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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