Hurricane Blues – Using a UPS to Protect Your System During Storms and More

Note: I wrote this for my email newsletter August 13th, 2007, the day before posting it here.

As I write this, it’s a bright and sunny day outside, with nothing to hint at the fact that we’re under a hurricane advisory. Hurricane Flossie is bearing down on us and could hit tomorrow or Wednesday, so people are scurrying around all over the island stocking up on bottled water, food and other supplies.

But there’s one thing they should have that most of them probably haven’t thought of.

It’s called a UPS — not to be confused with the shipping company of the same name — which stands for “Uninterruptible Power Supply”, and it’s an important thing to have to protect your computer even if you’re not being threatened by a hurricane.

Let me explain what a UPS is, and what it does.

First off, let me back up a step and make sure you know what a surge suppressor is, since the two things are related.

A surge suppressor is a power strip with a bunch of power sockets in it that is designed to “take the bullet” for your computer if there is a “power surge”.

In other words, the electricity that comes into your house is supposed to be at a certain level. Sometimes, like if there is a lightning strike, or the power goes out (like a blackout) and comes back on again, there is a “surge” of power.

Imagine a huge wave coming in on a beach — normally the waves are within a certain level, and so are safe. But if a huge wave comes in (like a tsunami or tidal wave maybe, but not necessarily that big even) it can be dangerous.

So if a big surge of power comes up the line for whatever reason, if you don’t have a surge suppressor to “suppress” the extra power, it can fry your computer’s circuits — or a TV or any electronic device for that matter.

So it’s absolutely essential to at least have one of those to protect your computer and other electronics. And when you buy one, remember that power surges can come up phone lines and even cable lines (like if you have Roadrunner or other cable internet) and fry your machine that way. So when shopping for a suppressor, get one that covers everything.

So a UPS is like a surge suppressor, but it does even more to protect your computer.

A UPS basically is a big surge suppressor that has a battery inside it.

Because of this, if the power goes out, an alarm goes off (in case you didn’t notice the lights go out, or it’s daytime) and you have several minutes to save what you’re doing and shut down the computer safely.

Every UPS is labeled with a number measured in VA — the higher the number, the longer the power lasts. I suggest getting one that is at least 650VA.

The other benefit a lot of people don’t know about that you get from having a UPS is that if you live in an area (like here on the Big Island) where the power grid is, shall we say, less than reliable, you get protection from brownouts.

Brownouts are when the power level falls but doesn’t go away, so it’s one step below a blackout. This can often happen without the lights dimming or anything visible happening. But it can still hurt your computer if this keeps happening.

Getting a UPS will protect you from the gradual damage done by brownouts, which you can think of as hurting your computer (or TV, etc.) the way that erosion gradually wears away at a beach.

So if you have a UPS you’re protected both ways. For $100 or less, that’s a good buy.

Oh, and one last thought — another nice benefit of having one or more UPSes in your house is if the power goes out, you can plug a light into it and not have to sit in the dark!

This works best with fluorescent bulbs, of course. Since they use so much less electricity than an old fashioned “incandescent” bulb, the battery in the UPS lasts a lot longer.

A lot of times, if your TV and cable box (or cable modem for that matter, if you use cable internet) is hooked into a UPS too, the cable still works in a power outage — so you get TV to entertain you, or maybe even the Internet!

So get a UPS or two to protect your electronics, and maybe even give you something to do on a dark night when the power’s out.