What to look for in a surge protector

Question

What should I be looking for in a good surge protector? I can’t make heads or tails of all of the technical mumbo jumbo on the boxes!

- James

Answer

This question was answered on August 3, 2007. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

Since very early on in the personal computer industry, the threat of power surges to the sensitive components in a computer has been common knowledge.

Unfortunately, our industry has pounded home the “surge protection” message to avoid expensive computer repairs and data recovery, but forgot to educate users on something just as dangerous: “sag protection”.

It’s true that computer components are more likely to be damaged from power surges and require computer repairs, but your most important asset (your data!) is more likely to be damaged from power sags or outages which could result in the need for data recovery services

One of the worst things that can happen to your computer is to have the power yanked out from under it If it happens, not only do you stand a chance of losing any data files that were open, all of the housekeeping to clean up temporary files during a proper shutdown does not occur and leaves a pile of “digital junk” on your hard drive which can lead to the need for data recovery.

Laptops that have charged batteries in them already have this sag protection, so for the purposes of this column, I’ll cover power protection for desktop computers.

Take this opportunity to de-program yourself from thinking in terms of surge protection and always thinking in terms of total power protection.

Any computer specific power protection device that does not have a battery is only providing half of the protection that your desktop computer needs.

So with this in mind, you can instantly eliminate the vast majority of the “battery-less” devices that are really more suited to protecting your television, stereo equipment or other “non-data” storing electronics.

From now on, only consider devices that are referred to as either a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) or more accurately a Battery Backup system to protect your computer from computer repair and data recovery.

These devices used to be rather expensive, but today they can range from $39 to $79 which is a low cost insurance policy for any age computer compared to the costs associated with certain computer repairs and data recovery services.

Power sags can be daily occurrences (your lights dim when you’re A/C turns on for example) in the average home or business, but it isn’t that obvious.

If this unstable power condition which isn’t enough to cause the computer to shutdown (so you don’t realize it’s happening) occurs while you are saving, copying or moving a file, it can potentially cause file corruption.

If you have ever had a file suddenly and mysteriously become un-usable and needed to perform data recovery, one of possible causes is this “silent data killer”.

Another huge benefit to these devices is that they have software that communicates with your computer This allows the system to “gracefully” close all your open files and shut down the computer properly (and automatically if you are not around) should the power go out and stay off for an extended period of time.

So let’s make this an easy shopping task for the non-technical user…the only spec to focus on is the Volt-Amp (VA) rating (the higher, the better) This will determine how much equipment you can plug in and how long it will run when the power goes out A typical desktop computer with a 17” LCD panel requires at least a 350VA rating, which will generally allow it to run for 5-7 minutes on the battery If you get a unit that has a higher rating, it will simply run longer on the battery or allow you to plug in more computers, not protect any better.

The surge protection from these units is at or above the level of “surge only” protectors, so don’t get caught up in those nuances I prefer products from companies that have been at this for a while, like Belkin, APC and Tripp Lite.

Items like ink-jet printers, speakers, scanners or other peripherals aren’t affected by power sags or outages that can cause the need for computer repair, so be sure to plug them into the “surge only” sockets on the unit (usually 2 or 3 depending upon the manufacturer).

If you have a laser printer or a copier, they commonly draw a lot of power when printing, so don’t ever plug either of these devices into your battery backup (put them on a separate surge protector and if possible on a completely different power circuit).

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Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on August 3, 2007