Do I really need to unplug my stuff during a thunderstorm?
October 2, 2014 7:23 PM   Subscribe

Recently I got a new surge protector because, the old one didn't have enough outlets anymore and it got me thinking if I really need to unplug my stuff during a thunderstorm. I don't want to just not play my games or something just because it's storming. I only get so much free time to play games and I don't want to have it squandered by the weather. So do I really need to unplug my stuff during a storm? Right now it's storming and I unplugged everything but, my ethernet switch which I need to type this.
posted by mamamia88 to Computers & Internet (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. Surge protectors/UPS devices can't handle the load should your lines get struck. You can gamble with the odds and hope you're lucky, but is a half hour of extra game time worth losing your expensive equipment?

Google lightning strikes electronics.
posted by clone boulevard at 7:29 PM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have never unplugged anything in a storm in almost 40 years of life and have never had anything even slightly damaged, but I know that it can and does happen. Like many things in life, it comes down to weighing risk against benefit. Driving a car is dangerous, but the benefit of travel is worth it for me. Leaving electrical items plugged in in an electrical storm is dangerous, but the benefit of being able to watch Netflix on a rainy day is worth it.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:30 PM on October 2, 2014 [19 favorites]

It's one thing to lose the equipment, so long as you have a good backup system and that remains unplugged. But if you were to get that one-in-a-million strike and you not only lose your equipment but also all your files and photos, etc.? Yikes. I tend to unplug the computers if I'm home. I might leave the tv and cable box on, so I have something to do.
posted by clone boulevard at 7:35 PM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can get a whole house surge protector installed for $300 these days.
posted by COD at 7:41 PM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can risk frying anything plugged into an electrical outlet if the power lines are struck by lightning, even with a surge protector. The same is true for anything plugged into a phone line. A good friend lost their DSL modem, router, and motherboard (all connected via ethernet) this way a few years back.
posted by Aster at 7:51 PM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have whole house surge protection and I still unplug everything if it looks stormy (including the DSL modem from the phone line). I suppose if you had to do something on a computer and want to chance it, it would be better to use a laptop running on battery power connected via WiFi during a storm - at least that way, you (probably) wouldn't lose the laptop if your lines were hit.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 7:54 PM on October 2, 2014

It's not just lighting strikes...storms will also cause brownouts.. A month ago a seconds long brown out burned out my $700 AC air handling fan...

So, I guess it's up to you...
posted by HuronBob at 7:55 PM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have lived a long, happy, electronics filled life, and never remotely heard of the idea that you should unplug things during a storm. It sounds absurd to me. Don't worry about it!
posted by Perplexity at 8:05 PM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

The chance of lightning striking circuits leading through your house depends on where you live. I had never heard that I should unplug my electronics during a thunderstorm, but I lived in a valley. I suspect it's riskier if you live in the desert or on the prairie or in some other open, flat area.
posted by WasabiFlux at 8:09 PM on October 2, 2014

I have lived a long, happy, electronics filled life, and never remotely heard of the idea that you should unplug things during a storm. It sounds absurd to me. Don't worry about it!

During one of San Francisco's incredibly rare thunderstorms a bunch of years ago, the house got hit and the TV and phone lines got fried - scorch marks on the wall and everything. It is a thing that actually happens.
posted by rtha at 8:39 PM on October 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Years ago, my SO's parents' house was struck by lightning and it fried everything in the house that was plugged in. Everything, computers, phones, TV. His mother even claimed that their refrigerator was never the same after that. (A few months later, his younger sister, who still lived at home, cleverly used lightning as an excuse when she blew out the new stereo system during an unauthorized mom-and-dad-are-away party.)

Do I unplug anything during storms? Nope.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 8:41 PM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have had a motherboard and a microwave fried by surges caused by lightning. Yes it happens.
posted by brownrd at 9:32 PM on October 2, 2014

What in the world, I had no idea this was a thing and have never done this. However I've lived in LA most of my life and have probably only experienced big thunder storms a few dozen times.
posted by Defenestrator at 9:50 PM on October 2, 2014

A surge protector won't help you. You want a SPIKE protector, and a big one. Or really, an isolation transformer like one of these power conditioners.

Your local office technology recyclers ultra! type shop in the industrial district will have these. Buy one with enough capacity to plug JUST your important stuff into.

A surge protector is designed to handle power jumping back from a brownout, not a spike ABOVE line voltage. A spike protector does that. An isolation transformer based power conditioner is what it sounds like, it completely isolates the input line from the output side of the unit, physically. Lightning can go in one side of the thing and just fry a sacrificial wire in the transformer, and all your shit is fine. If lightning overwhelms a spike protector it can still jump to your stuff.

I have a huge, commercial line interactive UPS i picked up super cheap used. It's loud and annoying(when it kicks on) and ugly and large, but it protects my shit PERFECTLY. You can buy cheap inline fuse units for ethernet cables and such that would connect protected equipment to unprotected equipment. Personally, i don't give a shit about my wifi router or game consoles or whatever. But my computer with all my external drives/NAS is on that UPS, and my audio gear will be on a transformer soon(it also improves audio quality since it defeats line noise :3)

The hierarchy basically goes surge protector>spike protector>line interactive UPS>isolation transformer. Price wise, the isolation transformer is barely a step above the surge protector, and can be cheaper than a new quality spike protector(IE a fuhrman rack mount box) if you get a good deal used at one of the aforementioned office recycling shops.

Nearly every commercial POS installation uses those isolation transformers. Don't be afraid to just buy a big fucking pile of them if they only have the low capacity models and they're cheap(i've seen them for $5 each! they were only rated at like 2.5 amps each, but just stack and stack and stack...). Just stack one behind... everything that matters, and never worry about this crap again.

A random closing note, there are both isolation transformer-UPS combos, and "online"/double conversion UPSes if you want both features. It's possible to buy a large enough used one of either big enough to run say, your entire computer and media setup on if you have somewhere to fit it and the wherewithal to make sure the batteries are ok or replace them yourself. Isolation transformers also come in that kind of size, and occasionally show up at those shops, if you want to just put everything on one huge one and are willing to drop some coin...(shitty power has wrecked quite a bit of gear for me over the years. i always think about doing this if i ever have a basement or a large closet that isn't going to get used for anything else)
posted by emptythought at 10:44 PM on October 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

Well, a surge from power going out during a storm fried my desktop computer, which was annoying. I think, if I recall, the power supply and motherboard were ruined, but I was able to salvage the other parts. A few hundred bucks. My computer wasn't plugged into a surge protector though, because I am idiot. But based on the other comments, it sounds like that wouldn't have made a difference.

I had never heard of such a thing happening until it happened to me. It cost me a good bit of time and money to deal with.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:36 PM on October 2, 2014

I've never unplugged things during a storm, but I will turn them off if storms are really bad.
posted by SisterHavana at 11:47 PM on October 2, 2014

In the southeastern US, we frequently get a thunderstorm every single day in the summer. Our electronics are plugged into surge protectors, but we do not unplug them in storms. Honestly, it would be a huge pain in the ass to do so every afternoon, plus all those afternoons when no one is home.

As SisterHavana says, we usually turn things off during bad storms. Actually, in our current house, the power usually goes out in bad storms.

I've lived in thunderstorm-prone places all my life and don't remember ever losing any electronics to a storm. All the losses I've had have been due to crappy wiring.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:34 AM on October 3, 2014

As Rock Steady days, it's risk vs reward, or in this case risk vs effort. Is the risk if lightning strike - and therefore being forced to replace your electronics - worth the effort of unplugging all of them?

I can afford to replace all of the electronics in my house. So in 12 years since I left my parents' house over never unplugged a thing due to a storm and I've never had anything fried. But that's a luxury I have because the catastrophic scenario - complete replacement - is one I can handle.

So if replacing everything is something you can handle, feel free to leave stuff plugged in.
posted by Tehhund at 5:18 AM on October 3, 2014

I've lived in a couple of places with bad thunderstorms, and in both places, electrical equipment got fried. I lost a bread machine in one hit and a modem in another.

After that, I plugged the important things into power strips. Then unplugging them meant just yanking two plugs out of the wall. During the summer, it became second nature to unplug those strips every time I left the house for more than a few hours.

If I was home and lightning was getting close, everything got unplugged, including the internet, even if I was really into what I was doing. For me, it was the minor hassle of being offline for maybe 30 minutes a few times each summer versus the major hassle of having a melted modem and being offline for several days while I got it replaced.
posted by ceiba at 6:13 AM on October 3, 2014

My wife internalized this lesson so deeply and unconsciously that she is afraid to take a bath or shower during a storm (lightning could follow the pipes?) or use a cordless (!!!) phone.

I really, really love her anyway.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:08 AM on October 3, 2014

It all depends on how much risk you're willing to take. I have surge protectors for most of my electronics -- mostly because they won't all fit in one socket and might as well buy a surge protector as well as a power strip, right? But to unplug stuff during every storm ever? Life's to short to be that afraid. Though I will admit to turning stuff off and sometimes unplugging when thunder rattles the house and lightning knocks on the door.
posted by patheral at 9:26 AM on October 3, 2014

if you were to get that one-in-a-million strike and you not only lose your equipment but also all your files and photos, etc.?

Then you'd still be fine, because Jamie knows things and you listened to him.
posted by flabdablet at 9:52 AM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I unplug the important stuff, which is all plugged into one surge protector anyway, so it's pretty easy. I also have very little electronic stuff. I do unplug the box fans (I don't do A/C) because I'd hate to have to replace them during a heat wave.

My wife internalized this lesson so deeply and unconsciously that she is afraid to take a bath or shower during a storm (lightning could follow the pipes?)

Could this be because it is actually an, admittedly rare, but true phenomenon? See also: Snopes, Discovery, Mental Floss, & The New York Times.
posted by carrioncomfort at 10:05 AM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

At our house we had a close lightning strike about four years ago that totally killed several large and small appliances, including an expensive TV, a guitar amplifier, and a few clock radios, one of which may not have even been plugged in at the time. We were already in the habit of unplugging for imminent storms, but this one cropped up without warning while we were all asleep. We could never tell where the strike hit, but we suspect a tall backyard tree that some time later died from a lingering illness. This was deep in the heart of Tornado Alley. Unplugging in threatening weather is a lot easier for us than scraping up an extra few hundred dollars or more on short notice to replace things.
posted by Flexagon at 10:37 AM on October 3, 2014

Your risk is somewhat dependent on where you live, I think. I grew up in the rural midwest, which has the most intense thunderstorms I've ever experienced, and everyone lived in a standalone house in the middle of a large flat patch of land. Losing electronics and appliances that you didn't unplug during a thunderstorm was a regular occurrence.

My wife internalized this lesson so deeply and unconsciously that she is afraid to take a bath or shower during a storm (lightning could follow the pipes?)

Yeah, this is a real thing. Worth worrying about in the grand scheme of things? I don't know. But not made up.
posted by geegollygosh at 10:58 AM on October 3, 2014

I don't unplug my stuff because it is either (a) relatively unimportant and/or easy to replace or (b) on one of my big ol' commercial UPSes, which are also connected to a power conditioner. I will occasionally unplug the stuff on the nightstand if it's storming bad enough (lessons learned from when the house got hit one morning and my alarm clock literally freaking exploded next to my head).

Also, friendly reminder to replace your surge protectors every so often. They are intercepting tons of smaller spikes and stuff throughout the time you have them plugged in (depending on where you are, your AC service may be really dirty) and the parts in them do wear out. (YMMV but ones that use MOVs definitely do wear out - the MOVs themselves degrade over time and use.)
posted by mrg at 2:23 PM on October 3, 2014

Oh, as an addendum to my above story about the SO's parents' lightning-struck house:

SO reminded me that the big worry according to his parents was not losing all the electronics in the house, but the danger of fire when the house was empty, especially because they had electric blankets on the bed that got fried and could have set the bedding on fire.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 8:07 PM on October 3, 2014

But if you were to get that one-in-a-million strike and you not only lose your equipment but also all your files and photos, etc.?

They have this thing called "cloud backup".

Seriously, folks, "Nothing can protect you! It could happen!" is a bullshit fear. The exact same argument can be made for why you should never, ever live in a house - meteors can and DO strike the Earth, sometimes destroying property! No house can protect you completely, so you should live in a cave!

Or, you can assess your risks and make an informed decision about the relative risks, which is what the OP is asking for, instead of mindless "NOTHING CAN STOP LIGHTNING!!!" fears.

So, here's a real-world assessment of risk: surge suppression devices provide guarantees of protection, backed by insurance, up to numbers like $10k-50k of property replacement should a surge make it past their device. The insurance companies would not insure those claims if they had to pay out very often; ergo, the risk to your property is far, far lower than the profits from selling those devices. I'd sleep safe if an insurance adjuster selfishly calculated that they are unlikely to pay out for my lightning-related losses.

YMMV, but at least this is data-driven to some degree.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:42 PM on October 5, 2014

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