Summer storms can kill your computers, even if you unplug

Back in 2005, a much younger man than I told the story of how he (OK, it really was me) lost a lot of equipment to a lightning surge that was spit out from a violent summer storm.

With the temperatures in the high 90s here recently in the Washington, D.C., area, and expected to return to those levels on a regular basis, and afternoon thunderstorms an increasing possibility, I thought I would once again shout out a warning to my fellow technology-loving readers.

That day in 2005, I knew a storm was coming. I did what I thought was a protective move and unplugged all my computers and televisions. Yet, after the violent crescendos had passed, I found that several unplugged devices had still suffered damage.

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How did this ninja storm accomplish such a feat? Not by blowing a hole in my roof or anything like that. It simply dropped a bolt of lighting near my cable box outside, and then rode the line into the house. Although the damaged equipment, including two VCRs, a small TV, a DVD player, a PlayStation 2, two ports on my firewall and two network cards, were not plugged in, they were still connected to the cable, either for TV or Internet access.

I figured this out because on two of the computers, the modems were fried, but no damage occurred to anything else in them. I actually got off pretty lucky because the modems took the brunt of the surge.

Since then I have bought a surge protector from Monster that not only has electrical plugs but also a place to run the cable and phone line through. Those types of protectors used to be really expensive, but today they are relatively cheap. I was also told by some experts that using such a device would slow down my modem speeds, but after extensive tests I didn’t find this to be the case. So there is no reason not to use one.

Another problem that you might find in your area over the summer are brownouts, when less power is delivered to your home because of high demand elsewhere. This can occur over a long period of time if everyone in your city is trying to run their air conditioners and wash clothes at the same time or something like that, or over very brief incidents when the line into your home is not properly regulated due to local conditions.

Generally, these are not as harmful to computers as a surge, but they can be damaging, especially if you are trying to use a moving part or a motor inside your computer, such as when accessing your disk drive. You will start to accumulate bad sectors on your drive that will eventually become a problem. Long-term brownouts can also reduce your cooling efficiency and, in extreme cases, lead to overheating.

The way to combat a brownout is with a line-correcting uninterrupted power source device. I installed several from Tripp Lite in my home. If the power dips, their batteries boost the line and make sure that vulnerable electronics keep getting the correct amount of electricity. I have mine programmed to signal in the event of a brownout and was quite surprised at how often they squawk over the summer.

You may not even know that you are experiencing a brownout, though your electrics will still suffer for it. As a bonus, UPS devices also work as surge protectors for the electric line.

If storms are really bad in your area, it’s always a good idea to disconnect computers from any lines going into them regardless of how much protection you have, but since that is not always practical or you might not always be around, a few steps and not much money can give you a bit more peace of mind.

So while you’re firing up the grill and squeezing into your swimming trunks, keep an eye on the sky, and don’t forget to keep your computers high and dry, and on a steady diet of the proper power levels.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Sun, Jul 1, 2012

whats a VCR?

Thu, Jun 28, 2012 Peter Greater NYC

If you have a cable drop, consider using a Polyphaser-like surge protector inline with the coax outside the house. These units sell for about $65. Don't depend on the cable company supplied "grounding unit" that only protects the shield and not the center conductor. Mount it under the overhang (to keep it dry) and ground the poly with #4 wire to an 8 ft copper stake driven into the soil as close to the entry point as possible (single point ground works best). That will help protect your cable modem, phones, pcs etc.

Wed, Jun 27, 2012

Last Year I lost 2 TVs and 2 Laptops to a surge. The TVs were hooked into 2 different APC UPS's on the surge side and the laptops were plugged into the Battery side of the same two UPS boxes. There was no damage to the UPS or any other products. The TVs were plugged into the Satellite but none of the intervening equipment was damaged in any way. The power supplies in both TVs were fried and one of the laptops can no longer charge the battery. Surges are unpredictable.

Tue, Jun 26, 2012 BaltFed Woodlawn, MD

Hey, even your "fiber" cable has a wire tracer built into it (so "Miss Utility" can locate it), but I don't think it's terminated (grounded) inside the house. Underground wiring won't help: I have a power strip whose MOVs gave up the ghost when lighning hit a tree next to the house years ago (you can still see the scar on the tree). Fortunately no equipment was damaged, but there was a sizzle coming from the strip and the fried MOVs rattled inside after the strike.. The only electrical damage we've had was when some idiot came to bury the cable years ago and the Miss Utility report said all the wiring was aerial, but it's not; Miss Utility went to the wrong street, miles away, where everything was aerial. Our power and phone feeds were underground but Mr. Brilliant decided to proceed even though he couldn't see any aerial wires and managed to slice the neutral in our power feed. He was amazed when he drew sparks as he tried to screw in the cable connector. In the meantime my wife came outside to see what happened to the power. With the neutral gone, half our circuits went down to 10 volts and the other half went up to 220 volts, frying TVs, the Microwave, the 24V transformer for the furnace, and I've forgotton what else. I have surge protected power strips all over the house for anything electronic.

Tue, Jun 26, 2012

And since we're throwing out brand names, let's say FiOS where my network line is fibre optic (glass is a bad conductor) until it gets inside my house and underground on top of that. I'll admit I don't unplug my electronics but I do keep them behind a couple layers of surge protectors and UPS devices. Beyond that, unless your power lines run above ground, I'd say if you still wind up a victim then better go out and get some lottery tickets. Then again, I've been electrocuted a few times when I thought I was safe so take it with a grain of salt.

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