Now and then, you might notice the lights dim — or brighten — in your office or home for just a second. Those power fluctuations can cause your computers and other electronic equipment some serious grief. At least twice a month in my home office, I see the lights dim slightly and hear my uninterruptible power supply (UPS) beep a few times, announcing that it's working, and then all goes back to normal. But without some planning and protections, those minor annoyances can be real work-stoppers.
While the term "battery backup" is popular, most home users and small businesses don't really plan to keep their electronics running for long in the case of a blackout. In most of America, unless there's severe weather causing problems, sags (brownouts) and surges (voltage increases) are much more common. When brownouts hit, and the voltage drops low enough, all your electronics might turn off even if your lights stay on.
Running your computers and servers through a properly sized UPS unit will smooth out the sags and surges, often because they have automatic voltage regulation. Battery capacities on units provide run time under load, so you can choose how long to keep your systems running. Pay little for a few minutes so you can quickly save your open files, or pay more to keep your systems up for hours. Now that winter is here, you may want to scale your UPS to last long enough to run out and buy a gas-powered generator at Home Depot. If you're a big business, you may have diesel-powered generators large enough to run your entire company.
Putting a UPS between the wall plug and your computer does more than just smooth the sags and surges. The large battery also blocks extremely short-term voltage spikes from passing through to user equipment. Those spikes (only nanoseconds long) can overheat and fry diodes, resistors and capacitors in equipment; smaller spikes might not kill equipment outright, but could weaken it.
Smaller systems, such as printers and fax machines, don't need a UPS system, but they do need protection against spikes. That's where a surge protector (or what I’d call a “spike protector”) comes in.
When a spike hits your home or office, the surge protector clamps down and absorbs the spike. Because surge protectors are built into many plug strips, they protect all the equipment plugged into the strip. More protective units add protection for phone lines and network links.
Don't forget your home electronics. Modern TVs, stereos, DVD and Blu-ray players, and game systems are just as (and perhaps more) susceptible to spikes as your computer. Don't be one of those households that spends more on your flat-screen TV than your computer, but forgets a $30 surge protector to keep your TV safe during the next thunderstorm.
For businesses, servers demand more serious power protection measures. If you have racks for your servers, you may (or should) have a power conditioner installed in the rack to keep the voltage regulated and to protect against spikes. Many UPSs have these features and are designed to fit into racks.
While having new computers and flat-screen TVs is fun, replacing devices that were fried by a spike is not. The next time you buy something with electronics inside, add a surge suppressor. When you have something with electronics and files inside (your computers and servers), take the step of getting a UPS. That way you can enjoy the thunderstorm without crossing your fingers to keep your equipment protected.