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August 13, 2007 5:11 PM   Subscribe

Which (American-style) electrical surge protector will most reliably and economically protect my precious computer equipment from unforeseeable disaster?

I have become increasingly reliant on my home server, as well as more than a little paranoid that an electrical surge will destroy terabytes. Yes, in the grand scheme of things, I could pick up the shattered pieces of my life (e.g. the disorganized semi-current backups), but how can I minimize the risks so I can leave the house without worrying about unforecasted lightning?

After orienting myself to the mechanics of surge protection, I am fairly confident that I do not need a/n (battery-based) uninterruptable power supply. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) rankings give some reassurance that the surge protection will work well under duress, but separating the wheat from the chaff is a little daunting--every guide says something along the lines of "Shopping for a surge protector is tricky business because there are a lot of nearly worthless products on the market."1

Do any Mefites have recommendations for (or warnings against) particular models? Individual anecdotes welcome, and professional experience enthusiastically encouraged.

In previous surge-protecting entries, there were a few daunting tales, but few outright recommendations, as most focused on cable aesthetics; also, I'd be delighted with individual switches (as requested in this recent-but-somewhat-unresolved question), but the collective googling has yet to turn up an option in the West Atlantic. Am I just left to sort by price and decide how much protection I can afford?
posted by zachxman to Technology (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A UPS with a built in surge protector would give you the best defense against power spikes and brownouts. The battery in those things acts as a giant capacitor and gives you an extra layer of protection.
posted by IronLizard at 5:27 PM on August 13, 2007

Response by poster: Is this always true, or only for continuous UPSes? Is any battery better than no battery? I was under the impression that the surge-protecting mechanism was independent of the battery-powering mechanism, but (obviously) IANAElectrican.
posted by zachxman at 5:43 PM on August 13, 2007

Best answer: I recently bought a CyberPower model with an LCD screen and I really like it. The model to which I linked has 4 battery/surge outlets and 4 surge-only outlets. I have an eMac, an external hard drive, an airport extreme, and a cable modem connected, and the load is only about 50% (The LCD screen is very useful for this sort of information).

The model has 42 minutes of battery and comes with software that works with PCs and Macs that will shut the computer down gracefully based on user settings. It comes with the USB cable used for this feature too. The website shows the MSRP of US$100, but I got mine for US$72 and had seen it for as low as US$46 at Staples.

Be careful about ordering these things online because they weight a lot so you don't want to pay shipping costs.

Good luck.
posted by terrapin at 5:44 PM on August 13, 2007

I've got this one

works great
posted by evilelvis at 6:12 PM on August 13, 2007

Your power company will install a whole house surge protector at your junction box. I've heard it's about $500 - but stopping the surge before it gets past the main breaker box seems like it would be the safest solution. Then you can independently UPS the devices that need it.
posted by COD at 6:13 PM on August 13, 2007

Maybe I'm the only one who feels this way, but I think your time and money would be better spent working on a backup plan and system that actually works and that you could restore from without losing unacceptable amounts of work (like, no more than 12-24 hrs worth), rather than depending on a surge suppressor.

It's not that I've never heard of someone getting their computer fried by a surge, but I've heard a lot more Tales Of WoeTM due to other reasons, including user error / PEBKAC, and storage-media failure. A good backup plan will help you in any of these cases, a surge suppressor will only help you in some very limited ones.

I'm not saying that a surge suppressor is a bad thing to have, but it seems a bit like buying that zombie-invasion shotgun when you don't have smoke detectors. Misplaced priorities.1

Also, if you do have a power surge, I'd imagine in all likelihood it would just burn the computer's power supply; I'd keep a few spare PSs around before I dropped significant amounts of dough on a surge suppressor (because PSes tend to go just of their own accord, so you're covering your ass for two failure modes). But I'd still only do that after I had a solid off-site backup strategy.

Go for the low-hanging fruit first.

1 - Unless there is something here I'm not seeing, like you're off the grid or in a foreign country and have *seriously* crummy power that routinely causes your appliances to explode, &c.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:29 PM on August 13, 2007

I'm not saying that a surge suppressor is a bad thing to have, but it seems a bit like buying that zombie-invasion shotgun when you don't have smoke detectors. Misplaced priorities.

I agree with this, but the magnitude of hosed-ness from a spike is worth protecting against. I think I lost more data to the drives which were quietly and slowly failing post-spike than to the power supply which failed immediately and was easily replaced. It did indeed burn the power supply, but the power supply wasn't a surge suppressor, just a surge... distributor.

Belt and suspenders.
posted by mendel at 7:52 PM on August 13, 2007

A spike blew my motherboard and power supply. Your level of hosedness may vary.
posted by IronLizard at 8:13 PM on August 13, 2007

Best answer: I would also suggest reconsidering the battery-backup. Sudden power failure to your server is generally considered a bad thing; you can lose data. Depending on the filesystem you use, you can lose a LOT of data. Linux's XFS, for instance, while excellent in most respects, does not tolerate power loss very well.

My general recommendation is to pick up a used APC Smart or Net-UPS 1400 with a new battery. The 1400s are built like freaking tanks and will last damn near forever, and you can usually pick them up with new batteries for $200ish. The batteries themselves cost about $100, so in a sense, the UPS itself is only $100. This place appears to have a couple in stock. I'm almost sure I bought one from these people; I have two.

Remember that you will need to budget about $100 for replacement batteries every four or five years; there is a run cost to a UPS, but it's quite reasonable.

Also note that shipping will cost more than you'd expect: UPSes are very heavy. (Lead-acid batteries.)

I have all of my stuff protected, and that's important in lightning country; the power here is very flaky and surgy. Very shortly after arriving here, before I was UPSed, a lightning strike blew out my laptop modem, and not long ago, I lost a firewall to another lightning strike. (That one went right around the UPS... it came in via network. Sigh. ) But I've had no other troubles, despite more power disturbances, nearby lightning hits, and short outages than I can count. The weather here gets wild at times, and a solid UPS is very cheap insurance.

Avoid, by the way, the cheapo APC UPSes you see in stores like Best Buy. They're not particularly well-built, where the used 1400s are server-class devices, meant to last. They don't even cost more if you buy used, and they'll power much larger devices. You can even run a laser printer off a 1400, which will cause shrieking or instant power failure on lesser units.

If you're really, really sure you want just a surge strip, the larger APC strips are good... they'll run you $50 or $60, but they'll give you protection that's about as good as you can get short of a battery.
posted by Malor at 11:12 PM on August 13, 2007

Oh, and: yes, do attend to the backups. UPSes don't protect against typos.
posted by Malor at 11:14 PM on August 13, 2007

Best answer: Tackle both approaches. HDD space is cheap these days (1 TB drives for $400?). Build an array that can back up your stuff, or sync copies between multiple computers, or burn everything to non-magnetic media, or all three - but keep a battery backup on hand to protect your hardware investment.

I picked up an APC Back-UPS Pro 650 at university salvage about a year ago. (Do you have a university nearby? Check to see if they have a surplus/salvage area with public sales; you'd be amazed what people sell off. The Back-UPS had never been used. It cost next to nothing.)

At the time we had flaky power - computer would reboot for random reasons, which worried me. Back-UPS stopped that. It's the size of a shoebox and weighs a ton, but it runs my computer, monitor, wifi router, and has a network surge suppressor built in, so no worries about death by broadband. Don't know exactly how much battery life it has, but in a power outage I certainly have enough time to close out my work and hibernate or shut down. Newer models with USB cables work a little better with newer computers, but the serial cable that I use with this beast is enough to make it work.

I also have an external USB backup drive. I keep it fairly up-to-date, manually, and otherwise leave it turned off. Most of my data is redundantly backed up on home system and on two different laptops, plus burned copies of anything really important. I use sync utilities to ensure that the backups and mirrors are up-to-date.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:21 AM on August 14, 2007

You are right that the battery only helps condition the power if it is an inline system. Otherwise, there is some voltage regulation, but it differs from UPS to UPS.

The big advantage I've noticed with UPSes is less frequent hard drive failures. It's been more than worth it from an economic standpoint for that reason alone (before we even get into data loss).

I think the only way to tell how much voltage a surge protector can handle is to crack it open and look at the varistor rating. I have no idea how to compare these though.

You might want to look at power conditioners, which seem to provide the cleanest power.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:01 PM on August 14, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks to all who replied. Though a bit more elaborate than my original plan, I settled on the CyberPower CP1350AVRLCD, especially after reading this review. caution live frog's refurbished APC was tempting, as would be off-grid power sources, but for the moment, I'll settle with a commercial option. Though my backup strategy isn't as haphazard as I may have originally implied, I don't have a reliable offsite copy of most material (multiple computers/drives, yes), though recommendations for that are welcome. Anyway, now I can rest a little easier through the storms...
posted by zachxman at 6:42 PM on August 14, 2007

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