[IMGCAP(1)]There’s an evil demon lurking behind your wall. It’s hiding in your AC outlets, just waiting to wreak havoc on your expensive PCs and peripherals. It’s called line power, and it’s up to no good.

[IMGCAP(2)]Many of us take our power company’s claim of providing 110 volts AC at the wall outlet as being more or less truthful. It’s not—over time, the voltage at your outlet can vary from 90 volts or less to 140 volts or more. And that’s under normal operating conditions. It doesn’t take into account that the power in this country is full of power drop offs, power spikes, and noise on the line that rides along with the expected sine wave of current sweeping from positive to negative and back (the AC stands for alternating current).

Truth be told, even at the best of times, line power at the outlet is pretty lousy. And that’s not really good for your PC, monitor, printer or any other peripheral that depends on line power. In fact, power supply problems are one of the leading causes of PC problems. The output from one of today’s high-quality power supplies is pretty well regulated, but many motherboard and component failures can be traced back to power supply problems, with voltage and current spikes managing to make their way through the power supply. And that’s if the power supply itself doesn’t die first.

You may think you have the problem aced with that surge protector you picked up at Best Buy, but you don’t. The problem is that the surge protectors you can buy at Best Buy and Walmart serve only one purpose—to stop a large surge of electricity, such as sometimes happens when lightning strikes a power line, from getting through to your PC and peripheral’s power supplies.

Typical power line glitches, such as voltage dipping below 90 volts or topping out at over 160 volts, zip right through a surge protector and can damage or kill the power supplies found in many PCs and laser-based printers and MFPs. Faulty or damaged power supplies account for a significant number of equipment failures.

If Not Surge Protection, Then What?

As the quality of power at the wall outlet continues to deteriorate, the need for power protection increases. And that means that you need some form of power conditioning. Simple power conditioners are available from about $90, and most do a really great job of filtering out line noise and limiting power spikes, shutting down the power when there’s a surge that exceeds a preset limit (150 to 160 volts is a good setting). Don’t mistake these for an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS)—a power conditioner doesn’t level out the line voltage, it just prevents catastrophic amounts of power anomalies from making into the power supply. For example, it’s not uncommon for line voltage to dip, and then overshoot when it recovers, dropping to 60 volts and then zooming to 160 volts before settling back down at 110-120 volts. Called overshoot, this kind of power roller coaster might not completely fry your power supply, but can cause component damage on the motherboard or controller circuitry.  

One solution is a power conditioner. There are a number of good units on the market. The one I have the most experience with is the Next Gen PCS from Electronic Systems Protection. They’re not inexpensive, costing between $170-$200, but worth it if you live in an area with poor power, and it provides data logging capabilities as well, though many of you won’t have a use for this feature. A power conditioner (not necessarily this expensive) is probably a good choice if you want to protect a laser-based printer or MFP—something that doesn’t need a controlled shut down.

A more likely solution for most of us, and the one I employ, is a high-end UPS with power conditioning capabilities. I actually have three of these. I have two APCC rack mount UPS units, one 1,500 watts the other 2,000 watts, mounted in the server rack in the basement. I’ve had these for years, and while the batteries need to be replaced every two or three years, they’ve provided good service and protection over the years for the five servers downstairs.

On my production machine, which is where I do most of my mission-critical work, I’ve have a 1,500 watt CyberPower Systems CP1500PFCLCD mini-tower. This model provides excellent power conditioning, a clean sine-wave power output (some UPS devices put out power with a rough waveform that can put a strain on a PC or peripheral’s power supply), and can provide a run time of between two and 11 minutes, depending on the load my PC and display is putting on it at the moment. It has a multi-function LCD display that shows various data such as line voltage, output voltage (116 volts at the moment) and battery charge. This model sells online for around $200, and after a year, I’m very pleased with the way it’s performed through several power outages and brownouts. When the time comes to replace my rack mount units, the APCC UPS models are likely to be replaced with ones from CyberPower.

Whether you go the power conditioning route, or more likely, with a power conditioning UPS, keep in mind that it’s very likely that your AC power is way more problematic than you think, and that $200 or so for a high-quality UPS with power conditioning features is inexpensive insurance for mission critical data. Consider it just as necessary as good backup plan.