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Protect your computer from lightning damage

With the dreary winter weather behind us, everyone is welcoming spring's warm and balmy days. But spring's thunderstorms bring an unwelcome companion — lightning.

Damaging lightning bolts, however, are not restricted to warm weather. Lightning strikes somewhere on the surface of the earth about 100 times every second. There are at least 100,000 thunderstorms a year in the United States alone. With this many storms, a strike close to your business is almost inevitable.

Lighting striking a pine tree can boil the sap inside the tree to a temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in less than a second. Lightning can send a spectacular power surge along any conductive line, destroying everything in its path.

The most likely scenario for your business is not a direct lightning strike, but rather a nearby strike on a transformer or piece of electrical equipment. If the surge is powerful enough, it could travel instantaneously through wiring and telephone lines with the electrical force equivalent to a tidal wave. The surge could enter your business via electrical, telephone or Internet lines and put all connected equipment at risk.

The first computer casualty is usually a router, network card or motherboard. The router is often hit because of its connection to the DSL or T1 line. The motherboard, the foundation of the computer where all the computer's components meet, is hooked into the power source, making it especially susceptible to damage. If the surge is powerful enough, even computer chips and other components can be affected.

So, what do you do to protect your valuable computer equipment? Use a good battery backup (UPS) or surge protector. Don't be confused. A power strip, which is a simple strip of outlets, is not a surge protector. A surge protector may look like a simple strip of outlets, but it has built-in protection against power surges. A good surge protector is made up of a series of metal-oxide varistors or MOVs, which shield the computer from abnormally high voltage. When your business receives voltage spikes of high intensity, the MOVs grab the current and push it away from the computer, router or other electronic device.

A good surge protector should have the following features:

  • It should protect against lightning strikes. Some do not.
  • It should offer insurance to cover the loss of properly attached equipment.
  • Many businesses fail to understand that they need a surge protector for their telephone and Internet lines. Phone lines are used to connect computers to the Internet via DSL and/or T1 lines. Cable modems use the cable TV coax cable to provide Internet connectivity. Surge protectors should be installed on all of these devices.

    It is widely believed that power cords are the source of all damaging surges to computers, routers, etc. That is simply not true. Only 30 percent of damaging lightning enters through the electrical cord. Phone/Internet lines carry the majority of electrical surges to your computer and other equipment.

    Today many companies offer cable access to the Internet. This can be in the form of a Cable Modem, DSL line or T1 lines. If you are using one of these forms of connectivity, you should purchase a special surge protector that will also accommodate the cable that connects to your computer network.

    Damage can occur regardless of whether the computer is on or off. While surge protectors offer protection for normal surges and nearby lightning strikes, nothing will protect your equipment from a direct lighting hit. During storms, you can add further protection by unplugging your computer power supply and any telephone and/or Internet connection lines. Although it is not absolutely necessary to do this, unplugging your computer equipment from all cables will offer the best degree of protection possible. But this is a major effort in an office with dozens of computers and printers.

    Try to buy a surge protector that will accommodate all of your equipment. Because of slight differences in electrical currents, it is advisable to cluster your equipment by plugging it all into the same source. If you have any equipment that has a large power block, look for a surge protector where the outlets are spaced further apart to accommodate the power block.

    If your business suffers a lighting strike, immediately replace the surge protectors. These are like air bags in your car. They are designed to protect you, but once they do, they need to be replaced.

    When it comes to surge protection, you get what you pay for. Expect to pay $30 or more for a quality surge protector. There are many good products on the market. Two reputable companies that have been around for quite a while and that I have used with good results are Tripp Lite and APC (American Power Conversion).

    Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And no where is this more applicable than with lightning protection.

    — Jeff Facer is president and CEO of Area-Wide Technologies in Champaign. He can be reached at 217-359-8041 or jfacer@areawidetech.com.

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