Computer Consult: What if the power goes off?

November 8, 2002

Don't leave hardware, software, and valuable data at the mercy of bad juice.

 

Computer Consult

What if the power goes off?

 

Don't leave hardware, software, and valuable data at the mercy of bad juice.

Joshua Feinberg

Most utility companies can't provide electrical power consistently and cleanly enough for physicians who increasingly depend on computers to help run their practices. Sometimes there's too much power, sometimes too little, sometimes none at all.

And you never know when the utility pole outside your building might get zapped by lightning, or toppled by a runaway truck. You need a strategy for coping with these uncertainties. You need to safeguard not only your hardware, but software and data—billing records and patient information—which may be irreplaceable.

While there are many power protection products on the market, two are essential: Surge protectors and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units, also called battery backup units.

What they are and when to use them

Every sensitive piece of electronic equipment in your office needs a surge protector or a UPS unit. Here's what you need to know about each:

Surge protectors. They shield hardware from sudden, dramatic jumps in electric current, which often follow a power dip. Such onslaughts can physically destroy electronic components. A surge protector shouldn't be confused with a mere power strip, which provides absolutely no protection—just more receptacles.

Make sure you buy a surge protector with receptacles for the phone lines that connect to your modems and fax machines. An undefended phone line could allow a tidal wave of current to flood your entire computer network.

Expect to pay $15 to $35 for a reliable surge protector. Buy only reputable brands such as American Power Conversion and Tripp Lite. And make sure the surge protectors include a warranty on the electronic equipment they're meant to guard.

I generally prescribe surge protectors for devices where the only worry is whether they could get fried by a power surge. These devices include printers, telephones, cell phone chargers, and diagnostic and monitoring equipment.

If you own a laptop computer, you have power issues, too. Fortunately, laptop owners can buy inexpensive, portable surge protectors made especially for their machines. Because they contain batteries, laptops don't require a UPS unit.

Uninterruptible power supply. A UPS unit comes to your rescue when utility power disappears. It puts out several minutes' worth of auxiliary power, allowing you to save work in progress, close open files, and shut down your system gracefully.

The consequences of an improper shutdown due to a power outage aren't pretty. Not only do you lose unsaved data, say, in a word processing document or spreadsheet, but you risk damage to open data files. Electronic medical records may become unreadable. An improper shutdown also can corrupt your operating system; your practice management and other application software; and assorted configuration settings such as desktop toolbars, document margins, and macros.

A UPS unit does more than remedy power outages. It constantly monitors line voltage and trims back excessive power. In another words, it acts as a surge protector. And when utility power sags, a UPS unit gives it a boost. That's an important feature, because severe brownouts can cripple a computer system just as badly as a blackout can. In addition, most UPS devices can create a log of power dips and surges, a diagnostic tool for solving nagging utility problems.

UPS units for ordinary desktop computers cost anywhere from $100 to $200. However, the kind of small server normally found in a doctor's office needs an advanced UPS unit, one that switches from utility power to battery power more quickly to minimize the risk of damage. Prices for these deluxe units range from $400 to $800. Again, stick to products bearing brand names and equipment warranties.

You should test UPS units regularly. Although most devices have built-in self-tests, the best test is one that approximates a sudden blackout. Try this simple spot check. Turn off your computer the normal way, but leave your monitor on. Then pull the UPS power cord out of the wall receptacle and see if the monitor is still operating. Also review the instructions that come with your UPS unit for recommended testing procedures.

Which components of your computer network warrant a UPS unit? My rule of thumb is, if a component has random access memory—that is, it temporarily contains data that will disappear unless you permanently store it on the likes of a hard drive—put it on a UPS unit. That rule obviously applies to your computers. And remember, since a UPS unit guards against power surges, you don't need to connect a computer to a surge protector as well.

Also plug external modems, hubs, and routers into UPS units. If these devices are deprived of power for as little as a second or two, you'll lose data files that your computer may be uploading or downloading.

Avoid these bad power habits

Early detection of power accidents-waiting-to-happen is a key to keeping your computer system healthy. Watch out for these power pitfalls:

• Do you have surge protectors that are plugged into other surge protectors? Such daisy-chaining actually degrades their ability to guard circuitry. Each device should also be plugged directly into its own grounded, three-pronged wall receptacle. The same goes for UPS units.

• Does your computer equipment share an outlet with power-monopolizing appliances? These include microwave ovens, space heaters, air conditioners, and photocopy machines. When you turn on one of these heifers, you risk starving your computer circuits of power and even triggering a shutdown.

• Have you plugged a power-hungry appliance into a UPS unit meant for computer equipment? An appliance that's constantly turned off and on could wear out the unit prematurely. The trouble is, you never know when an employee might plug a space heater into a UPS unit or surge protector. Inexpensive kiddy plugs and homemade warning labels can give your staff a gentle reminder to find another outlet.

• Is the electricity for some wall outlets controlled by nearby wall switches? This power pitfall is sometimes found in older office buildings that originally were residences. You don't want to plug surge protectors and UPS units into this kind of outlet and risk having someone flip the switch to "off." So you'd better disable these switches.

If you have any doubts about your electrical wiring, ask a licensed electrician to inspect your circuits and perhaps set up a dedicated circuit for important systems.

Once you have a power crisis, the damage is already done. So take preventive measures now. By putting these tips to work, you'll go a long way toward keeping your practice's computer network and productivity out of harm's way.

The author (joshua@smallbiztechtalk.com) in West Palm Beach, FL, is a small-business technology expert and author of What Your Computer Consultant Doesn't Want You to Know.

 

Joshua Feinberg. Computer Consult: What if the power goes off?. Medical Economics 2002;21:26.