OOPS! Good Thing I Had a UPS!

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Personal experience with a lightning strike – Owen Stevens

After reading Joe’s Article on surge protectors (Surge Suppressors: Ticking Time-Bomb?), I thought I’d chime in with my two cents.

In the fall here in the mid-Atlantic, we have a lot of thunderstorms. I have heard a lot of thunder and seen far off flashes of lightning. Well one day, in September 2003, we had more than just a far off flash – my house was struck by lightning!

Initially we heard some thunder and, in the past, this has upset my youngest; so Grandma went up stairs to check on my 3 year old son. As she approached his room, she saw him looking out his window, rather upset from the loud noises. As she went over to comfort him and he moved way from the window, there was a loud bang! It appeared to come from about where he was standing in front of the window before he ran to Grandma’s waiting arms. At the same time, Grandma said she saw a small, whitish ball of fire spit out of a wall plug near the window. Naturally, Grandma and my son came down stairs quite upset!

As the man of the house, I went up stairs to investigate. I found that the child proofing wall plug cover had been “spat out” of the receptacle and it smelled of ozone! It also threw the breaker for that room. I didn’t see any problems with the plug, so I reset the breaker, recovered the plug and started checking the rest of the house. What a surprise I found!

That day I lost several items due to lightning damage!

  • I have a cable modem and it was dead — direct surge from the cable.
  • The router that was plugged in to the cable modem was also dead along with my wife’s network card and her hard drives — network line surge.
  • My onboard LAN in my NF7-S was dead, heck the whole NF7-S mobo was fried — network line surge.
  • Even my 5.1 speakers sub woofer was fried. I am not sure if from the mobo connection killed the speakers or maybe it was the proximity to the other equipment’s wires? – either sound cable surge or induced surge?

  • I also had a fried cordless phone and even one phone line that didn’t have a dial tone anymore!

It appeared that lightning went down both the cable and phone lines in my house. Thankfully my wife’s PC and the “big items”: the TV and DVD player, still worked after a being powered off and then back on.

I was going to call my insurance company and make a claim against my homeowners policy when I recalled my UPS/surge protector’s warranty. I had an APC Backups 725 broadband with cable and network connections, along with the battery and surge plugs. I had used the cable connection to “isolate” the modem and the network connection to “isolate” my router.

I contacted APC and explained what had happened. The person I spoke with happily sent me out a free replacement UPS overnight and suggested that I get some paperwork for a damage claim mailed to me. I received the new UPS the next day as promised! The paperwork arrived a few days later.

I read the paperwork, filled it in as required and described what was attached to the UPS: cable modem, router, motherboard, network card and hard drives. All together, some $400 US of equipment. I faxed in the paperwork and hoped for the best.

In the following week, I bought a new mobo for me (an NF7-S rev 2.0!), a new network card and hard drive for my wife, a new router, and rental cable modem from my cable provider. I ran a new phone inside the house to replace the “fried” one and used a spare portable phone we had. I filed a home owners claim for the phone and phone line damage because it was not connected to the UPS. Incidentally, neither of my PCs had phone line connections either.

Two weeks later, I received my checks from my insurance and APC, Wahoo!

I actually came out even because I repaired the phone line myself, used an existing phone and got a rental cable modem. The total there was about equal to my insurance deductible. By the way, make sure you get replacement value insurance – it lets you buy a replacement even if you have to get a more expensive item or it will pay you the cash value of a destroyed item you don’t want to replace it, ie the cable modem, phone, etc.

What do I take away from this?

  1. Always use a surge protector/UPS from a good vendor with a lightning replacement policy and check to be sure all your vulnerable parts are protected (like phones, network cables and cable TV)
  2. Get insurance, either homeowners or renters. Don’t forget to include water damage even if it’s renter’s in case of a fire – fire hoses spray water you know – or for upstairs neighbor’s broken pipes, flooded toilet, etc. I paid like $125 a year for my renters insurance back in college (home owners is more of course).

If you do all that you’ll always have a way to recover from lightning cheaply. I added it up and I could have lost over $1000 without the insurance and APC protection. Thanks APC!

Owenator

Uninterruptable Power Supplies

My personal experience at work is to always buy a UPS for every UNIX server I buy. The servers almost always cost in the five figures range, so less than a thousand dollars (US) for a good UPS is a cheap insurance policy. I use UPS’s because they provide the surge protection that Joe wrote about plus the advantage of voltage regulation. That is, the UPS can compensate for sags or low voltage in the line as well as any surges. And of course, there is the added bonus of battery backup incase of a power interruption.

So what is a UPS? They are called Uninterruptable Power Supplies because in theory they make sure you always have power to the attached equipment.

The one caveat here is that you size the UPS accordingly – I’ll talk about sizing in a minute. Basically a UPS is a surge protector, a power strip, a battery and a charging system in one box. What they do is switch from line power to battery power if the line power goes away. Depending on how good of a UPS you get, they can also automatically provide voltage during power sags (low voltage on the line) and, of course, regulate the power surged (too much voltage).

I like to get the UPS with intelligence also so I can get info from it via a PC link. This is a good way to shutdown your PC before the battery runs out during an extended power outage.

Sizing a UPS can be tricky, especially since there are many small cheap ones out there. The basic size is usually quoted in W or Watts and VA, or Volt-Amperes. VA are often listed on a component, or you can usually find the watts it draws and current it needs there instead. To get VA in the latter case, you multiply the voltage requirements time the current draw. If you’re lazy like me, you can even use online calculators from some vendors. Don’t forget peripherals – you want to be battery backed up or just surge protected too when you select a UPS.

One note about UPS Watt ratings vs VA: Watts are the amount of equipment power draw the UPS can support. This is different than the VA number because the Watts of a UPS are usually the VA times a power factor of about 60%. This means that it is not 100% of the VA. For example, a 1000 VA UPS will only be able to support about 600W of equipment with a typical 60% power factor.

I personally use a 350VA for my wife’s PC with a flat panel monitor and scanner attached, and a 725VA for my overclocking station, cable modem, router and 19″ monitor. Never connect a printer to a UPS because they draw so much current at motor start up they can trip the UPS and defeat the purpose of the battery backup. If you have any questions, feel free to email me and I’ll endeavor to answer them.

Owenator

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