New Year’s Technology Resolutions, #5: Get a Backup Battery

Author’s Note: This is the final installment of January’s “New Year’s Technology Resolutions,” but I will be offering up handy tech tips throughout the year. If you have any tips of your own you’d like to share, let me know!

In the previous post, I stressed how important it is to back up your data. Another backup step that gets overlooked all too often is backing up the very electricity that feeds your devices.

If you only use battery-powered devices like notebook computers in your home or office, this doesn’t really apply to you. If, on the other hand, you use desktop computers, DVRs, game systems, or anything else that contains a hard drive and relies on a wall outlet for power, pay attention.

Lightning strikes are both unpredictable and hazardous to your electronics.

Lightning strikes are both unpredictable and hazardous to your electronics.

Due to any number of factors, power interruptions happen. Perhaps too many people in your office or apartment building are cranking the AC or heat at the same time; the wiring in your building was never intended for the load it’s now handling; or perhaps some natural phenomenon like heavy winds or lightning causes a brief blackout. In any of those cases–not to mention those that may not occur to you–the last thing you want to have happen is for your computer, TiVo, XBox, etc. to lose power in the middle of saving important data (be it documents, shows, games, or anything else). To prevent damage or lost data caused by a power interruption, I strongly recommend a battery backup, also known as an Uninterruptible Power Supply, or UPS.

A UPS works much like a standard surge protector or power strip. In addition to surge protection, however, the UPS contains a battery, so that in the event of a brownout or blackout, the battery can kick in and provide a steady stream of electricity to your components, at least long enough to shut them down properly.

Here’s the reality: UPS systems aren’t cheap. They’re several times more expensive than a standard surge strip, because they do so much more. Most desktop UPS connect to your computer so you can see the relevant usage data on your monitor, or use specialized software for testing and automating shutdown. Checking one of the big box stores, UPS systems from the major manufacturers like APC, CyberPower, and Tripp Lite range from around $50 to as much as $500 (and enterprise-scale UPS systems for servers that never turn off can go for much more than that). While pricey, the value and protection they provide are worth it, in my opinion. I have two desktop computers in my home, and each has its own UPS. My home theater has its own, as well. It’s an investment in the health and safety of my equipment, one I don’t take lightly.

Another reality that doesn’t get advertised enough is that when you buy a UPS, typically only half the outlets are connected to the battery, and the other half are only as effective as a standard surge protector. This means if you have four devices that need constant power–not unreasonable, if, for example, they were a desktop computer; a monitor; an external hard drive; and a modem–then you’ll want to invest in an eight-outlet UPS. Use the non-battery outlets for devices like printers that can survive blackouts with much less risk of damage.

Your home theater equipment can also be damaged by a power interruption.

Your home theater equipment can also be damaged by a power interruption.

If you want a UPS for your home theater, they make “pizza-box” shaped systems that can sit under your DVR or game system, with the outlets in the back. Just be mindful of how many home theater devices contain hard drives before you plug them in: DVRs such as TiVo have hard drives and thus would benefit from constant power; whereas a simple DVD player has no drive and, while it would be inconvenient to have a blackout interrupt your movie, it won’t damage your player in the process.

The last advice I’m going to offer before you run out to get your UPS is to remember that it contains a battery, and that no battery lasts forever. I, for one, found out during a recent brownout that my old UPS’ battery was out of juice, and that I had been operating under an unfortunately false sense of security. Do some research (or hire a tech consultant to do it for you) and find out how much trouble and money would be involved in replacing your UPS’ battery after about three years. You don’t want to have to spend more for a replacement battery than the UPS cost originally, and likewise, you don’t want to find out the hard way that the battery can’t be replaced at all. You can also invest in a UPS with a visual indicator showing how much life is left in the battery. Such a feature can add to the price, but it may provide you with a greater sense of awareness and well-being with regard to exactly what works, and for how long. And as the saying goes, knowledge is power (even during a power interruption).

I hope you’ve found this post useful, and likewise have benefited from its predecessors this month. Like I said at the top, I will be offering further tips down the line, as well as informative (and hopefully entertaining) anecdotes from my experiences providing tech support over the years. As always, I encourage feedback and would love to hear from you. Perhaps you’ll have an idea for my next post!

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