I think I need a UPS? If so, which one?
November 22, 2013 8:00 AM   Subscribe

When the heater in my place (convector) cycles off, my TV goes black for a second or two. I worry a lot about what this is doing to all of the electronics using outlets in the same wall as the convector. Do you think I need a UPS, and can you guide me through the process? Details inside!

All of my living room electronics (TV, cable box, phone box, cordless phone, PS3 also used for DVDs/Blu-ray) use electrical outlets on the same wall where my apartment's heating convector is. Just since the weather got cold and I've turned on the heat, I've noticed that when the heat kicks off (I think just when it cycles off, not on again, but I haven't done a thorough study), the TV screen goes black for a second or two.

It makes me really nervous; this is the first new TV I've had in twenty years, and I can't afford to screw it up. I don't know if whatever's happening is something I can eventually get the apartment management to look into and/or fix; I frankly don't have a ton of faith, though I can certainly try.

But lacking that, how can I protect my stuff?

I was first thinking of surge protectors, but reading some old Ask questions made it seem like I actually need an Uninterruptable Power Supply. I know nothing about those, and could use some help:

* Do I need one?
* What kind? Any recommendations?
* How do I actually figure out how much power each of the devices needs, in order to pick a big-enough UPS for everything?
* What else do I need to know about these things and how to use them?
posted by theatro to Computers & Internet (10 answers total)
I think you need an electrician to solve the source of the problem, rather than a UPS to patch over its effects. Your power shouldn't be fluctuating that much.
posted by ook at 8:12 AM on November 22, 2013 [6 favorites]

If your devices are turning off, the first thing i would look at doing is getting things onto a different circuit. It sounds like there is too much load on the one circuit and causing a dip in the voltage which is bad.

UPS's are rated in both VA, and the output wattage, but only advertised by the VA.
You need to look at all your devices/powersupplies and they should have the input wattage listed. Add up all the wattage for the devices to determine what you need the UPS to output.

For example is 1000VA, but 600Watts of output.
posted by TheAdamist at 8:13 AM on November 22, 2013

My first thought was electrician.

Also, you have WAY too much stuff plugged into one circuit. That's why that's happening.

This is a problem with older places, they just weren't built to handle all the electronics we use.

The best thing to do is to have an electrician come out and install a new circuit breaker and run a new plug on a different circuit. That way you can more equitably balance the load.

Another thing you might try is having everything plugged into its own power strip and to turn off the power at the strip when the devices are not in use.

UPS is okay, but getting your electricity straightened out in your place is MUCH better.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:23 AM on November 22, 2013

Yeah, high-draw appliances like heaters, fridges, microwaves, large TVs etc. should ideally have their own circuits or at least not share circuits with other high-draw appliances. A UPS would probably work as a band-aid, but a band-aid is what it would be. Rewiring is somewhat expensive, but since a good UPS is not exactly cheap either it's probably worth solving this problem properly by getting that heater onto a dedicated circuit.

Also, if possible you could try just plugging the heater in somewhere else. I'm not clear on whether this heater is portable or not but if it is you may be able to find a suitable outlet for it that's not on the same circuit as your electronics. Even within the same room outlets are sometimes wired to different breakers. You can test this by plugging the heater into different places and flipping breakers until you get it somewhere where flipping the breaker turns off the heater but not the TV. You could also try the same thing with the TV (plugging it into a different outlet) if that's easier for you. If you can come up with a satisfactory arrangement here you may not have to do anything else.

A final possibility is that your house is old and only has a small number of amps on its service connection to the pole. In that case it wouldn't matter what the circuit arrangement was, and your best bet would be to get your service upgraded or get a different heater that didn't produce such a high surge when it cycled. A UPS would also work here, but once again it would be a band-aid and not a true solution.
posted by Scientist at 10:01 AM on November 22, 2013

Lifehacker has discussed the topic of UPS a few days ago
posted by nostrada at 10:16 AM on November 22, 2013

I've noticed that when the heat kicks off (I think just when it cycles off, not on again, but I haven't done a thorough study), the TV screen goes black for a second or two.

If you're right about the problem happening when the heater goes off, it probably is a voltage surge rather than an insufficiency, and the blackout would then be the result of tripping your TV's internal surge protector.

Such circuits are always imperfect, and the one in your TV is not likely to be as good (or durable) as a high-end dedicated surge protector.

So I think you should follow Scientist's advice and get your TV onto a different circuit, but also buy a good surge protector.
posted by jamjam at 11:56 AM on November 22, 2013

A UPS is really not for this purpose. A UPS is primarily for short duration power failures due to blackouts, brownouts, etc., and primarily for relatively low power electronic devices like computers rather than for appliances like TVs. What you have is a fundamental problem with the premise power/wiring configuration.
posted by Dansaman at 12:02 PM on November 22, 2013

Response by poster: I will definitely start wading into the apartment management/maintenance bureaucracy to see what can be done about the electricity. The trouble is that I can't just go hire my own electrician and go to town; I need to go through channels, and thus far in my time here I have learned that they are very slow channels indeed.

Quick for instance: I've been trying for months to get them to remove/replace a particular set of closet doors heavily contaminated with the previous' residents' cigarette smoke. I arrived home from work the other day to find 1) maintenance had popped into my place without asking, to 2) leave a note saying "REPLACED THE PINS IN YOUR CLOSET DOORS," thus anchoring the toxic things more firmly, instead of the actual task requested in writing in the maintenance ticket.

So it's going to take a lot of time/effort for me to: 1) explain the problem, and 2) get them to do anything about it.

Maybe I can therefore ask a followup:

1) how do you suggest I best ask them for help? Should I just explain what happens with the heater/TV combo and let them take it from there, or is there something more specific I can say/diagnosis I can make to get them moving? (Fearing that if I do the former, they'll just shrug and say "WELL DON'T PLUG THE TV IN THERE THEN." Which is fine and all, but doesn't get the wiring any healthier.)

2) In the meantime, as an acknowledged band-aid, but facing the fact that it'll take a long time to get anything actually fixed and in the interest of protecting my technology during that time, it seems like my options are:

A) Run an extension cord around the living room to outlets on another wall for some of the things. (Any opinions on how many of the things are reasonable for one set of two outlets?)


B) Use a surge protector on anything left in the original outlets. (Any opinions on good surge protectors for this purpose?)

Thanks for the help! I've lived in old places before, but for some reason this sort of thing has never happened to me.
posted by theatro at 1:10 PM on November 22, 2013

I have lived in multiple places with dodgy electrical systems and have always been able to mitigate the problems without landlord involvement. (This is good, since none of the landlords in question were willing to make the necessary upgrades.) I am both a nerd and an engineer, but I can't provide any useful advice without some additional information:

When you say "convector," do you mean an electric resistance heating element (i.e. a "baseboard heater")? If so, may I ask where you live? I live in the USA and have never heard any type of heating system called that before.

If you are not sure whether your heating system is an electric resistance system or not, could you take a look at the heating elements and tell me whether anything other than electric wires (i.e. pipes) run in or out of them? A photograph wouldn't hurt, either...

There are a few other things you could do which would provide valuable information as to what exactly is going on with your electricity:

1) If you plug an electric lamp into the same outlet (or power strip) as your TV, do you notice changes in the brightness of the bulb at the same time as your TV screen goes blank? If so, does the bulb get dimmer, brighter, or first one than the other?

2) Especially after plugging a lamp in, check whether the TV problem and lamp brightness changes occur only when the convector turns on, only when it turns off, or both.

3) When your TV screen goes black, does the sound cut out as well?

4) Is there a fuse or circuit breaker box in your apartment? If so, could you open the panel and take a photograph of the fuses or breakers inside of it, and post the picture in this thread?

5) What kind of TV do you have (old school CRT, flat-screen LCD/LED, Plasma, etc), and how big is it?

I have some ideas about what might be causing and what you might be able to do in order to mitigate this problem, but I would be able to give much better advice if armed with some of the above-requested information.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 8:47 PM on November 22, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for mulling it over!

It's not baseboard heat (I've had that before, when I was back in the midwest); it's a 4-foot rectangular metal box with a grating on top that's mounted against the wall and handles AC in the summer and heat in the winter--it's not plugged in anywhere external, it must be either plugged in or wired inside. They always call them "convectors" in memos from apartment management (I live in Washington DC), but some online searching indicates it's apparently called a "fan coil unit". It looks almost exactly like the top photo on this page. It has a fan knob inside a panel on top that sets the fan to blow at low, medium, or high, but the heat (and cooling, in summer) itself is turned on or off from a wall-mounted thermostat, where I also set the temperature.

1) This has been a surprisingly difficult test to complete! I was almost going to reply and say "uh never mind I guess," because I set aside time to watch the TV while running the heat this afternoon, and for most of the time it didn't actually happen. The heat would kick on and off without any problem with the TV or the lamp I had temporarily plugged into the same set of outlets. Very peculiar. I did get one instance of it happening later in the day, but by then I unfortunately didn't have the lamp on, to see if it would go out or what. I should be able to try again tomorrow, but this is strange--I don't remember the problem being so scarce before!

2) Whenever the problem has happened, it was only when the heat kicked off, i.e. the room had warmed up enough so the heater/fan stopped running. There is a kind of 'thump' when that happens. Weirdly, the problem never happens when the fan kicks back on.

3) The sound has also momentarily gone off. Full disclosure, though: I haven't actually determined whether what's going off is the TV, or the PS3--it so happens that most of my TV use lately has been while using the PS3. Today I was trying to see what would happen while watching regular cable TV, but that was when it never did happen; it only happened later on once I had given up on the test and was using the PS3.

...3B) This makes me belatedly think that the problem might be only and specifically linked to PS3 use! My habit is that when I'm not actually using the PS3 and am watching TV, I have the PS3 powered off. I hadn't realized this until right now...that would explain why my experiment this afternoon failed until I had given up on cable altogether. Hmmm.

4) I have a breaker box in the kitchen: photo uploaded here.

5) I have a Panasonic ST60 plasma, 50".

That's a big ol' bolus of information--thanks for reading, if you made it this far. Whether you have any further ideas or not, your questions ended up clarifying that PS3 use seems to be the crux of the issue, which I hadn't figured out before, so this has been very helpful already!
posted by theatro at 8:43 PM on November 23, 2013

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