Digital Fever: Power precautions


by Mike Kroll

the Zephyr, Galesburg


It happens all the time, but with much higher frequency in spring and summer, power damaged computers. Excess voltage combined with computers can result in a tragedy, nuisance or merely hidden damage that only comes to light in the future. Modern electronic devices like computers are very susceptible to damage from excess power voltage and most such devices that end up damaged are the result of owner ignorance or negligence. Nearly everybody has heard of lightning damaging electronics and most of us know that simple precautions such as the use of surge suppressor or merely unplugging electronic devices during thunderstorms will minimize our risk. Why is it then that so many computer users are seemingly blindsided year-in and year-out by power damaged computers?

First, many of us simply don't use power protection devices despite knowing that we should and apparently unplugging devices as a storm approaches is too much trouble. Second, many people who do buy surge suppressors either buy cheap ones that offer little or no real protection or do not use their surge suppressors correctly. And finally, most people have far less understanding of this issue than they believe.

Let's start with choosing a surge suppressor or other form of power protection. Just as no one has ever bought a legitimate Rolex watch for $100 economy surge suppressors are typically a false economy. If it doesn't cost much more than a cheap outlet strip that is most likely all you bought. A decent quality surge suppressor typically retails around $20 or more and always has a three-prong electric plug. If your home outlet doesn't accept a grounded three-prong plug it is pointless to even attempt to plug a surge suppressor into it. It is critical to the operation of any surge suppressor that it be plugged into a properly grounded electric outlet. An ungrounded surge suppressor offers no real protection.

NEVER use a “cheater” adapter to plug that surge suppressor into your electric outlet because it will not be grounded. Even when you have an outlet that accepts three-prong electric plugs you shouldn't assume that it is really a grounded outlet. I have found improperly wired three-prong plug outlets even in new construction where no true ground exists. The only way to know for sure that the outlet is properly grounded is to test it, but fret not because you needn't call an electrician to conduct such a test.

Head out to your nearest hardware or home improvement store and ask someone in the electrical department for an outlet tester. These devices typically cost $5-6 and consist of three-prong plug with three LED lights (usually two amber and a red). Right on the plug you will find a simple chart explaining how to interpret the patterns of lights that are displayed when it is inserted into a “ hot” outlet. This device can detect numerous common wiring mistakes and running around your home checking outlets can be very educational but what we are principally concerned about is whether or not the outlet is grounded. In my experience if the two amber lights are illuminated but not the red light your outlet is properly wired, anything else signifies some sort of wiring problem that will require attention.

Everyone should own one of these testers! Remember that computers are just one of many electronic devices in your home that depend upon clean power and proper wiring. Just as your computer merits a reputable surge suppressor so should your home stereo and television among other things. The way surge suppressors work is to dissipate or redirect excess voltage away from the sensitive electronic device, hence the need for the ground. But bodyguarding your electronics is not without hazard to the surge suppressor itself. Most surge suppressors take numerous hits each year and over time weaken and offer a declining level of protection.

I recommend that you use a permanent marker to note the date you put each surge suppressor into service and then check their age periodically. If a surge suppressor has been in regular use more than 24 months or so I recommend that it be replaced even if is appears fine. You needn't throw the old surge suppressor away when it is replaced but use it as a mere outlet strip and visibly mark it as such.

While the AC current is the most obvious source of power damage for your computer you must understand that it is neither the only threat nor the greatest power threat. Most of the computers we service in my shop that are damaged through the AC power connection display fatal damage to the computer's power supply that is easily and affordably repaired in most instances. It takes a pretty substantial power hit to take out not only the computer's power supply but other more critical components as well.

The costliest power damage to computers taken into my shop comes via their Internet connection. Often the cost to repair such computers exceeds any sense of cost effectiveness. This has become especially true as the use of high-speed broadband Internet has surged in popularity. In most cases the broadband Internet connection is through an Ethernet networking port built right into the computer's motherboard. Unlike power supples that are designed to accept voltage inputs of 115 to 220 volts computer motherboards operate at considerably lower typical voltages between 5-12 volts. Motherboards are highly complex integrated circuit boards designed for low current to run through small circuits packed in very close proximity and even slightly elevated power levels can lead to catastrophic damage to the motherboard, processor and memory.

It takes far less than a lightning strike to cause power damage to a computer's motherboard and often the damage is less than fatal. It is not uncommon for the current level on both cable and DSL Internet connections to fluctuate considerably under normal conditions. Perhaps it is a recognition of this that has led many DSL Internet providers (including Galesburg's Gallatin River Communications) to include a special telephone line surge suppressor and extra telephone line cord in their installation kits. Unfortunately, in my experience very few users understand and use these surge suppressors which should be employed between the wall jack and the DSL router provided by the Internet provider.

Similar special surge suppressors for Ethernet cables are also available but I am unfamiliar with any area cable company that routinely provides such protection for their customers. The irony is that it is far more common for sizable voltage fluctuation to occur on cable television connections than DSL lines. In many cases where multiple televisions are served or the cable run is long the cable television installer will include a signal amplifier that exacerbates the risk of damage to cable broadband customers. If you have an Internet connection, whether it is dial-up or high-speed, you must protect your computer from power damage originating on this path.

Thunderstorm season is upon us and you need to realistically assess you risk of power damage to you computer. There is no guarantee that any surge suppressor will totally protect your computer but I will guarantee that if you do nothing to protect your computer eventually the odds of sustaining power damage will be inescapable. But excess power damage is only part of the story. Dirty or substandard electrical power can also lead to many computer problems and surge suppressors alone will do nothing to avoid these problems. Next time we will discuss the value of spending a little bit more to purchase an uninterruptable power supply for your computer.

Mike Kroll operates Dr. Mike Computer Therapist, a Galesburg computer shop that has been servicing computers and their users for ten years. He can be reached by e-mail at or you can checkout his website, for additional information or to download free software or comment on computer related topics.Customers can Get Therapy in the shop or arrange for a house call by the computer therapist himself.