Power interrupted – protecting your PC data with an uninterruptible power supply

With the summer months fast approaching, Darren Yates looks at power protection options.

ups-1Summer’s just around the corner and that means late afternoon thunderstorms. Now when it comes to protecting your technology, the simplest, cheapest and most guaranteed way to protect against electrical surges caused by lightning is to simply pull the power plugs out of the wall sockets.

However, it’s not just surges that cause problems – blackouts themselves can cause a loss of data, especially when your PC drops its bundle on the spot. If you’re using a notebook, the notebook’s battery should automatically kick in and keep you going for up to three hours (depending on its charge) but for PCs, no power means “no go”.

That’s where a UPS or Uninterruptible Power Supply can pick up the slack – you can think of them as battery packs for desktop PCs, but not just desktops: they can power a range of 240VAC-powered devices for period of time.

How they work

ups-2In short, a UPS is a device that contains an SLA (sealed lead-acid) battery that remains on trickle charge while the AC mains power is available. As soon as the power’s gone, the battery kicks in, powering a built-in AC inverter than supplies 240VAC mains power to the devices connected to the UPS’ AC sockets.

UPSs range in price from around $100 to thousands of dollars, depending on how much power you want them to supply, how long you want them to supply it as well as other tricks such as USB monitoring and auto-shutdown and LCD notification panels. In terms of size, they range from oversized powerboards to the size of desktop computers.

What to look for

For home use, you’re looking for mainly three things – the number of AC power sockets available, the maximum output power capacity measured in volts-amps (VA) or watts (W) and the capacity of the battery or run time of the system.

The number of AC power sockets is the most negotiable of these because you can always expand the number by using an AC powerboard, although doing this may void any insurance offered with some models. Where you pay the real money is the output capacity and run time of the UPS.

The output capacity of the UPS tells you how much power it can deliver or how much of a load it can handle on battery alone. The greater the output power capacity, the more PCs, notebooks and gear it’ll be able to keep powered up. For example, a UPS rated at 350-watts should be able to keep two late-model desktop PCs powered up (late-model desktop PCs with monitor running light-load applications should consume less than 150-watts).

You should aim for a UPS with enough power to handle the devices you need to keep running, which should only be your PC and monitor rather than peripheral devices. Remember, UPSs are generally designed not to keep you working but to allow you to shut down your systems gracefully without losing any data.

The length of time the UPS can maintain those power levels is determined to a large extent by the capacity of the battery. The larger the battery, the longer it’ll run but the more expensive the UPS will be to purchase. Also importantly, the less power you draw from the UPS, the longer the battery will keep you going too. For example, a UPS may output up to 375-watts of AC power for three minutes. If you drop the power draw back to 100-watts (a late-model dual-core desktop and 22-inch monitor), that runtime will jump from three minute to around ten, giving you more time to save your files. These days, even the cheaper UPSs now offer USB monitoring software that can also automatically begin the shut-down process on your PC without you having to be there.

Another issue you may need to consider is the time it takes to charge the built-in battery backup again. If you flatten it, it could take up to eight hours to fully charge again, which means if you get caught with another blackout before that time, you may not get the full runtime you expect, depending on how hard the battery had to work the first time around.

For most situations at home, a 400-watt UPS would be more than enough to enable two standard non-gaming desktop PCs sufficient time to shut down. That said, most UPSs only support auto-shutdown of one system – the other system you’ll have to do yourself. Unfortunately, to get a UPS with larger-capacity batteries (in order to get longer runtimes) usually means you have to go for one of the higher-output options, which give you more output capacity than you’ll likely need and cost you more as well. That’s the trade off.

Most models also include some form of surge protection on the AC outlets so it’s worth checking to see what insurance they offer. Upwards of $25,000 insurance may sound great but the ideal is not to need to replace your gear or require data recovery in the first place so my tip is if you hear thunder rolling around, shut your PCs down and pull the AC cables out of the wall sockets.

Losing your important files and irreplaceable memories isn’t worth the risk.

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