Heckey's Computers & Vacuum Services
Protect Your Computer With Power Backup
Q: I suspect power problems and am considering purchasing UPSs for the entire office. Before I make such a purchase, are there other possible causes I should consider?
-Rebecca via email
A: UPS stands for uninterruptible or uninterrupted power supply. If you know what it is, you know what it does. It keeps your computer temporarily running even if there's a blackout or other electrical disturbance such as a brownout or power sag.
A UPS also acts as a surge suppresser. Most folks buy UPSes that will provide about five minutes of juice after the power goes out. These consumer-level UPSes are little more than batteries in boxes. Businesses tend to invest in massive rack-mount UPS systems that can keep a company's server farm humming until the backup generators take over.
The beefiness of your computer system determines how powerful your UPS should be. The weakest UPS is about 250VA (volt-amperes). Years ago, when everyone had regular Pentium processors and 14-inch monitors, this was enough.
If you have a large 19- or 21-inch monitor and an intense Pentium II or faster system, not to mention peripherals, you're probably looking at a 400VA to 500VA UPS.
Read on to determine what size UPS your system needs.
Calculating UPS Size
The old-school way to determine the size of the UPS is to do a little math. Find the volt (V) and current (A) ratings. Multiply V and A to get the VA. Add all the VA results to find the VA rating of the UPS you need to power your system. Keep in mind that device makers often exaggerate the voltage of their equipment.
Thanks to the Internet, UPS manufacturers offer sizing tools on their websites. You'll find a good one at American Power Conversion and at Tripp Lite. With both, you just input the stats of your system (processor speed, monitor size, and so on) and the tools recommend a UPS.
Of course, American Power Conversion and other UPS companies will only recommend their own brands, but the VA rating included in each product name can be applied to any company's UPS. However, because UPS companies offer $10,000 to $25,000 hardware guarantees if your computer gets fried while you're using their product, the sizing tools also tend to exaggerate the size of the UPS you really need.
If you want to live on the edge, you might get away with buying a UPS that's one step down from what's recommended. After all, you might want only a minute or so of backup juice, because that's really all the time the quick geek needs to save and power down.
If you're not feeling edgy, but want to get a smaller UPS than what's recommended for your system, don't plug your monitor into the UPS. Monitors suck more power than any other part of your system (except laser printers, which should never, under any circumstances, be plugged into a UPS). However, to shut down your system without seeing the monitor could be tricky. The best way is to write a macro that will save all your work and shut your system down with one simple keystroke.
Many UPSes come with automatic shutdown software. When the power fails, this software saves your work and shuts down your system without any user intervention. Of course, most people are apt to save their work before walking away from the machine, so the utility of this software varies from user to user.
Essential UPS Features
Once you've determined the size you need, you'll want to decide whether you want a standby or online UPS. A standby UPS is the common "battery in the box" type. When AC power stops flowing into your computer from the power lines, the battery immediately kicks in.
The ultra-safe and much more expensive alternative is an online UPS. Computers that have online UPSes always run off the battery. AC power flows into and constantly recharges the battery, which in turn powers the computer. When the power goes out, there is no power transition whatsoever. The battery just stops being recharged.
Buy a UPS that not only has AC power inputs for your computer equipment's plugs, but also RJ-45 phone cord inputs for your Internet connection. A power surge can just as easily travel through phone lines as power lines and fry your system. Of course, if lightning rushes into your house via the phone or power lines I doubt any UPS or surge protector will save you. It should deflect simple power surges and spikes, though.
Only certain people need a UPS. I don't have one, because the power rarely goes out where I live and even if it does I don't care. I save my work often and don't really think that an improper shutdown hurts my PC all that much.
Farmer John, on the other hand, with the erratic power he gets in Troy, South Carolina, does need one. But he probably doesn't need a very big one and definitely a standby rather than an online model.
He has no critical business running on the computer and doesn't leave the machine unattended. His power outages are very short, he just wants to end the annoyance of getting booted offline and having his computer shut down several times per storm.
One thing Farmer John might want to do is buy a low-end UPS, install it, and pull his PC's power cord. If he can save and shut down in the time provided, good. If not, take the UPS back to the store and get a bigger one.
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