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Lightning, Surges Still A Threat To PCs

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Despite the proliferation of low-priced surge suppressors for protection of electronic equipment, lightning strikes and surges continue to be major causes of damage to personal computers and data, experts say.

According to data published by Safeware, The Insurance Agency Inc.–which markets insurance coverage for computers–power surges accounted for some 35,000 damaged desktop computers in 2000 and 30,000 in 2001. Also in 2000, 11,000 desktop units were damaged by lightning, while 8,000 were hit in 2001.

Together, the two causes accounted for 41% of the desktop losses in both years, says Columbus, Ohio-based Safeware. The figures are extrapolated from the agencys own database of claims “from all over the United States,” says Don Strejeck, president of Safeware. “We take our claims population and project it out to a national scale.”

With surge suppressors available for under $10 in stores, why are there still so many losses from surges or lightning? The reasons are several, according to John N. West, Sr., founder of Power & Systems Innovations Inc., a supplier of power protection systems and consulting, based in Orlando, Fla.

One problem is that users dont always recognize a power-related event, so they dont think they need protection, says West. “People dont associate a lot of events of equipment failure with power surges or lightning,” he adds.

Users are more likely to simply attribute problems to causes such as a motherboard “wearing out,” he continues. Such wear, however, is often due to “electronic rust”–which comes about via poor power quality from the supplier added to the impact of surges and lightning strikes. These events can slowly, or quickly, damage systems.

West notes that one customer told him: “I cant see it, I cant smell it, I cant touch it, I cant taste it–theres no way of quantifying it. But I know that [electronic rust] is eating me up.”

Another factor is that bargain basement surge protectors are “a nickel solution to a five-dollar problem,” states West. He tells the story of one government agency that ordered multiple surge suppression units from PSI, without considering what other problems might exist. It turned out that the systems to be protected were incorrectly grounded, and “a stack of surge suppressors wouldnt have helped,” says West.

“People go to Office Depot and see a pretty box with a product that costs $1 to make and that makes ridiculous claims,” says West of low-priced surge suppressors. “Does it really work? They have to find out the hard way.”

Unfortunately, he notes, when it comes to a surge protector, “99% of the population goes on how pretty the box looks.”

West recommends that agency personnel and other surge protection buyers take a practical approach to safeguarding their equipment and data.

“Spend some time and look at what youre getting,” he counsels. “Look for a product that has been rated by independent consumer testing and found to be superior.”

West adds that surge suppressors priced between $30 and $70 “are the only ones that are worth having.”

The story doesnt end there, however. For todays sensitive computers and electronics, simple surge protection may not be enough, says West.

“In my opinion, the day has come where a surge suppressor is not adequate to protect your computer,” he asserts. He recommends that PCs also be protected by uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs), to guard against problems created when Microsoft Windows is improperly shut down by a power interruption.

When power goes out, a UPS automatically provides battery backup to a system, allowing time for the user to save all work before shutting down the computer in the recommended fashion.

West further recommends that users purchase a UPS that includes software that will ensure an orderly shutdown of systems. For a system with a 17-inch or larger monitor (the monitor is the main power draw), West suggests a 420VA (volts-amps) UPS, costing between $100 and $200.

He cautions against purchasing a unit that combines surge suppression and UPS functions, however. “Sometimes the surge suppressor is sacrificed to protect the connected equipment,” he explains. “In a combo device, if a surge kills the suppressor, it kills the whole unit.”

Many UPSs also have telephone line protection built in–a feature West recommends–”but often people dont use it,” he notes. This could potentially void an equipment replacement warranty from the UPS manufacturer, since such warranties require proper hookup of all features.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, January 27, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.