The Ins and
Outs of Power Strips, Battery Backups, and Surge Protectors
by André Thomas
storms upon us, strong electrical activity and wind bringing down power lines
become a very real danger for computers. One aspect of nearly all technology is
that it requires a power source; for most of us that means plugging in to an
outlet with power provided by the electric company. Electricity is notoriously
problematic with brown-outs, black-outs, surges, spikes, and plain old
fluctuations. All of these can cause problems for your technology and
especially your computers.
and fluctuations can damage sensitive components such as processors, RAM, hard
drives, monitors and video cards. Repeated fluctuations can actually
“fry” your computer. The most instantaneous cause of electrical
damage is a lightning strike which can destroy entire systems in a flash.
Brown-outs and Black-Outs describe actual power interruptions or dips in power
which cause additional wear and tear on the computer, and can additionally
damage data stored on a hard drive and possibly even damage components.
comes in many forms with varying effectiveness. While none of these are
perfect, they can help protect your investment and your data.
basic, providing no protection, is a power strip. Power strips are of little
use beyond making one outlet into multiple.
Surge Protectors or Suppressors, often incorrectly referred to as power strips, have
a major advantage; they are able to absorb a surge in power. They do however have
a limit to how much they can absorb in a single event, rated in Joules, before
they fail. Many will not survive a lightning strike, sometimes even being
“fried” open allowing the entire strike to reach attached devices. Another thing to be aware of is that this
protection is not immediate, there is a miniscule delay from the beginning of
the surge to when the protection components kick in; this delayed response time
can still lead to problems and still fry your system. An exhaustive explanation
can be found here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surge_protector
A Battery Backup or Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) is commonly used with critical
systems, and can also be very helpful in a home environment. Their primary
function is to continue providing power in a failure event. While the battery
charge is usually exhausted quickly, it is normally enough time to correct the
failure or shut down the system properly. Battery Backups are most often rated
in VA (volt-ampere) and give an estimated run-time for common equipment uses at
load. Many UPSs will also provide effective power noise reduction and
surge/spike protection and some of the better ones also include power
Last on the
list, power conditioners. Many high-end
technology devices are susceptible to noise or ‘static’ in a power line. In
these instances, a power conditioner is extremely helpful. They
“clean” or filter your power source and many provide protection from
“cross-talk” or noise from components plugged into the same strip.
The most common application for a home user would be a Home Theater System,
preventing electrical noise from interfering with sound and video quality. Most
conditioners also include a Surge Protectors in the device. Like Surge
Protectors, most have a Joules rating, but also include a decibel (db) rating.
The higher the db rating, the better the noise filtering capability of the
note is that all of these devices have an effective lifespan. Most of these are
rated for about 3 years. Surge Protectors can fail much more quickly in areas
with erratic electrical supply and should always be replace after a major event
like a lightning strike. Most Battery Backups can handle a lot more surge
events, but it may wear out the battery faster, and they should be tested
yearly. Power Conditioners are very similar to Surge Protectors, but normally
have longer lifespans. Many products will give estimated life expectancy of the
device in the product info.