Power Outages, Lightning, and Storms. Oh My!

April 6, 2015

There have been a lot of power outages recently in the Lago Vista/Jonestown area lately. Many of them were planned, but some were not. Several of our customers have had issues caused by recent power outages. In addition, now that we are entering the beginning of storm season, it’s a good time to talk about power issues and computers again.

There are two types of power issues when it comes to computers. Power surges, and power loss.

A power surge is a sudden, and usually short, increase in power. A power spike, if you will. A computer is designed so that it requires a certain amount of power. If you put too much power into a computer, its components can’t handle it and they can become damaged, often to the point of failure. Most of the time when a computer is hit by a power surge, it affects the power supply. The power supply is a part inside the computer that converts AC power to DC. So most of the time when a computer is damaged by a power surge, it’s the power supply that is damaged and replacing it fixes the computer.

A power surge can be caused by changes in the power lines, repairs and maintenance to power systems, and so forth. But another kind of power surge is lightning, and it’s much less predictable than your average power surge. Lightning can affect computers in the same way as a regular power surge by taking out the power supply, but lightning is weird and can do weird things and affect your computer in weird ways. I’ve seen lightning strikes leave a computer fine but only take out the keyboard. I’ve also seen lighting strikes totally fry computers. And I’ve seen everything in between.

Unlike your average power surge, a lightning strike can enter your computer in ways other than through electrical lines. Any cable or cord going from your computer to the outside of your house is an avenue lightning can get to your computer. Back before high-speed internet, lightning often struck computers through the phone lines connected to dial-up modems. I’m glad those days are gone. It’s still possible for a lightning strike to get to your computer through your internet connection, but usually those just take out your modem and router and usually don’t make it to your computer.

A power outage is the opposite of a power surge. It’s the sudden loss of power. But don’t let it fool you, it can be just as dangerous to your computer. What happens to a computer when it suddenly loses power depends on what the computer is doing at the exact time when the power loss occurs. If the computer isn’t doing anything then the power outage will probably not have any negative effect on your computer. However, if your computer is doing something, then a power outage can have a devastating effect on your computer. It can corrupt a file. It can make your computer unbootable. It can even completely corrupt an entire hard drive so that your data is not recoverable from the hard drive.
Now that we understand the types of power issues that can effect computers and what they can do to them, let’s talk about how to protect our computers from these issues.

When you know storms are approaching, a good practice is to shut your computer down before the storm hits. That protects you from sudden power loss, but does NOT protect you from a power surge. To protect your computer from a power surge, you would have to unplug your computer from the wall.

If you have a good surge protector, then turning your computer off before an approaching storm protects you from both power surges and power loss. But you can’t always anticipate a loss of power.

Most people have their computers plugged into surge protectors, but there are two things you should know about surge protectors. First, not all surge protectors are the same. And second, surge protectors wear out over time even if you don’t have any power surges. As electricity flows through the surge protection circuits, they slowly wear out. That’s why you should replace surge protectors every 5 years.

When you purchase a surge protector, purchase one that includes an insurance policy so that if your equipment is damaged by a power surge while connected to the surge protector, they will reimburse you for that equipment’s repair or replacement.

You can try and anticipate power outages and turn off your computer beforehand, but you can’t always anticipate power outages. For the most protection, use a UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply), also known as a battery backup system.

When installed properly, a UPS protects your computer from lightning and power outages. A UPS has superior surge protection to protect against lightning just like a good surge protector. And when there is a loss of power, the battery kicks in to run your computer. The software that comes with your UPS should be set up so the UPS tells the computer to shut down after the power has been off for 1 minute. This way, if it’s just a momentary glitch in the power, the computer won’t shut down. But if the power is off for more than a minute, the computer shuts down normally, thus avoiding data corruption.

A UPS is a must for servers. It is highly recommended for any computer that is a critical part of a business. It’s also recommended for home computers if you rely heavily on your computer and don’t want to be without it for a day or two while it’s being repaired.

And please make sure you have a good backup. We recommend Carbonite. You can purchase Carbonite through us. If you do buy it through us, we will install it remotely at no additional charge.

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