No matter how many times I see a lightning-damaged computer, I can’t help but feel for the folks in Dothan, Alabama. You would think (or at least I would think) that living in ‘Lightning Central’, people would understand the importance of having a good surge protector connected to any electronic devices they cherish.
My favorite example is the case of a local attorney who brought in his computer D.O.A. The motherboard was dead, the modem was dead and the video card was dead. In fact, the only functioning component was his hard drive. We told him it looked suspiciously like lightning damage. The attorney assured us it could not possibly be, as the computer had been connected to a ‘very expensive’ surge protector. In fact, it had cost him around sixty dollars (or so he said).
We built him new computer, transferred his data and gave him his new system. He called later that day, saying he could not get the new computer configured on his network, and could we come out and resolve the network issues. When I got to his office and sorted out the network problem, I took a close look at his ‘sixty dollar surge protector’. Do you know what I found? A $2.99 Home Depot-variety outlet strip! This item did not even pretend to offer surge protection! No wonder his computer had been snuffed in the last electrical storm.
In point of fact, many products that pretend to offer surge protection do very little to protect you against lightning damage. Additionally, if your surge protector doesn’t filter your phone line connection – and you have a phone line connected to your modem – you’re ‘working without a net’. Lightning produces a very high-voltage, short-duration spike that is incredibly destructive to electronics. You shouldn’t be concerned about the lightning strike that hits your house – because that one will most likely destroy every bit of electronics and low-voltage wiring in your home – and you should simply be glad you got out alive. The lightning strike you should be worried about is the one that strikes your neighbor’s house across the street and down three houses. That’s the one that will send a lovely high-voltage spike right across the earth, up your phone line, into your modem and that just could be ‘all she wrote’ for your computer.
Realistically, if you spent less than twenty dollars on a surge protector, it is probably inadequate. Surge Protectors that work in places like California (where they have little or no lightning) simply don’t protect you here in the Lone Star State. True electrical ‘surges’ where the voltage rarely exceeds 25,000 volts, are much simpler to protect against than lightning, where the voltage can reach 50,000,000 (that’s right – fifty million) volts. The best Surge Protectors are made by companies who specialize in this technology, such as Panamax, APC and Tripp Lite. They are typically a bit more expensive than other brands, but isn’t your computer worth it?
What about a Battery Backup (Uninterruptible Power Supply – UPS) for your system? Since the prices have dropped significantly, it is generally a good idea to have a battery backup on any system where the loss of your data would be a major inconvenience. Does having a UPS eliminate the need for a Surge Protector? Not in my office — and home. I prefer to have a good Surge Protector plugged into the wall with the UPS plugged into the Surge Protector. Components that do not require battery backup can be plugged into the Surge Protector and still be protected from lightning damage. This affords maximum protection for your valuable hardware. When you invest in a UPS – again – invest in one produced by a company that specializes in this technology like APC.
Even a power loss of a few milliseconds can power off your computer and corrupt whatever documents are open at the time. Accordingly, the only components you need to connect to the UPS are your computer and monitor. Everything else can be plugged into the Surge Protector, as you only need to keep the computer and monitor running long enough to shut down the computer properly in the event of a power failure. How big a UPS should you buy? That depends on three things: Your monitor, how long you want the system to run in the absence of power – and your budget. The larger your monitor, the bigger your UPS needs to be, as the monitor pulls a great deal of current and will deplete the reserves of the UPS quickly. Choose a UPS that fits your requirements accordingly.
A side note for DSL subscribers: For one reason or another, DSL modems do not like to be plugged into Surge Protectors and will lose your DSL signal periodically as a result. There is no elegant solution to this, as to not have your DSL modem protected is to risk damage to your computer. When your DSL connection fails, simply turn off the Surge Protector, wait about a minute and turn it back on. This may be inconvenient, but it is considerably less expensive than replacing your computer.
So you don’t want to invest in a surge protector? You can always do what many Texans do during electrical storms and simply unplug everything from the wall when a storm is imminent.
But what if you’re not home…