florida, it may never be needed and will most likely be forgotten after it’s installed.  One thing is for certain – there is a real difference between quality with piece of mind and “feel good” surge devices that barely cost anything.

3000+ Joules for less than $50

Here’s a surge protector that will protect power cables as well as network wiring and television cable.  It’s rated at over 3,000 joules and comes with a $50,000 warranty protecting your equipment.  Cost is less than $50

Laptops need protection against electrical spikes but they really don’t require battery backup protection since they are generally running off their batteries even when they’re plugged into power.  Unless you routinely use your laptop without the battery installed (I don’t know anyone who does this) – you shouldn’t need an un-interruptible power supply (UPS)

Desktop Computer?  Get a UPS (UN-interruptible Power Supply) 

A laptop has a battery that charges while it’s plugged in.  If the power goes out it just runs on the battery until the power is restored.  If the lights go out suddenly you can still work and if the battery is good you can work for quite a while.

Desktop Style Computer

Desktop computers do not have batteries to keep them running so if the power goes out suddenly they just turn off.  If you haven’t saved your work to a disk file recently you could lose it.  Although it’s not necessarily a disaster, it can be avoided with a UPS.  A UPS has a battery contained within that will provide power to the computer even when the building power is temporarily interrupted.  In addition to this it also has all the benefits of a surge protector/suppressor.   You can save money just using a surge protector if you have a laptop but with a desktop computer it’s best to have a UPS installed.  In addition to providing power “guaranteed” it also conditions the power it delivers to desktop systems but removing low voltage (brown-outs), dirty power (peaks and troughs) and other inconsistencies that can tax the desktop power supply and computer system itself over time.

Most UPS devices also come with software that will detect how much power is left within its internal battery reserve – to keep your machine operating safely.  This will allow you to continue to work until just before the backup runs out of power itself – in which case it will automatically and safely power down your system for you.  A “clean shutdown” can save surprises the next time you try to restart your computer.  A note of caution however: supplied software and cabling must be installed & configured at setup time if you want this additional functionality enabled.  It won’t just happen.  Be sure to ask for this capability if you want to fully utilize the benefits of your UPS device.

Replacement Batteries Are Available

Lastly, nothing lasts forever and sealed lead acid batteries are a good example of this.  This is the type of battery UPS devices contain.  Don’t despair though and don’t throw away that noisy UPS!  The batteries of most UPS devices (not all) are easily replaced and less costly than replacing the entire unit.  Besides, why fill landfills with even more plastic unnecessarily, right?

Testing UPS Under Load

Of course there are instances where UPS devices fail completely but they’re not as frequent as you might think. When in doubt UPS devices can be easily tested with proper equipment under workload conditions.  This is the best way to know for sure whether the failure is a simple dead battery or something more complex.

Trust Penguin Computer & Telephone Solutions to deliver an honest assessment of your current backup protection scheme.  We know how to provide outstanding value while saving you time and money.

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2 Responses to Lightning & Power Outages – Surge Protection or UPS?

  1. I believe this is one of the most vital information for me. And i am satisfied studying your article. But should remark on few common things, The web site taste is ideal, the articles is in point of fact great : D. Good job, cheers

  2. The idea of having a UPS to supply power on devices in times of power failures is such a good investment and could make your work more reliable and stable. Device protection could truly make your device last longer and be more efficient.

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