You may think that a surge protector is giving you the protection you need, but in many cases you’d be wrong – dead (as in, dead equipment) wrong.
Most people know that electronic equipment should be plugged into a surge protector. A surge protector protect monitors the power line for short but intense voltage spikes – the kind of surge that can fry your electronic equipment. And they generally do a good job against that kind of surge – even protecting against intense surges such as those caused by nearby lightning strikes.
But there’s one thing to keep in mind about a surge protector: they do absolutely nothing to protect you against power loss. You’ve probably been indoors during a storm and seen the lights flicker or dim – those flickers or “brown outs” represent sudden drops in power or a lowering of the line voltage. They are typically caused by excessive load on the power grid – the kind of load caused when a power line on a nearby circuit shorts out (perhaps because a tree just fell on it). Between the time the short happens, and the power grid detects the short and cuts that part of the circuit out of the system, a brief outage or voltage drop can occur.
Surge protectors happily pass that voltage drop on to any attached equipment. They have no choice – a surge protector has no internal source of power to overcome the loss.
For most equipment, this poses little problem. Your appliances are designed to tolerate outages. Most of your entertainment equipment can handle it without suffering any damage (though you may have to reset the internal clock).
But there is one type of electronic device that you really don’t want suffering this type of outage – any device that contains a hard drive.
Uninterruptible power supplies – your hard drive’s best friend
Hard drives do detect power failures and try to protect themselves from crashes when they occur. But rapid on-off cycles do increase the risk of failure. Worse – any data in the process of being written to disk will be lost. Not only might you lose something you’ve been working on, there’s a risk of corrupting the data on the hard drive. Corrupt the file system in the wrong way, and your computer may no longer work correctly or even boot.
Did I say computer? That DVR you’re using to record shows has a hard drive as well. So does your Xbox 360 or PS3.
Desktop computers and DVRs need more than a surge protector – they need an uninterruptible power supply (UPS).
A UPS contains a surge protector and a battery backup. When the line voltage drops or power fails, it instantly switches to battery power and sounds an alarm. This gives you a chance to shut down your equipment safely, saving your data and reducing the risk of corrupting the contents of the drive.
Equipment that needs a surge protector:
- Most entertainment equipment (TV, audio, CD players, etc.)
- Computer displays and printers
- Video games that do not have hard drives (PS2, Wii).
- Chargers (for phones, MP3 players etc.)
- Laptop computers (when the power fails, they switch to their internal battery)
Equipment that needs a UPS
- Desktop computers
- Video games that have hard drives (Xbox 360, PS3)
- DVR equipment and Tivos
- External hard drives
You might also want to keep your Internet modem and router on a UPS – that way you can still use the Internet from your laptop when the lights go out (at least for as long as the battery lists).
Choosing an Uninterruptible Power Supply
The amount of power used by an electronic device is measured in watts. Most electronic equipment will include the power requirements somewhere in the specifications or on the label. Here are the power requirements for some common equipment:
- Xbox 360 or PS3 - about 180 watts (less for newer models)
- Desktop computer – 500 watts
- DVR – typically under 100 watts
- External hard drive – typically under 50 watts
You’ll want to choose a UPS that has a power rating greater than the total load you’re going to plug in. Most UPS equipment will give you at least a few minutes of operating time at that load – but that is plenty of time to save what you are working on and shut down the equipment safely. If the equipment you plug has a lower demand, the backup time will be longer.
When you set up your UPS be sure to follow the instructions. You’ll probably have to connect the battery – the instructions will show you how. Also keep in mind that most UPS’s have some outlets that are connected to the battery backup and others that are only surge protected.
Your UPS will probably also come with a USB port. Plug it into your computer and your computer can be set up to automatically shut down when the power goes out. If you don’t do this, remember to plug your display into the UPS as well so you can see what you are doing while you are manually shutting down the computer.
American Power Conversion (APC) makes some of the most popular UPS systems. They come in various sizes and have user-replaceable batteries (a battery typically lasts a few years). They also come with an insurance policy – $75,000 if your equipment is fried by a surge while connected to their UPS.
Recommended for DVRs and games
Recommended for computers
Here’s a hint – there are many models available. If you’re getting one on Amazon.com, look for one in the power range you’re looking for that qualifies for free shipping (these things are heavy!).
Learn why uninterruptible power supplies are rated by VA and Watts in Watts vs. Volt Amperes – Watts the Difference.