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Practical Power Protection Guide

OR You’ve Got The Power, AC and DC!

Technology without electricity?  Our modern way of life would be impossible without it, especially with the level of comfort we have grown accustomed to.  Is it a stretch to say that power, its distribution, and protection, is the life blood of Western Civilization?  Well, maybe, but can you imagine a world without readily available power?  No, me either.  So why does everyone, at home and in business, take it for granted?

The US Department of Energy indicates the power is out in the US an average of eight (8) hours per year.  This number is double in locations with outdated infrastructure or frequent natural disasters, like storms, floods, and earthquakes.  Unfortunately, you have no control over which eight hours it happens.  How you prepare for these outages and surges depends on your own Disaster Planning requirements, but everyone should have certain basic protections in place.

Power Load – Electricity is provided by various different cooperatives and plants through physical lines into the home or office.  Before it reaches you, you have no control, so let’s stay focused on the inside.  This line terminates into a distribution system that separates the electricity by zones or rooms.  At home or inside the office, this is called a circuit breaker box.  The main line and each circuit breaker have a maximum current rating, measured in amps.  If electricity usage exceeds this rating, the breaker will “break” the circuit, preventing electricity from passing to that location.

High Voltage – Volts are the measured charge of the electricity.  Without getting into advanced electric theory about positive versus negative and alternating versus direct, we will say that all consumer electronics, from toasters to IT servers, run on 120 volts.  Yes, it’s actually a range from 110 to 120 and many devices can support up to 240 volts, but let’s keep it simple.

You Shocked Me All Night Long – Yes, that’s why they call them amplifiers.  Now you get it.  Think of amps as the amount of water flowing in a river.  If you take the Mississippi, for instance, and it is 250 amps, a tributary that is one-tenth the size is 25 amps.  Every electronic device has an amp rating.  If your device has a power supply, like a laptop, the electrical ratings will be on the power supply.  If the cable connects directly to the device, the power supply is built into the device.

For Those About To Charge – Most wall outlets provide 120 volts with a maximum of 15 amps.  However, your laptop only needs 19.5 volts and 6.67 amps.  The power supply is a transformer that converts the wall electricity to the required amount for the device.  The power supply then has two (2) separate electrical ratings, one for INPUT (IN from the wall) and one for OUTPUT (OUT to the device).  For power protection, we want to focus on the INPUT ratings.

Have Some Math On Me – If Train A leaves Chicago going 65 MPH at 2PM and Train B leaves New York going 75 MPH at 3PM, why would you need to know where they meet up?  Are you switching trains midway?  Anyway, if you have researched or purchased any electrical protection or battery backup devices, you noticed they are rated differently than just volts and amps.  They are rated based on Watts, Volt-Amps, or Joules.  Watts are calculated as Volts multiplied by Amps (V x A).  The standard wall outlet with 120 volts and 15 amps has a maximum output of 1,800 watts (120 x 15 = 1,800).

Big Joules – Joules are calculated as watts over a certain amount of time.  Most personal use surge protectors are rated in joules.  Any surge protector that requires more than 1 nanosecond (0.000000001 second) to trip is useless.  Medical and sensitive devices require less than 1 nanosecond response.  When choosing a surge protector, be sure to find one that is less than 1,800 watts, since you shouldn’t add more devices to a circuit than the circuit breaker will allow!  You know who you are!

For Those About To Block – Surges are common, even in professional buildings and at home.  The more advanced technology becomes, the more sensitive it is to surges.  A surge protector does just that.  It clips the volts that comes through to keep is at or below 120 volts.  Arrestors are used to stop major surges that a protector cannot clip.  Much like a circuit breaker, the arrestor is a fast burn fuse or breaker that trips when the joules are exceeded.  See?  I told you your joules would be important later.  Most but not all surge protectors include arrestors.

Thunderstruck – Lightning is the honey badger of electrical theory.  It doesn’t care about your little protectors, arrestors, or power lines.  The sheer power of lightning allows it to come in through telephone lines, cable TV, water lines, or create an electromagnet pulse frying electronics, even those on surge protectors!  Most buildings have special lightning arrestors, big ones, tied to the roof that, instead of stopping the charge, diverts it to the ground and away from the inside.

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap – The single most important addition for your systems is proper grounding.  If you use a network or server rack, the equipment installed is counting on the rack to provide that ground.  I have rarely seen clients ground their racks though it is clearly highlighted as required in the installation instructions.  Proper grounding can be tested for wall outlets by a certified electrician or a $10 tool from the home improvement store of your choice.  NEVER work on electricity unless you are trained and certified to do so!

Highway To Protection – Since lightning will find a way, it is important that all conducting devices are properly grounded, even your metal pipes!  Internet, cable, and telephone providers typically ground their connections once inside the building.  Fiber has eliminated some concern that a carrier will introduce surges through non-electrical lines.  However, if you still have coax cable or RJ11 telephone lines in your home or office, be sure to use a surge protector that protects those connections as well.

Back In Black-outs – The uninterrupted power supply (UPS) (not the guy in the brown truck) is a battery backup unit that keeps the power on.  These units are a step above surge protectors as they provide surge protection and two options the surge protector cannot.  They provide electricity from batteries if 1) the power goes out or 2) the power drops below a usable level, such as a sag or brown out.  UPSs are sized by watts or volt-amps and the more devices you add, the less runtime the batteries will support.  Many manufacturers offer calculators to determine the right size UPS for the devices that need continuous power.  If you need more than just temporary battery power, consider a generator.

Money Talks, Without Protection – Most high technology cannot survive a sudden loss of power.  Although many computers are built to recover from such issues, data loss is almost always certain.  In some situations, entire databases have been corrupted.  If you aren’t using and regularly testing your UPS or battery backup systems, you may not be as protected as you think!

Riff Raff – Unshielded motors, electrical breakers, and junction boxes can prevent WiFi from working.  Laying network cabling with electrical lines can cause slower network speeds due attenuation from data loss.  Static electricity can destroy data, including data on flash drives.  Not all devices require a UPS.  Monitors and other non-data devices can simply live on a surge protector.  Microwaves, space heaters, hair dryers, and other motors should be on their own circuits.

Doesn’t matter if it’s AC or DC, don’t get burned by power outages or poor power conditions.  Be sure to follow installation instructions for electronics regarding electrical connections and protection carefully.  Improper power protection typically is considered a violation of warranty.  Further, many insurance companies will refuse to cover or pay claims when proper power protection isn’t followed.  Don’t be left in the dark!

Want to see an article on a specific subject?  Need help?  Reach out.  We are all in this together

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Shawn D. Stewart

Mr. Stewart has 25 years of experience with hundreds of international, commercial, military, and government IT projects. He holds or has held certifications with ISC2, Cisco, Microsoft, CompTIA, ITIL, Novell and others. He also holds a Masters in Cybersecurity, Bachelors in IT, a Minor in Professional Writing and is a published author.

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