I’ve had multiple computers come in this past week after nearby lightning strikes. A couple just needed new power supplies, but one was pretty well toasted. Let’s talk about something that you can do proactively… protecting all of your expensive electronics from the power company and mother nature.
First off, let’s just get it out on the table. If your home or office takes a direct lightning strike, you can pretty much write off your computer, TV, stereo, and other electronics. The Tampa Bay area is one of the lightning capitals of the world, and there isn’t much you can do about it short of moving out of state.
Some years ago, my wife watched ball lightning come out of one of my stereo speakers. Needless to say, the stereo components were cooked. A local business had lightning hit their flagpole and come into the building through the buried power cables feeding the flagpole lights. When lightning blows the power recepticals off the wall like it did to them, you are going to be buying new electronics.
Nearby and not so nearby strikes are another matter altogether. Those you CAN do something about.
Surge strips can help a little, but I don’t recommend them. First off, most of them are pretty lame when it comes to stopping surges and second, they don’t do ANYTHING when the power blips out completely. When lightning strikes somewhere in the area, you have probably noticed the lights dim or blink out for a second or two. A surge strip does nothing to protect your gear from this and if the lights blink at exactly the wrong instant, you’ll be bringing your computer to someone to have Windows reinstalled. What you need is a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply).
Expensive UPS units provide a pure sine wave supply of power to your computer 100% of the time and use the house power to keep the batteries charged. These units can cost thousands of dollars and are most often found in large computer server rooms. Relax, you likely don’t need one of these.
Less expensive UPS units are of the “backup” variety. They filter the incoming power to protect you from surges and then switch over to battery power when the lights blink out or dim. For most homes and small businesses, these make the most sense. They are relatively inexpensive ($50-200, depending on size) and do a pretty good job. Most modern computers will do fine with a UPS in the 500-750VA range.
Depending on how much power your computer devours and how large a UPS you buy, they will keep your computer running anywhere from 5-20 minutes. This completely protects you from the 1 second power outages that are so common around here and gives you time to turn off the computer if the lights stay out for more than a couple seconds.
Your Internet connection is also something to think about. You should consider putting a surge protector between your cable modem or phone line and your computer. These surge protectors are inexpensive and can save your gear when the lightning surge tries to come in via the phone line or cable connection. These typically cost less than $30.
Finally, don’t forget your TV or expensive stereo. I bought a UPS and plugged my TV, satellite receiver, and DVD player into it. This simple step protects my TV and keeps me from having to wait for the satellite receiver to reboot ever time the lights blink.
UPS units have a finite life. The surge protection degrades a little bit each time it intercepts a surge and the batteries wear out. Figure on replacing your UPS every couple of years.
Feel free to let me know if you have any questions.
Rob Marlowe, Network Engineer, Gulfcoast Networking