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Electric Avenue

The path between your PC and the wall outlet is fraught with power-surging peril. Can your equipment cope?
January 1, 2001
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/35654

Power conditioning. It sounds like a new exercise fad, somewhere between Tae-Bo and step aerobics. But power conditioning actually has a more mundane meaning: A power conditioner is a device that hooks up between an electrical outlet and your electronic equipment to keep the flow of electricity constant. This month's review expands beyond just pure power conditioners; it tosses a higher-end surge protector and a whole slew of uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) into the mix. What do they all have in common? They share the goal of keeping your computer safely up and running.

I've Got The Power

Now that you've learned what a power conditioner is, it's high time to tackle the "why." If you ever see your office lights flicker briefly, that's an indication the incoming power flow isn't always consistent. At times, electricity sags, sometimes it spikes. It's inevitable. But the delicate sensibilities of your computer equipment don't like sags, spikes or blackouts.

Lightning may be the most impressive, but it isn't necessarily your greatest enemy. Ordinary fluctuations in power are the culprits behind a lot of those unexplained computer hang-ups and crashes. A surge protector can of-ten protect against lightning strikes, but a UPS buys you time, and a power conditioner keeps things electrically smooth. Sure, they're not the most glamorous pieces of office equipment, but the following power-protection devices are more than worth their weight and cost in saved data and more reliable PC performance.

Power conditioners: Most entrepreneurs opt for a UPS or a surge protector, but it doesn't hurt to consider a true power conditioner. In our table, the APC Line-R fits the bill. The Line-R features lightning and surge protection, voltage regulation and line-noise filters. The push-button circuit breaker is another nice feature. It used to be standard for a power conditioner to have a fuse that required the whole unit be returned to the manufacturer for a reset. This new button system gets you around that inconvenience.

The Line-R runs $179 (all prices street) for the 1,250VA version or $129 for the 600VA version, comparable to many UPSs. Choosing between the two models comes down to what sort of equipment you need to run through them. Both have four outlets, but the 600VA is more suitable for lower-demand applications like printers. The 1,250VA is a better candidate for setups featuring a computer with a large monitor and lots of peripherals. Compare cost and features with the UPS devices in our table.

Surge protectors: Surge protectors boast a minimal cost, but they also tend to offer minimal features. While they won't give you the added uptime of a UPS or the smooth voltage regulation of a power conditioner, a surge protector is still vastly better than nothing. When shopping for a surge protector, you should compare the number of power outlets and phone jacks, room for transformers, and warranties for connected equipment.

The token surge protector in our table is the Panamax Powermax 8 Tel. Its built-in phone jacks offer protection for your modem as well as your computer and peripherals. A $100,000 connected-equipment warranty tops most of our UPS offerings. At $39.95, even cash-strapped businesses can afford at least this amount of safety.

UPSs: Investing in a UPS makes sense for desktops in an office environment. Ponder the name, "uninterruptible power supply." You can also refer to it as "battery back-up." Hooking your computer through a UPS is like having your own personal Energizer Bunny looking after your equipment. If the power goes down completely, the UPS kicks in and gives you a few precious minutes to save your work and shut down your computer. In a temporary brownout situation, it will keep your PC afloat. Either way, your data is saved from oblivion.

Worried about not being at your PC when a blackout strikes? Higher-end UPSs often come with handy software that automatically saves your work and shuts the computer down as needed. Between catastrophes, a UPS also acts as a surge protector, guarding against the sags and spikes that can cause equipment headaches.

UPS With People

Figuring out that a UPS is a good idea is easy. Figuring out which UPS you need can be a little more daunting. Most of the models in our table are available in different VA ratings. The higher the VA rating, the more expensive they tend to be. But a higher VA also means the UPS can handle more equipment. For example, the Best Power Patriot Pro II 400VA costs $289. It would work well for running your desktop tower and 15-inch monitor. The $529 1,000VA model could take on a 21-inch monitor, a PC, a printer and a peripheral without breaking a sweat. More demanding equipment will also feel right at home.

But there's more to UPS VAs than how much equipment you can plug in. Just think about powering your PC and monitor from a battery. When the electricity goes out, it's going to suck juice from the backup at an amazing rate. Going back to the Best Power Patriot Pro II example, if you plug a full load of equipment into the 400VA, you'll get about six minutes of backup time to save your work and shut down. But if you have the 1,000VA model and only plug 500VA worth of equipment into it, you'll get about 19 minutes of backup time.

Always check the estimated run times of UPSs. Actual time will vary with your system, but you can at least get an idea. If you need only six minutes of backup time and you won't be adding peripherals to your system, then a 400VA model may be all you need. You'll certainly save some money. Clocking in at $50, the Mustek UPS 400 is dirt-cheap-but it only provides about five minutes of backup time with a full load.

Most devices in the table are appropriate to use with desktop computers and peripherals. Look to more powerful UPSs to protect critical equipment like servers. You'll want the longest run time you can afford to ride through any power problems without losing your network or Web site. Visit the APC Web site and try the UPS Selector. Answering a few questions will help determine your power demands and what size UPS is best for your particular software applications.

If shutting down your computer during a power problem doesn't require your presence, then you'll have one less thing to worry about. Most higher-end UPSs come with software that will do just that. The $299 MGE Ellipse 800 is compatible with Macintosh or Windows computers and hooks up through a USB port. Driver installation is plug-and-play with Windows 95/98/2000 or Mac OS. If the battery kicks in, the software automatically closes all files and shuts the system down before power runs out. There are a few other factors to look for when selecting your UPS. Most come with audible alarms and lights to let you know when they kick in. Many also automatically check your line for wiring faults the moment you plug them in. Keep an eye on the number of outlets. The $130 Belkin Regulator Pro Gold 525VA has eight surge-protected outlets. Four of them have battery backup. The surge-protection-only outlets are good for devices like laser printers, which use lots of power and would eat up too much battery time.

For added protection, look for a UPS with a phone jack (the Panamax Powermax 8 Tel surge protector has one, too). Running your modem line through a UPS protects your computer from "back door" damage. Don't forget lightning strikes that cause sudden electrical spikes can travel through phone lines as well as electrical lines.

As with anything that is batterypowered, eventually you'll have to change the battery. Check the product literature or company Web site before you buy to see whether the battery is hot-swappable or whether you'll have to send the whole kit and caboodle back to the factory.

Finally, UPS-connected-equipment warranties for the products in our table go as high as $80,000 (for the Belkin Regulator Pro Gold 525VA). Enabling both you and your computer to rest easier, the warranties cover the repair or replacement of your equipment should the UPS fail to perform as designed.

Glossary

Brownout: A dip in electricity, usually due to high demand: also called a "sag".

Power Conditioner: A device that evenly regulates the voltage that powers electronic equipment.

Run Time: The length of a UPS's battery backup time.

Spike: An intense, temporary voltage increase, usually caused by lightning.

VA (voltage-amps): This is power-output rating for a device-the higher the VA rating, the more demand can be placed on it.

UPS (uninterruptible power supply): A battery backup device for electronic equipment

Shopping List

TYPE
SPECIAL FEATURESSTREET PRICE
APC
Line-R
(800) 800-4272
www.apcc.com
Power conditionerAudible alert; surge protection; line-noise filter$129 (600VA), $179 (1,250VA)
BELKIN
Regulator Pro Gold 525VA
(800) 2-BELKIN
www.belkin.com
UPSSerial port connection; $80,000 connected-equipment warranty; shut-down software

$130

BEST POWER
Patriot Pro II
(800) 356-5794
www.bestpower.com
UPSCustomizable voltage settings; phone-line surge protection and power-management software

$289 (400VA), $389 (750VA), $529 (1,000VA)

MGE
Ellipse 800
(800) 523-0142
www.mgeups.com

UPS800VA for Windows or Mac with USB; seven outlets; designed to handle large monitors and external storage devices

$299

MUSTEK
UPS 400
(949) 790-3800
www.mustek.com
UPS400VA with two electrical inputs; phone-line ports; five to 20 minutes of backup time, depending on load

$50

OPTI-UPS
PowerES 650
(888) OPTI-UPS
www.opti-ups.com
UPSPower-management software for serial-port computer; optional USB support

$99 (280VA), $139 (420VA), $205 (650VA)

PANAMAX
Powermax 8 Tel
(800) 472-5555
www.panamax.com
Surge protectorEight outlets; $100,000 connected-equipment warranty

$39.95

POWERWARE
5115 UPS 500
(877) PWRWARE
www.powerware.com
UPS500VA, up to 17 minutes run time; hot-swappable batteries; power-management software; 10-year prorated warranty

$300