Power Play

When the lights go out, make sure your computer is protected.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the March 1999 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

See the Buyer's Guide Table for product features and prices.

How frequent are power outages in your area? Did you experience a blackout, a brownout or a series of voltage changes this winter? The supply of power isn't always steady. Even in the best of times, spikes, surges, sags and electrical noise can occur without notice on peak demand days.

Loss of electrical power is the most common cause of data loss and can weaken your computer's components and circuit boards, according to Chris Tecca, manager of product marketing for the desktop power protection division of American Power Conversion (APC) in West Kingston, Rhode Island. If you're accustomed to leaving your computer on 24 hours a day, you're at a higher risk if lightning strikes or if there's a power overload. If your business depends on your computer, especially for receiving faxes or downloading orders, then protecting your power source just makes good sense.

To help avoid disaster, you can buy an "uninterruptible power supply," or UPS. While simple surge suppressors and voltage regulators are still popular, a UPS goes several steps further, providing actual backup power and handling a variety of electronic equipment. Small, battery-operated units with two or more outlets, these protection devices provide a buffer between incoming power and your electronic office equipment, constantly monitoring and filtering your power supply. If any change in supply occurs, the UPS kicks in to regulate it or takes over for several minutes if there is a complete power failure.

Consider it a form of one-payment insurance to safeguard your computer, modem, monitor, external hard drive, fax machine, copier and printer from damage. If the power break is brief, the UPS allows you to continue working for several minutes. If the power failure is prolonged, it usually provides enough power to allow you to close your data files and shut your system down.

The cost of a no-frills UPS that protects a single PC is reasonable--under $100, as street prices go. Larger, more expensive units with bigger batteries and higher voltages can service several computers or network PCs as well as peripherals; these cost between $150 and $4,000. There are dozens of different models to choose from, including a few that also protect telephone systems. If you're frequently logged on to the Web, Best Power's Patriot Pro (an upgrade to the Patriot in our chart) is designed to protect access to Internet/intranet capabilities. (While the chart lists some of the more basic UPS systems available, you can get complete lists of available models by checking out company Web sites or calling the toll-free telephone numbers and requesting catalogs.)

"Choosing the right UPS for your business depends on what kind of equipment you need to protect and what paths to and from that equipment need protection," says Tecca. "There's a huge difference between the consequences of a surge, which accounts for less than 10 percent of all computer power problems but can knock out a modem, and a total blackout, so keeping your voltage stable can be crucial. Otherwise, you may have to reset your server, hub and router." APC's newest model, BackUPS Pro 350, was designed for Windows 98 users and offers Internet protection as well as a universal serial bus that allows installation without having to reconfigure your system.

Most manufacturers offer two- to three-year warranties on their products and, as a very nice bonus, provide up to $25,000 for repair or replacement of equipment being protected. Many UPS units are expandable, with optional extra batteries for unlimited run-time; others close down your computer's operating system if the batteries in the UPS run out. Before shopping for a UPS, Tecca recommends you determine how many UPS outlets and how much run-time you need to power your entire system.

Here are some terms you may come across in your search for a UPS:

Battery alerts. Most units have an audible signal, as well as a small light, to alert the user when power disturbances occur or when the battery is running low.

Cold start. This function allows you to use the UPS as a stand-alone power source without an AC connection, usually for a limited time.

Hot-swappable batteries. This feature allows you to change batteries while the UPS is in operation.

Run-time. The length of time the UPS will run (usually several minutes) to give you or the UPS time to close down computers and peripherals. If your office is in an area where the power supply fluctuates frequently, look for a UPS with optional external battery packs to provide you with unlimited run-time.

Transfer time. The length of time, usually measured in milliseconds, it takes for the UPS to take over the power operation of your equipment and switch to battery power.

Universal application shut down. This program saves active data files first, before closing all applications and shutting down the operating system, to preserve all data regardless of the last time it was saved.

User-replaceable batteries: These easy-to-switch batteries eliminate the need to take your UPS to a dealer for servicing. An average battery lasts three to six years.

VA/watts. Volt amperes and watts describe electrical potential and measurements of units of power.

Protecting data should be a top priority for small-business owners. And fortunately, it only takes a small budget to do so.

Jill Amadio is a freelance writer in Newport Beach, California, who has covered thchnology for nine years

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