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Power Management at Home and in the Small Office: Feature-Rich Surge Protectors and Uninterruptible Power Supplies

written by: •edited by: Christian Cawley•updated: 7/21/2009

Dataline protection, power correction, voltage regulation, and a half hour to finish up, save and shut down after the power goes out are all available for even the individual user at home, but getting more than you need is expensive, and getting less can be disastrous. We show you how to pick a UPS.

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    Can the Bare Necessities Bear the Load?

    The previous article explained the requirements for a basic, under $20 surge protector, but, even at those prices an extra feature or two can be had. As you spend more, like in most cases, you get more. We'll look at some features so you know how to choose a surge protector or UPS for your needs.

    The single light (mentioned in the article about basic surge protectors) used for diagnosing problems isn’t perfect; it can be difficult to interpret even its most simple function of determining if protection is working, and it does nothing to indicate whether the problem lies within the surge protector or the building’s wiring. A better solution uses at least two lights, one for surge protection and one for wiring status. Both are green if everything is working, and one or the other should go off, or preferably blink red, to indicate a problem. Some units sound an audio alarm and/or shut off power to connected equipment, which can be very helpful if the surge protector is behind a desk or entertainment unit. High-end units can indicate these conditions even more clearly through an LCD display. If your surge protector shows a wiring or ground fault on a frequent or permanent basis, make sure it isn’t a malfunction in the surge protector (try it somewhere else or another surge protector there) then talk to an electrician.

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    Surge Protector Features

    Another important thing you might want to spend an extra couple bucks on is dataline protection. Phone lines, Ethernet cables, and co-axial cables are all capable of transmitting destructive voltages to your equipment. Worse still, a surge that bypasses the surge protector via data line can fry not just the modem or Digital TV box to which it connects, but then go on to damage other components to which it is connected, even if they are all plugged into a perfectly good surge protector. Altogether, a unit that protects against surges on these lines is a very good bet.

    Ergonomics can also be very important depending on how the surge protector will be used. Design elements like flat plugs that allow furniture to be flush with the wall in front of them, outlets spaced to allow power adapters (wall warts) to be plugged in without blocking adjacent outlets, cable management, and baby proofing, can all be useful or superfluous depending on your needs.

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    Power Conditioning

    Spending more will also get you surge protectors that can handle larger power events, as measured in joules, as well as better filtration of the incoming power. Electronic equipment will last longer and perform better the “cleaner" the power it receives. Part of cleaning, or “conditioning" the power involves reducing electrical “noise," and the degree to which a surge protector does this is measured in decibels across a range measured in Hz. The higher the dBs and the wider the range, the better.

    Cleaning power also involves increasing power when incoming power is too low, not just filtering noise and cutting off surges, but equipment that does this is called a Voltage Regulator. Note that most Voltage Regulators also offer surge protection, so this could be viewed as the next step up, as prices for them are $60 -$100 dollars and up.

    By choosing the right surge protector, not only is your gear safe from all but the biggest surges but you’re feeding it a steady, consistent diet of tasty, clean power. The only problem left is the power outage that often accompanies a surge. To be able to shut down your equipment properly (or let it finish flashing a bios) when the lights go out, you need to look into getting an Uninterruptible Power Supply, which we discuss on the next page.

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    An Uninterruptible Power Supply is an excellent purchase for anyone that wants to protect the work they do on their computer, and protect the computer itself by supplying it with less "noisy" power. Choosing a UPS involves determining your needs in terms of how much power you will need for how long in case of a black out, and converting this information to a VA, or Volt-Ampere rating. We will also explain other features of Uninterruptible Power Supplies, like the difference between stand-by and line interactive UPS systems.
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    Movin’ on UPS

    Much as surge protectors come in at many price points and offer many different levels of protection, Uninterruptible Power Supplies go from pretty cheap ($50) to a few hundred dollars for a small office to many thousands for organizations that invest heavily in IT equipment and have critical information on it. We'll look at how to choose a UPS for a home computer or SOHO set up.

    UPSs include surge protection, but it is a good idea to have at least a simple surge protector in front of them, it is extra protection for your equipment and for the UPS; depending on what you spent on the UPS, you may even want a rather nice surge protector guarding it.

    There are two general kinds of UPS available to the home or small office user: standby or online. A standby system can be thought of as a surge protector and noise filter beside a battery. It provides power to the connected equipment from the wall until the power goes out, at which point power comes from the battery. An online or line-interactive system can be thought of as a surge protector in front of a battery. Incoming power charges the battery, and power is drawn from the battery to the equipment. If the power goes out, the battery powers attached components, but can’t charge and eventually runs down.

    Either system allows your equipment to run briefly during a power outage, potentially avoiding a botched firmware upgrade and other forms of data loss or equipment damage. Line-interactive models, however, also offer better potential in terms of power conditioning and voltage regulation since the connected equipment is always drawing from the battery. These UPSs are also more expensive, only available on units over $100.

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    Know your Volt-Amperes

    In addition to the statistics one looks for when choosing a surge protector, when shopping for a UPS, one will often see VA or Volt-Amperes. Depending on the exact efficiency of the UPS, the number of watts that the UPS can provide to connected components at one time is approximately 65% of the VA. Manufacturers’ websites often have selection tools (here are APC's and Tripp Litte's, for example) to help you determine how much wattage you need and recommend a VA or product based on that. They also have tools or charts that will allow you to estimate how long your components will run on any particular model.

    Another benefit of a UPS is that many have LCD panels or USB connections and software that, installed on the USB connected PC, offer a plethora of diagnostic and management information that make the little single light on a basic surge protector mentioned above seem pretty dim. The case for a UPS sounds good but recall that an entry-level UPS costs about as much as a high-end surge protector so budget and/or priorities come into play.

    With a wide variety of options available ranging from twenty to several hundred dollars, it’s important to decide how much and what kind of protection you need when you choose a surge protector or UPS, and probably not a bad idea to err on the side of caution. The UL listing mentioned in the previous article is a must have for even the most basic surge protector; the more protection your equipment needs, the more you will have to spend, and the more you will have to keep in mind when making your decision. Remember what you’ve read here (or refer back to it while shopping if your memory is like mine) and you’ll be able to find the surge protector or UPS that will best look after your gear, without breaking the bank.