Protection from Power Surges and Outages (Podcast 531)

Protection from Power Surges and Outages (Podcast 531)

Last week, as I sat down to record the previous episode of this podcast, a thunderstorm set in. I decided to continue to try and record the show because I wanted to release it on schedule, but within seconds the second or third crack of thunder was huge, sounding as though it actually hit our apartment or very near to it.

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A flood of error messages started to appear on the screen of my iMac and all of my external hard drives had been disconnected. I’d taken a lightning strike, seemingly right on the nose. The storm moved on quickly, but I now had the job of finding out what had been affected, which took me another hour or so and pushed last week’s podcast episode over to a Tuesday release, instead of my usual Monday schedule.

First of all, I was relieved to see my hard drives reconnect, and the data on them seemed fine. I have backups of everything, but restoring them is a pain and generally something I like to avoid doing. Then I started to get messages requesting that I sign into my Apple account so that I could continue to use some of my Apple apps. As I entered my password and tried to sign back in, I was told that an error had occurred, and I realized at that point that I had lost my Internet connection.

Troubleshooting

Then, I looked down at my Apple AirPort Extreme router and saw that the indicator light was flashing orange, which means that something is wrong. I reset my cable modem, but the flashing orange persisted, so I called the cable company to see if there was a problem their end. I was hoping that this would be the case so that I could simply wait for them to fix it.

On their advice, I tried connecting the Ethernet cable from the cable modem directly to the back of the iMac, but there was still nothing. The cable company then told me that the line up to the cable modem looked fine, but there was no computer plugged into it. So, I grabbed my MacBook Pro and plugged the Ethernet cable directly from my cable modem into that, and I was connected to the Internet, which indicates that there was a problem with my iMac.

Fried Apples

I have a Belkin Thunderbolt hub attached to my iMac, which has an Ethernet port in it, so I plugged the cable modem into that, and I was connected to the Internet immediately. At this point, I knew that the lightning strike had fried at least the Ethernet port on my iMac.

I then plugged the cable modem back into the AirPort Extreme router and plugged that back into the Belkin hub Ethernet port, but again, there was nothing. The indicator light continued flashing orange, even after a cable modem reboot, so I did a factory reset on the AirPort Extreme, but it didn’t come back to life. It had also been fried.

If we think about this, it probably means that the electrical surge had come in through my telecoms cable, had not affected my Motorola cable modem, but had taken out the Apple components, so well done Motorola on that one.

iMac Already on Way to Support

As luck would have it, or not, depending on how you look at this, when I went into my studio on Monday morning to start preparing last week’s podcast episode, as I touched the back to find the power switch, there was a large cracking sound, and the iMac slumped forwards. The hinge had broken, so I’d already been on to Apple Support and had the iMac booked in for repairs anyway.

I called Apple up again and told them about this new issue, and they made a note to look at both issues at the same time. To cut a long story shortish, the courier came to pick up my iMac at 7:30 PM on Tuesday night, and it arrived back on Thursday morning, with the hinge fixed, and a note saying that the Logic Board had been replaced due to the surge damage.

Nice One Apple!

Because I had paid for Apple Care for the iMac I wasn’t charged for the repairs or the super speedy postage, so that was great. Unfortunately, though, there is no Apple Care for the fried AirPort Extreme router, so I had to drive to a nearby PC store to pick up another one of these on Tuesday morning. Life without Internet is too difficult these days, and the Apple Store was going to take a day longer to deliver a new one, and that just wasn’t going to happen.

So, by lunchtime on Tuesday I was back online, and by Thursday lunchtime I was back working with my iMac, but this really put me back to where I was at 5 PM on Monday, so all of my electronic equipment was still vulnerable to lightning strikes, although I’d already started to order some bits and pieces to remedy this, and I’m going to share what I found with you now, in the hope that it might help you protect your gear too, if you aren’t already covered and have everything under control that is.

Check Your Current Power Strips

The first thing I did was check the power strips that I’d been using. I think that the strike came in mainly over my cable wire, not the power, but on Monday evening an LED light bulb on my stairs blew as soon as I turned it on. The bulb was about two years old and only turned on a few times each day, for just a few minutes, but it’s rated at 30,000 hours, so it’s a bit too much of a coincidence that it blew straight after this strike.

I crawled under my desk to check the two power strips that I use and was slightly embarrassed to find that they were to reduce noise, not protect from power surges. Ironically, over the last year or so I’ve gradually been buying power surge protectors for various places around the house, and even put one on my printer and battery charging outlet just a few weeks ago, but I had wrongly assumed that the most important place in the house, my office workstation and Internet was all protected, and it wasn’t.

Integrated Coax Cable Surge Protection

So, I started to look around at what was available and was surprised to find a Japanese brand of power strip that had integrated coax cable surge protection, so I could protect my telecommunications cable connection as well as the power. I ordered one of these straight away, but I needed more than one, because I have a separate coax cable coming into the house downstairs for our home phone and TV, and it seems that I bought the last power strip of a now discontinued product line.

So, after coming up dry on Amazon.co.jp, I searched on Amazon.com and found the APC SurgeArrest power strip, also with integrated coax cable protection that you can see below. There are a number of variations but I bought the one with Tel/DSL and Network protection as well, although I’m thinking that I only need to feed the coax through this, as my phone comes through the coax as well as my Internet. Here are links to this model on B&H Photo Video and on Amazon.com.

APC Surge Arrest Power Strip

APC SurgeArrest Power Strip

As you can see, it has 11 power outlets that are all surge protected as well, so this, in addition to the next piece of equipment that I’ll talk about has me covered at my office desk now. I used the Japanese power strip downstairs for that coax and power for my TV and cable modem etc. I don’t want risk frying my precious 4K television!

Surge Protection Effective Lifespan

As I searched around for something to buy though, I did find out something very important. Apparently, the surge protection on these power strips has an effective lifespan. It runs out over time. As you can see in this photo, there is a Protection Working lamp that illuminates when the power strip is plugged in, and this goes out when the effectiveness of the surge protection runs out.

APC Surge Arrest Power Strip Closeup

APC SurgeArrest Power Strip Closeup

APC state on the box for the SurgeArrest power strip that you can call them for a replacement if this light goes out, but I don’t know if that’s for free or not, although the unit does come with a lifetime warranty. Interestingly, if you live in the US or Canada, you also get $300,000 Lifetime Connected Equipment Protection. From the reviews on Amazon.com, it seems that some people have had successful claims, and some have not, so you’d need to decide yourself if this is important to you.

By the way, if you do pick up one of these APC SurgeArrest power strips, note that they come with a coax, telephone, and Ethernet cable, so you don’t have to buy these separately. APC also throw in a couple of cable ties, all for just $28.

Uninterruptible Power Supply

The other thing that had been playing on my mind, is that when the lightning struck, my iMac screen dimmed for a moment, which could have been caused by the surge through the Ethernet cable, but a few other appliances in the house were reset, so it’s likely that we also had a momentary power outage. This is probably what caused my hard drives to power down, or perhaps it was a loss of power to the iMac. Either way, I started looking for a suitable UPS unit for my workstation.

UPS stands for Uninterruptible Power Supply, and I am familiar with these from my previous life in IT. We used to have some of our important servers connected to these units in case of sudden power failures. Japan has pretty reliable power, but there are times when it goes pear shaped, and this lightning strike was one of them.

APC Smart UPS 500J Front Panel

APC Smart UPS 500J Front Panel

I looked at the capacity and prices and decided to get an APC Smart-UPS 500J, which is a 500VA (Volt-Ampere) unit that I can’t find available outside of Japan, which is probably what the “J” in the name means. The closest model to this at B&H Photo Video and Amazon.com is the APC Smart-UPS 750VA LCD 120v. Japan actually uses 100v for appliances, so the 750VA model may be what you need to get the same protection in the US.

20 Minutes on UPS Battery

My calculations for power requirement were pretty good though. With my iMac, two Drobo 5D hard drives, my Mackie Mixer, a Time Machine hard drive, my BenQ display, my cable modem, the telephone modem, telephone, and AirPort Extreme all connected to my Smart-UPS 500J unit, I’m running at about 65% of the unit’s full capacity.

I should mention that the UPS I bought only has 6 power outlets built in. I have my two modems, my Airport Extreme, and my telephone power adapter plugged into a four-port power strip built into my desk, and I’ve plugged my desk into the UPS unit.

I would be nervous about doing this blindly, but as you power on equipment the LED information panel on the unit tells you exactly how much power you are using. With all of these devices power up, including both of my Drobo 5D hard drives, which both have five 3.5″ hard drives inside, I’m still well under the capacity of the 500J UPS unit, and that gives me 20 minutes of battery-powered operation in the case of a power outage.

APC haven’t done a good job of supporting the Mac OS though, so we only have some simple shutdown options on the computer under the Energy Saver preferences, and these come from the Mac OS, not APC. Once you connect a UPS unit with a USB cable, you will see a UPS tab with just a couple of options, including dimming the display when on UPS power, just like you’ll see on laptops. You can also choose to display the UPS status in the menu bar.

Energy Saver UPS Settings

Energy Saver UPS Settings

The important thing here is to click on the Shutdown Options and select how you would like the computer to shut down in case of a prolonged power outage. On my iMac, despite the UPS unit being connected for four days or so now, it still isn’t passing remaining time information to the iMac, but it is passing current charge information.

Because of this, I’ve selected for my iMac to power down if the UPS unit’s battery power drops to 10%. This should give my computer plenty of time to power down before the battery runs out while giving me around 15 minutes to either see if the power comes back or to finish what I’m doing and save my work.

Shutdown by Battery Level

Shutdown by Battery Level

APC Smart UPS 500J

APC Smart UPS 500J

UPS Conditions Power

The other great benefit of running all of my key equipment through the UPS unit is that they condition the power, and it includes surge protection, so I now have every piece of electrical equipment at my desk surge protected, and I could continue to work for a good fifteen minutes or so in case of a power outage.

If you only wanted power conditioning and enough time to power down your computer, there are cheaper and smaller units. The Smart-UPS 500J is a good size, as you can see in this photo (right), because it needs to house a large battery.

This photo shows 6 hours and 23 minutes of runtime, but that’s because it was on my table with nothing plugged in. After shooting this photo, I put it under my desk and watched that runtime drop to 20 minutes as I powered up all of my appliances.

That’s plenty of time for my use, so at under $200 for the APC Smart-UPS 500J, I’m really happy with my decision to pick one of these up.

Require Earth (Ground)

I also want to mention for anyone that might be listening in Japan, that both the Smart-UPS unit and the APC SurgeArrest power strip require an earth connection. In Japan it’s not common to have earth pins on power outlets, so I had to run a single earth cable from my air-conditioning units to my desk power outlets, and connect the earth cable from a three to two pin plug adapter, that we see here (below).

3 to 2 Pin Plug Adapter

3 to 2 Pin Plug Adapter

If you don’t connect the earth, on the APC SurgeArrest power strip, the Building Wiring Fault indicator will light up. Also note that if you have a power outlet with a screw in earth connection built in, you might also see this indicator light up if you have the two pins of this kind of adapter the wrong way around.

For me at least, it feels more natural to have the earth pin at the top, because that’s how the plugs are in the UK, but it would seem that this pin has to be at the bottom. For most Japanese appliances we never have to worry about this, because they can be plugged in either way, but it makes a difference with these surge protected power strips.

AirPort Extreme Internet Speed Quadrupled

Although unrelated to surge protection, there are a couple of other things that I did over the last week that might be valuable to you, so I’d like to mention these before we wrap up. The first one is that after I had connected my iMac directly to the cable modem via the Ethernet port on my Belkin hub, I did a speed test on my Internet connection using speedtest.net. (I now use http://compari.tech/speed because they donate to worthy charities everytime people use the service.) I just wanted to check that it was not slow, but I was blown away to see that I was getting around 255 Mbps, as opposed to the usual 6o to 70 Mbps that I generally see.

After I bought the replacement Apple AirPort Extreme router, I connected that up to my MacBook Pro running over the Ethernet port on the Belkin, as my iMac was still in the hospital, and the speed dropped back down to around 65 Mbps, so the AirPort Extreme was slowing down my Internet speed.

I did a bit of poking around online and found that in the AirPort Utility that comes with the Mac OS, if you look under the Wireless tab, then click Wireless Options, there are two pulldowns for 2.4GHz and 5Hz Channels. Leaving these at the default setting of Automatic slows down your internet connection.

If you have a lot of other wireless network signals coming into your building, you might need to try a few different numbers to get a good channel, but I just selected 10 for the 2.4GHz Channel and 36 for the 5GHz Channel and tried the speedtest.net (or http://compari.tech/speedtest) again, and my Internet connection was back up at 255 Mbps! I couldn’t believe it! I’d been using my Internet at a quarter the speed since I bought my original AirPort Extreme three years ago.

AirPort Utility Wireless Settings

AirPort Utility Wireless Settings

Also, in case you are wondering after I got the iMac back and fed my Internet connection through the coax cable surge protection on the APC SurgeArrest power strip, I ran the speed test again and I can detect no difference in speed. I’m still getting 255 Mbps with surge protection, so I am over the moon about this.

Note too that I know it’s the Wireless settings that I changed, but it affects the wired Ethernet cable speed. I was testing the wired internet speeds, not the wireless.

Label USB and Power Cables

One last tidbit I’d like to leave you with before we finish is that while my iMac was in the hospital, I used my MacBook Pro to continue my work. Because the MacBook Pro only has two USB ports though, I found myself having to connect various devices depending on what I was currently working on, and it can be a real pain if you have to keep tracing the cord back to each device to find out what to unplug and plug in etc.

To make this easier, I used a Brother P-Touch PT-P750W (Amazon) label printer to make a 12mm wide label for each of my devices, and wrapped the label around each USB and Thunderbolt cable, as you can see in this photo (below).

USB Cable Labels and Brother Label Printer

USB Cable Labels and Brother Label Printer

As I untangled the power cables under my desk, I gradually applied labels to each of my devices as well, to make it easier to unplug individual devices as necessary. As you can see from the label maker software on the screen of my MacBook Pro, I simply made each label just over twice the length of the device name, and this allowed me to wrap the label around the cable and stick it back onto itself, so that the sticky parts weren’t left exposed to gather dust.

Lessons Learned

OK, so here’s a quick round-up of what I learned from this experience. Firstly, I should have been better at checking my current power strips. I was using noise protection power strips that I bought over twenty years ago and had wrongly assumed that these were surge protected.

Also, I had never really considered that power surges could come in over cable TV and telephone lines. Because my phone comes over the same coaxial cable as my internet and downstairs come in with the cable TV, I needed coax protection on two of my new power strips. If your telephone and Internet come in over different cables, consider something like the APC SurgeArrest unit that I bought, with individual telephone and network surge protection, in addition to the coax cable protection.

If there is fear of losing data due to a power outage, also consider a UPS unit for your work critical devices. If you are going to plug in a few external hard drives and a second display etc. the 500J or 750AV that I talked about is a good choice.

Another thing that I will consider moving forward though, is actually powering down and unplugging my computer and router etc. during a thunderstorm. I believe that these devices will do a great job of protecting my gear, but another very close or direct strike might still overwhelm the surge protection. I won’t unplug every time I leave the house, but if I’m around during a storm, I’ll certainly consider this.

I know that this isn’t directly related to photography, but as we all use a computer at some level, even, I would imagine, film shooters do these days as well, I thought I’d relay what I’ve learned over the last week, in the hope that it might help you to protect your systems as well. I feel fortunate that I only had a few things fried, and I was able to get them fixed or replaced relatively easily. It could have been a lot worse, so I don’t want to risk that happening again.


Show Notes

APC Surge Arrest Power Strip on B&H Photo Video and on Amazon.com *

APC Smart-UPS 750va LCD 120v on B&H Photo Video and on Amazon.com *

Brother PT-P750W Label Printer on Amazon *

  • These are affiliate links. The price you pay is unchanged, but you support the podcast by using these links.

Music by Martin Bailey


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