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Lightning can damage your gear without striking

Brief by Walt Hall

Utilities – August 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

Summer time is here again, and with it come the lightning storms that can wreak havoc on your electronic equipment. Nothing is going to survive a direct hit, of course, but lightning can strike power and telephone lines many miles away and transmit surges. When the power company tries to cope, your lights might flicker. During our summers, your household current can vary considerably from the standard 117 volts.

So every year at this time, the amount of repair work (computer modems and power supplies) in my computer shop rises dramatically. Computer power supplies can take a beating if you are not conditioning the power that goes to them. Likewise, computer modems are very sensitive to stray voltage coming over the phone lines.

Most homeowner’s insurance policies will cover damage to computer systems, but the deductible is usually more than the computer is worth, and it’s a rare policy that covers the cost of recovering your data.

If you don’t want expensive repair bills for your computers and other electronic devices, here are some tips.

Buy a UPS, (Uninterruptible Power Supply). Forget the surge strips, (unless you plug them into a UPS), because quite frankly they just don’t get the job done. Surge strips try to clamp the extra voltage when you have a power surge, but don’t do anything for you when power stops or fades.

Getting the right-sized UPS can be confusing, but the best thing to do is oversize. If you have a standard computer, 17″ monitor, and an inkjet printer, then a UPS in the 625-watt range will do you fine. I run one bench of my shop with a 1500-watt unit, and it works great even with 3 or 4 computers running from it. Home UPS units are often rated in Volt-Amps (VA) instead of watts. Figure that the wattage is 60% of the VA — that is, if your unit is 500 VA, it will provide about 300 watts.

Look for a UPS that protects the phone line and/or Ethernet line. That way you are protected whether you have dial-up or broadband Internet access.

Most UPS companies provide an insurance policy that will kick in if or when you have a problem. In other words, the UPS company will pay to have your computer repaired.

A UPS allows your computer to keep running even when the line power is off. Just how long depends on the capacity of the UPS, but even if you have only a few minutes, that gives you time enough to save your work and turn your computer off properly. When the power comes back on, wait a few minutes to be sure it’s going to stay on, and then you can turn your computer on and get back to work.

I have battery back-up systems (UPS) on all my electronic equipment, computers, satellite TV system, and my back-up house heater. I’ve never had a power-related problem on any of my equipment. Remember, just as the old Fram commercial said, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” If you opt to pay later, you will always pay more.

Have a great summer, and happy computing!

Walt Hall owns ICE Computing in Poncha Springs.