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73. Make right choice for surge protection

By Mark Alberstat

The motherboard on our computer "fried" and we were told it was due to power surges even though we had a surge protection device on our system. We took the power bar/surge protector to the vendor and after some questioning he informed us that it was only good for two power outages. Seems strange to me. Can you enlighten me, and your other readers, on this issue.

Mike Graham


Power outages happen, plain and simple. There is little any of us can do about it, and if you computer is running at the time, it can become damaged from the sudden shutdown. To prevent this, several companies have created surge protectors and UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) devices. Most, if not all, home computers should be plugged into one.

A surge protector is, a long bar with a power switch. This bar plugs into the wall outlet and the computer and other devices plug into it. Surge protectors guard against power spikes but little else.

There are three basic types of UPS devices: a standby (also known as an off line), a line interactive and an on line. The cheapest, and most widely found, is the standby UPS.

All three work on the premise that when the power cuts out, the battery in the UPS cuts in and gives you time to shut down your computer.

The main difference between the standby and the line interactive is that the latter monitors the voltage going through the device and can protect your computer in "brownouts," or times when the power level dips but doesn't actually end. When the voltage falls too low, the battery backup takes over. Because of the regulator built into the device, this type of UPS is thought to last longer, or at least the batteries in it do, than the standby models that always turn on when the power drops.

The third, and most expensive type of UPS is the on line model. This model has a large external battery that is constantly being charged. The computer is plugged into this battery and when the power cuts out, the battery is the piece of equipment that loses power, not the computer. Because the battery is in constant use and always being charged, they do have a finite life and should be checked every few months to see if they are still holding a charge and to see how long your devices could last on the battery alone. The battery units on most of these are good for two to three years.

Once you have a UPS installed on your home computer, you are not completely out of the woods. The length of time the UPS will keep your equipment running depends on how many items you have plugged in. The more items, the more draw on the battery and the shorter the interval the equipment will be able to run. Although many UPS devices have several plugs on them, you may not want to have your digital camera dock, scanner, printer and fax machines plugged into it. The main reason for the UPS is to give you enough time to shut down your computer in an orderly fashion. It is a good idea to have your monitor plugged into it so you can see what you are doing when the power fails.

Some UPS devices come with specialized software that can shut down your computer when it senses a power interruption and also monitors the battery's strength and charge. Often this software is for the more sophisticated UPS, however, some of the lower-end ones now come bundled with it.

With your home computer attached to a UPS, the power outages that may happen this coming storm season will be less of a worry to you.

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, email If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


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Originally published 27 November 2005


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