How to Combat Power Trouble

When your lights flicker, do you find yourself wishing you had a surge protector on your PC? Or should you be wishing for a UPS, or even a line conditioner? The answer depends on what exactly happened to your power! Each product serves a slightly different function, although they are all related.

Power problems may be more common than you think, especially with winter's ice storms and the coming thunderstorms this spring. We have customers all over Chicagoland that complain about their power. Power outages seem especially concentrated in the Warrenville, West Chicago, and Winfield area. Even a momentary outage is enough to cause PCs to reboot, losing unsaved work as well as potentially corrupting files. Worse, as power comes back on it usually flickers quite a bit at first. This can easily damage all sorts of electrical components.

Surge protectors are the most common of the three devices previously mentioned, most likely since they are the least expensive. Surge protectors protect electrical equipment only from a power surge (such as a lightning strike)...they do not protect against power loss or brownouts. It is also important to note the difference between surge protectors and outlet strips; the latter have little or no protection and are generally half the price of true surge protectors. Quality surge protectors are listed with Underwriter's Laboratories, and should be marked as meeting the UL 1449 standard on the box or the unit.

Line conditioners serve just one function: to try to stabilize the power going to your equipment at a constant 117 volts. If you measure the power at the wall for long periods of time, you may find the voltage actually varies quite a bit. This depends upon the load placed upon the power company, and is especially apparent during hot summer months when air conditioners are run more frequently. Drops in power, or brownouts, can damage electrical equipment. Line conditioners attempt to draw more power to maintain a constant voltage to the equipment. This can protect delicate computer components from failing "before their time." The problem with line conditioners is that they do not have a battery, and so cannot function when power is lost completely. Most models do function as a surge protector, however.

UPS stands for Uninterruptible Power Supply, and it does just as its name suggests...provides a constant source of power to anything plugged into it. The difference between a UPS and a line conditioner is that the former also protects against blackouts, or a complete loss of power. If you have ever lost an important file due to a power outage, you know a UPS can come in handy. UPSes are sold based on battery life and the amount of power they can output. Note that most, but not all, also provide a function similar to a line conditioner, by adding current from the battery when the regular power drops slightly. Most also provide surge protection as well. UPSes provide the highest level of protection but they also can be more expensive, ranging from $100 to over $1,500 for extremely high-capacity models, as compared to around $40-50 for a good-quality surge protector. In addition, most manufacturers recommend replacing the battery every three to five years to keep the UPS in top condition.

If you live in an area that has occasional power problems, you should seriously consider getting a UPS. While we do recommend a quality surge protector on each PC (ITS requires one to validate our PC warranty), surge protectors do not protect against brownouts or power outages. Only a UPS will give you time to save your data and shut down your PCs safely. To do this successfully, however, requires a UPS on each PC, as well as a UPS protecting the network hub (wiring center). While expensive, it may be a good insurance policy against the cost of lost data and future downtime.

February 1998

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