Guest Columnist— Jamie Mathy, Chief Technology Officer—Mavidea
Once again, that time of year is approaching where thunderstorms are going to be rolling across the US, and I wanted to talk for a quick moment about surge protectors and battery backup units in the office. The quick summary – every piece of electronic equipment in your office that you need to function at all times should at least be plugged into a surge protector.
The best way to start off the conversation is by asking the question: What is a power surge? The definition is simple – a power surge is a significant increase in the voltage on a power line. If the increase lasts for more than three nanoseconds, it is officially a surge. If it lasts for less than three nanoseconds, it is considered a spike. The increase in voltage can cause damage to electrical equipment and to the electrical lines themselves.
Most people assume that lightning is the most common event that can cause a power surge. Lightning can hit the ground near a building or strike a pole from miles away and send a surge all the way down a power line. When lightning hits, damage is going to occur, and our main goal is to minimize that damage. Last year, one of Mavidea’s clients was struck by lightning and all the electronics in their office that were not plugged into a surge protector were destroyed. Some of the wires in the walls were even melted! It is important to understand that there is no such thing as complete protection from a lightning strike. All you can do is take the most reasonable precautions you can afford to minimize the impact.
Lightning strikes are very rare. It’s more likely that a storm will knock down power lines with a falling tree branch (of course this can happen in the winter with ice too). Shockingly (pun intended!), when the power goes out the most dangerous event occurs when the electric company turns the power back on! It’s also more likely that a piece of large equipment inside your office will cause the surge – think of summertime brownouts every time the air conditioner kicks in. When brownouts happen, the electric grid sometimes over-responds and a surge is caused. It’s also more likely a toaster or coffeemaker will fail and cause a surge inside the office than lightning.
How do you stop a power surge from destroying your electronics? Use a surge protector, a building surge protector, or a UPS (uninterruptible power supply, or battery backup).
Surge Protectors use a mechanical or chemical process to limit the amount of electricity that can pass through its ports. They look a lot like a power strip, but they are not the same. Surge protectors are normally labeled directly on the unit, normally have a fuse or reset button in case they are tripped, and almost always come with a warranty that covers $15k-25k worth of damage in case the unit fails. The good units also allow you to run your Internet connectivity through it because surges can also happen on telephone, cable, and Ethernet lines.
Building surge protector are exactly what they sound like – a very large unit designed to protect an entire office or building. These need to be professionally installed by an electrician, but work pretty well. As you can imagine, they are more expensive, but can theoretically take the place of multiple surge protectors around the office. You can insure every outlet is protected from outside surges. Notice I said “outside”, if something happens inside the office, the event will already be inside of your protection zone and damage could ensue.
Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) (sometimes called battery backups) provide all the same features as a good surge protector. In addition, they also contain batteries inside the unit that will keep a steady stream of electricity flowing when the power dips for a brownout, blinks, or just goes out. Most people are familiar with the larger units that are attached to their servers or phone systems, but UPS systems also exist for desktops or smaller equipment. If you are in a location where the power dips or blinks a lot, and users lose their unsaved work when their desktops shut off, a small UPS for each desktop is a good investment.
There you have it – a high level overview of surge protectors and UPS systems. I know I’m repeating myself but I think this is very important – every computer, monitor, printer, and server, or anything else of value in your office, should be protected by at least a surge protector. And don’t forget about your house – computers, TVs, DVD players, Xbox systems, etc. If it costs more than a couple hundred dollars, it’s a good idea to protect it!
Solutionworx recommends power protection from American Power Conversion Corp. (APC). Solutions start at about $20.  Call (703) 961-1840 today to discuss what might be the best protection for your office.
MAVIDEA Technology Group is a SolutionWorx partner based in  Bloomington, IL.