Gear Reviews

You Have the Power

Power is vital to running a business. Without the pulsing of electricity pushing through your office, all work—except maybe using the telephone—would come to a halt. But the quality and consistency of the electricity you receive is important, too.

When I worked in Washington, DC, I thought little about this. The nation’s capital is well supplied for obvious reasons. But things are different up here in the Maine outback. Outages have been too frequent, and, as I have come to learn, the quality of the electricity is sometimes below par. 

In June, the third “blackout”—as in no power at all—within a month compelled me to get a uninterruptable power supply (UPS). The sudden loss of electricity is hard on your system, but more devastating to your data. All unsaved work is lost, which could throw a deadline project out with the electrons—along with an important client. If the client is your boss in a telecommuting relationship, it could even mean your job.

A UPS is not the same thing as a surge protector. Typical protectors guard against power spikes and surges or disastrous lightning strikes. A power supply, by contrast, is a battery device for your computer and monitor. The traditional UPS is designed for large office or network use, has a software interface, and costs more than most teleworkers or home businesses might want to spend. High-end units can sustain a network for hours or more, while lower-cost alternatives allow a system to run long enough for safe shutdown.

It is not surprising that a number of SOHO solutions are now available. I chose American Power Conversion’s Back-UPS Office. Unlike typical power supplies, which are fairly large and software driven, APC’s unit is little bigger than a surge protector and will work with any type of computer. Just plug in your hardware. Depending on the PC set up, you can expect 5-15 minutes reserve to shut down in the event of a blackout.

Back-UPS Office can also guard against “brown outs”—or sudden drops in voltage. Everyone has heard of electrical surges due to acts of nature like lightning strikes. And it has led to a booming business in surge protectors for virtually every type of electrical device. But brown outs can cause more serious long-term damage. While spikes or surges can destroy electrical devices suddenly, brown outs act slowly, wearing away the lifespan of your computer’s parts. Too many of the system lockups blamed on software bugs are the result of brown outs.

Times of high electrical use, such as hot summer days, typically lead to inconsistent voltage levels. Though unhealthy for your system, these incidents are often of short duration. Worse are the “rolling brown outs”, where the utility will intentionally lower voltage in certain areas. These events can last anywhere from a few hours to several weeks. Larger businesses will sometimes act to protect themselves from the effects of rolling brown outs by using internal power. I witnessed this while working as editor for one of the Washington Times publications. The company would occasionally ask workers to shut down their computers while back-up generators were powered up.

In a home office or business you do not have that luxury—or advanced warning. Soon after I installed my UPS, I noticed occasions where the unit would switch back and forth from the wall socket to the battery. APC informed me this was due to voltage irregularities. The pattern is consistent: around noon and 6 p.m. every weekday. The instances can last up to an hour, with my UPS cycling between battery and electricity as often as every 30 seconds. It does not matter whether the utility is aware of the brown outs or not. The effect is the same—and I have to wonder what 7 months of this did to my system.

Most surge protectors do not guard against drops in power. All the good ones—I use APC’s Surge Arrest 7T—will fend off occasional spikes or severe surges, but they are not equipped for brown outs. While not an ideal use for a UPS, it is still one more reason to invest in one.

The minimum safeguard you should have is a surge protector. One advantage of the Back-UPS Office—best buy is model 280 for $99 from PC Connection—is it works as a surge protector also: three plugs for battery; three others for plain protection. But Back-UPS Office is not the only SOHO product out there, it is simply one of the best. And it is not the right choice for everyone. If you don’t mind going down because of a power outage, APC’s unit—and similar competing products—makes sense. You can save your work, then shut down. But if you want to continue working, invest in a high-end UPS.

Make sure whatever UPS or surge protector you use has plugs for phone lines connected to your PC. A friend of mine once had a bulletin board service selling low-cost, independently developed software. Business was booming until one of Maryland’s notorious thunderstorms. He had surge protectors galore, but left an unprotected phone line going from the wall to the server. A lightning strike destroyed the computer setup and his business.

So do not consider a surge protector or UPS enough security for your home office system. The day of the third blackout, I bought additional coverage from State Farm for my computer and peripherals. Turns out they were not covered by my home owner’s policy anyway—as I derive income from them. Most reputable insurance companies sell straight policies or will add to existing coverage. For $175 a year, I have $10,000 protection for my PC and software plus some security against loss of income. Being so far away from everything, this is cheap peace of mind. I don’t expect lightning to strike tomorrow—or fire and burglars. But I know my business will survive if they do. Can you say the same?

Photo Credit: Dave Wilson

Editors Note: On July 27, 2017, this post was recovered, using Archive.org Wayback Machine, from a snapshot of my first website, at editors.com strangely called: “Blue Sky, Business, and the Maine Outback”. What was I thinking?

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