Power, Power Everywhere

And not a drop to drink, as the saying goes. California's self-inflicted energy crisis has focused attention on the nation's power grid. As reports surface as to whether a similar power crunch will affect Illinois businesses this summer, we felt it prudent to visit this important topic once again.

California residents currently (pun intended) are experiencing rolling blackouts. This means that during times of high demand, the power companies turn off power to selected areas in order to avoid damaging their equipment and causing longer outages. While this may save the infrastructure, it can create big problems for electrical devices, including computers.

The problem occurs when the power is turned back on. Most people do not remember to turn off their equipment after the power goes out, so when the power is turned back on there is typically a large initial drain on the power grid. This drain can cause temporary brownouts, which can be quite damaging. Since surge protectors do not protect against brownouts, computers and other electronic equipment is at risk. Typically only the more expensive UPSs (those over $200) provide brownout protection.

UPS units come in all sizes, with battery run times lasting anywhere from a few minutes to many hours. A company that expects long power outages may be better served by obtaining a generator and installing a UPS on each computer to cover the minute or so of downtime that a generator typically requires to activate and reach full power. Generators typically are powered by an internal-combustion engine, using natural gas, propane, or diesel fuel.

The catch is that a generator must have the capacity to power everything connected to it, and large ones are not especially cheap. Costs typically start at a few thousand dollars and go up from there. However, business owners must weigh that amount against the cost of lost sales and downtime during outages. Generators are also typically installed outside a building, and as such may not be a solution for tenants in an office building. Also remember to check local ordinances before installing a generator.

The most common solution for businesses is to protect expensive equipment using a UPS, with the size of the UPS dictated by the run time desired. Desktop PCs may only require a few minutes for the user to save his or her work and shut down, while a company may want their phone system to remain online for an hour or more to withstand long blackouts. Even a small $99 UPS gives users a few minutes to save their work and shut down a PC properly without risk of losing data.

When Power Dies

We recommend users without a battery backup turn off their PCs as well as all other electronic devices when power goes out. This way they can be turned on after power is fully restored, with little risk of damage. Users with a UPS should shut down and turn off the UPS before the battery runs out of juice.

For further information, please see the articles "How to Combat Power Trouble" and "What Should I Do When The Power Goes Out?".

May 2001

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