Best reasonable practices for surge protecting a PC
August 3, 2014 4:00 PM   Subscribe

Hey, electrical people! Do I want just a surge protector, just a UPS, a UPS plugged into a surge protector, or a UPS plugged into a surge protector plugged into a vial of unicorn tears that's been blessed by the pope, the dalai lama, and Lenin?

So we just had lightning hit somewhere very close (possibly the tree out front), and had a surge zap the PC, router, and NAS. Luckily the PC's hard drives seem to have survived intact so no actual data loss.

So after I build the new pc, what's the best reasonable practice for surge protecting it? My electrician, Mr. Google, isn't clear about whether a UPS provides better surge protection than a good surge protector. While I can stomach shelling out $150-200 for a UPS, I can always find more immediately gratifying ways to spend that money. Obviously a UPS will also S some UP, but while that's nice let's only consider surge protection for now. I understand that no consumer level device will protect my stuff from the crazillion amps of a direct strike.

If a UPS, do I want to plug it straight into the wall or into a surge protector that will sacrifice itself for the more expensive UPS? Or is that something only the heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Idiots would do, after starting a war on twelve fronts?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I can't say whether you're better off with a surge protector or a UPS, but I can tell you that the manual for my UPS, which also has surge protection capabilities, says to connect it directly to a wall outlet, not a surge protector or extension cord.
posted by trillium at 4:37 PM on August 3, 2014

Wait, are you really asking us to "only surge protection"? Because a UPS might do some surge protection as a side effect of its main function (to provide power) but really all you need is a good power strip. It really shouldn't matter if it's a gazillion amps strike- if it detects an overload, it should break the circuit.

Were your devices plugged directly into the wall?
posted by thewumpusisdead at 4:44 PM on August 3, 2014

Response by poster: Some of the sources I'd read (can't remember which now) suggested that powering your equipment with an inverter and battery (that's charged by wall current) provides another layer of protection, but it's hard for me (who is very very far from a EE) to tell whether that's solid or horseshit.

The stuff was all plugged into a surge protector, but the surge protector's little green SURGE light turned into a red light.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:03 PM on August 3, 2014

The inverter plus battery type ups would be an "on line" or double conversion ups, they are significantly more expensive than a regular ups.

Depending on your locale, I'd just replace things and carry on.

Also remember, power surges came come through any cables, not just the wall power. Cable internet, or anything else attached could make s nice electrical conduit in.
posted by TheAdamist at 5:32 PM on August 3, 2014

In the case of a lightning strike surge protectors only protect against induced current from a nearby strike, it won't help in a direct hit. Lightning takes the path to ground that has the lowest impedance, if that's through the surge protector then a gap that opens a fraction of an inch won't matter to a strike that's just jumped the gap from cloud to earth.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 5:34 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Short answer, use a UPS. Make sure it isn't a Standby Power System (SPS) that only kicks in after the power is cut. More info on surge protection/power conditioning. Grumpy old geek has it for nearby lightning strikes; aside from unplugging entirely, there's not much to be done against them.
posted by Aleyn at 5:37 PM on August 3, 2014

I asked this question nearly 7 years ago, and I'm still using the same equipment, successfully, after 5 moves and innumerable configurations (but no lightning strikes or major electrical malfunctions) in between.
posted by zachxman at 5:39 PM on August 3, 2014

Response by poster: The inverter plus battery type ups would be an "on line" or double conversion ups, they are significantly more expensive than a regular ups.

*looks online* Okay, the prices on those seem not really worthwhile, so I'll probably just (1) buy more surge protectors and (2) get a better backup strategy up and running.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:11 PM on August 3, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:11 PM on August 3, 2014

I know you marked this resolved, but i had issues with this(and even came to the green). It's also my job to figure out this sort of stuff since i do sysadmin/network engineering type stuff.

You don't need a double conversion/online UPS. You just need a line interactive one that's halfway decent with kicking in. Look up what the difference is. It's constantly monitoring the input

I've had the same APC back-ups XS for ages, and it's very similar to that cyberpower one zachxman linked above. My building has fucked up wiring, and regularly has sags/spikes/surges(it's literally so bad that i was going to put a line analyzer on it and just gave up because there were so many naked-eye observable "events"). I blew out the motherboard in two desktops, and hosed some other gear as well using normal, but decent quality surge suppressors/"power conditioners" i had used with audio equipment.

I have had zero equipment issues on protected stuff since i got a decent line interactive UPS.

A similar alternative, if you don't care about battery backup runtime and simply want full equipment protection is an isolation transformer. These get used a lot in high end audio setups, and in stores with point of sale equipment. This is the brand i've used extensively at work. My coworker swears by them and has all his computer and audio gear on them. They actually completely isolate whatever is plugged in to them from the power grid 100% of the time, like a double conversion UPS. That's all they do though(although powervar does sell transformer+UPS combos... they're $$$$).

Both of those solutions will run you around $100. The cyberpower UPS recommended above is fine. I have a backups XS 1500 that would be fine for most desktops, barring 1000w UPS double graphics card gaming monsters, in which you'd overload it if you had a power event while gaming.

A backup strategy isn't your real solution here unless you don't care about replacing equipment(although do back your stuff up! the cheapest/best solution on that front is backblaze, since it takes a long time for that to break even with just buying a NAS or a couple big external hard drives or something, and it's offsite), and surge protectors don't really do much. even the nice ones. I've killed or damaged so much gear plugged into decent surge suppressors/"power conditioners" over the years.

So yea, there's a middle ground between just having a power strip and buying some gonzo commercial double conversion UPS. $130, or a bit less on sale is about that point. And it's completely worth it. I mean, you're plugging what... a $1000 desktop, a several hundred dollar monitor, and probably $100+ of peripherals like external hdds into it. Not buying something better than a surge protector is like buying the cheapest possible bicycle or motorcycle helmet. Gets right back to "how much is your brain worth?" type questions.
posted by emptythought at 9:03 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

How's the power in your area? In one office, we had terrible power - lots of reductions in current, power spikes, brownouts, blackouts, etc., We got really good surge protectors, and computers lasted longer. Where I live now, I get occasional 30 second power losses in big storms, while another circuit kicks in. I use a decent surge suppressor, but a UPS would be overkill; I'm not in danger of losing critical work in an outage, because I use a laptop. If loisng any work at all is unacceptable, get a UPS. To protect equipment, get a surge suppressor rated for lots of joules. In a lightning storm, unplug your equipment. Hardly anything survives a direct hit.
posted by theora55 at 5:37 AM on August 4, 2014

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