Posey's Tips & Tricks

Hedging Your Bets Against Lightning

Surge protectors are always a smart choice, but they do not make your computer 100 percent immune from power issues.

When it comes to the subject of disaster prevention and disaster recovery, most of the organizations that I have worked with seem to focus all of their attention around the data center. In some ways this is understandable. After all, the most expensive computer hardware tends to be in the data center, as does most of the data that needs to be protected. However, don't make the mistake of neglecting your organization's desktop computers.

We all know that when a user has a computer problem they may be unable to do their job until the helpdesk can assist them with the problem. This lost productivity usually translates directly into lost revenue for the company. With that in mind, have you ever stopped and thought about what would happen if your facility were hit by lightning? Sure, your server room might be protected, but how many desktops would be lost and how long would it take to get everyone back online?

The best thing you can do to protect against a large-scale outage of this type is to purchase a decent surge protector for every desktop. The money that you spend on the surge protectors will more than pay for itself if a large-scale outage is prevented. Unfortunately though, surge protectors aren't everything.

For many years I have worked out of my home. Because I live in one of the more rural parts of South Carolina, my electric company is less than reliable. It seems that we lose power just about every time the wind blows, and power surges are a daily occurrence. Needless to say, I try to protect my computers with the best possible surge protectors. Even so, the surge protectors do not always do the job.

About a month ago, a tornado went through my neighborhood. Even though my home did not sustain any significant damage there were several good surges before the power actually went out. Any time that we have a big storm, I always try to unplug all of my computers except for my mail server. I unplugged one particular machine about three or four seconds before the power went out. Even so, the computer's power supply was damaged. This damage occurred even though the computer had been plugged into a good quality surge protector.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that surge protectors are useless. If you live in an area that is prone to lightning storms or power surges then it is critical to have good surge protectors in place. What I am saying is that in spite of what the surge protector manufacturer's guarantees might lead you to believe, surge protectors are not invincible and damage can occur even when they are used properly.

The computer that was damaged by the storm that I described a moment ago was a desktop computer, but it is one that I use every single day and could not afford to be without. Because I live in the sticks, I can't just run to the store and get a power supply. Thankfully, I keep a lot of spare computer parts on hand and just happened to have a few spare power supplies.

A couple of years ago are found a really good price on some power supplies so I bought several of them. I thought that it would be good to have a few spare power supplies in case of an emergency. What I hadn't counted on however, was the wattage. My spare power supplies were all 350 Watt. The computer that I needed to repair had a 400 Watt power supply. I didn't think that the 50 Watt difference would be a big deal, so I made the switch. Unfortunately, the spare power supply was only able to sustain the system for a few minutes. Eventually the machine shut down.

To make a long story short, the only power supply that I had that was strong enough to meet the computer's needs was a 700 Watt power supply that had been designed for a full tower case. The cables were so long that cramming them into the desktop computer's case was a major effort. Even so, the power supply got the job done until I could order a more suitable replacement.

The lesson that I learned from this experience was that simply keeping spare computer parts on hand isn't enough. It is equally important to periodically check to make sure that the spare parts are suitable for the systems that are currently in use. Having an inventory of spare parts doesn't do any good if you purchase computers that use newer parts than what you have on hand.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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