A Cheap Way to Banish Those Blackout Blues

Gizmos that save the day when your screen goes pffft!

You know the feeling. You're sitting at your computer when the lights dim, flicker, and recover. It's over in an instant, yet during that time your PC gives off an ominous click and reboots. It's a sure sign that whatever you were working on--paying your bills, executing a stock trade, burning the latest Britney Spears tune onto a CD--is gone.

After a particularly threatening winter, complete with rolling blackouts and heavier-than-usual storms for us Californians, I decided it was time to look for an uninterruptible-power supply (UPS). Besides, summer is coming, with the brownouts that occur as everyone cranks up the air conditioning.

UPS systems look like a battery in a box, but they're more than that. They use electrical circuits to protect your computer gear from Mother Nature and your local utility, especially from the damaging electrical spikes that follow brief outages when the power comes on again. The battery gives you enough time to save your work after the lights go out. Even some of the least expensive models can get your computer to automatically store open files, close programs, and shut down.

DO YOUR MATH. I looked at a half-dozen models from American Power Conversion (APCC ), Tripp Lite, and Opti-UPS. A few years ago, they started at about $200 and went up from there. Now, prices have come way down: A UPS rated around 300 VA (volt-amps) can be had for $60 to $80. That's not much more than a good surge suppressor--which gives you some of the electrical protection against power spikes but still leaves your data vulnerable when your computer shuts down without warning.

The companies' Web sites will give you guidelines to figure how big a UPS you need, based on your PC's processor and the size of your monitor. They err on the generous side. You can do a more accurate job yourself: Add up the maximum current in amps that each piece of equipment draws (check the stickers on the back), multiply by 120 volts, and divide by two to get a rough estimate of average power. You should include your computer, monitor, and modem.

Even the smallish systems should give you five or six minutes of battery backup power, generally enough to finish your work and shut down your computer. (Four out of five outages in the U.S. last five minutes or less.) Systems in the $90 to $150 range, rated at 420 to 525 VA, let you work through incidents that last 15 to 20 minutes or more, depending on how much power your system draws. They also include more power outlets to handle more equipment and have a couple of phone jacks to protect your PC from power surges that come in through the modem, such as when lightning takes out a phone line. A more expensive system will give you room to expand if you plan to add an external CD-ROM burner or perhaps a Zip drive. Don't bother connecting equipment, such as a printer or scanner, that does work that can easily be duplicated when the power comes back on.

A word about the software that comes with these machines: It's designed for network administrators who want to monitor computers remotely, and much of it is too complicated for home systems. You probably don't need to be paged, for example, when your home computer goes dead. I had to call the tech support department at both Tripp Lite and Opti-UPS to get their programs configured correctly for my system. That wasn't a problem with the APC products.

Sure, buying a UPS is like buying insurance. You may never use it. Then again, a single incident where you save a lot of data or time may make you feel as if your purchase just paid for itself.

By Larry Armstrong

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