cc: ALL Users: A bolt from the blue: Beware of the cable

John Breeden II

My house seems to sit on a meteorological fault line. I don't even know if such a thing really exists, but every time a bad storm blows through the area, the heaviest bands seem to pass right over my home in Montgomery County, Md., before heading east and out to sea.

So it was no surprise one recent summer weekend when the skies started to darken and winds began to pick up yet again. My wife was visiting her parents that weekend, so I was enjoying watching the only two television channels that seem to work when I am home alone: SciFi and History.

The first indication of anything wrong was that my cat was hiding under a chair in the game room. My cat always seems to know when a bad storm is coming, yet she rarely takes to her chair shelter unless it's going to be very bad. Since I knew Bridget does a better job predicting the weather than most television weather-guessers in this area, I heeded the warning.

I unplugged the television and all the electronic gear in the area. I lost a nice television two years ago to a storm, so I am pretty quick to unplug things now when needed.

The storm was horrendous. In fact, it was worse than when Hurricane Isabel roared through a few years ago. The thunder was so loud that the chandelier upstairs was rattling with each blow and the windows seemed to shake.

When it was finally over, I plugged everything back in. To my surprise, a lot of equipment had been fried. I was perplexed. How did unplugged equipment die in a storm? I was in the same room as the equipment so it obviously did not take a direct hit. Yet I lost two VCRs, one small television, a DVD player, a PlayStation 2, two ports on my firewall and two network cards (but not the computers they were in, thank God).

The one thing all these devices had in common is that they were attached to the cable, either for the television signal or for Internet access. As near as I can figure, a lightning strike must have hit close to the outside cable wire, sending enough power through to cause the surge.

Fried equipment

The surge must have been fairly weak as surges go. I've never before seen a network card fry without harming the system it is hardwired into. And my DVD player's internal glass fuse was destroyed, a $4 replacement part from Panasonic that saved the rest of the $200 unit. And the surge blew out two ports on the firewall but left the others OK.

So even though I lost some equipment, I did get lucky. My problem was not thinking about all the ways electricity can get into a system. Cable wires or even phone lines can become conduits for power-killing surges.

Thankfully, the solution is not too expensive. You can purchase a surge protector for your cable-TV wire for about $5 that will blow a glass fuse during a surge. So you can replace the fuse and not your TV.

Several universal power supply companies sell power strips that not only protect power cords but also network cables and phone lines. These range anywhere from about $30 to several hundred dollars.

The best thing to do is to look at your network, either at work or at home. Examine all the cables that exit the network. Every one of them is a gateway that needs to be protected. Otherwise, trust me: You have a hard lesson coming your way quicker than a bolt of lightning.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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