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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My Thoughts on Surge Protection and UPS Battery Backups


This isn't going to be a long winded article, but a brief overview and tips on what I've found works for me so please give it a read and hopefully I can help improve your level of protection.

Any electronic equipment you may own such as televisions, network & computer gear, home theater equipment, modern washers and dryers, etc. is susceptible to damage caused by poor utility power. Often damage occurs in tiny increments unbeknownst to the user until a catastrophic failure occurs. This is why you should think about protecting your investment right from the start.

Surge Protection

Surge protection. This is the first line of defense. Its affordable and a must. If you're going to do only one thing tp protect your equipment, get a surge protector. Surges are caused by a variety of reasons such as lightning storms, generation snafus, maintenance of infrastructure and more. I typically use power strips with surge protection but also I use the type that sit right at an outlet. The thing to remember about these surge protectors is that they don't last forever. They contain a protection device known as a MOV - Metal Oxide Varistor. They absorb spikes of energy until they fail. Sometimes they just stop working and other times they burn up. For the latter reason I now try to buy only devices with metal cases, although this isn't always possible. When installing a new surge protector, get into the habit of writing the date on the surge protector with a permanent marker. After 5 years or so, consider replacing them. Its invisibly done its job for a great price and is most likely degraded significantly. You'll notice some have indicator lights to show the protection is working, but you can't rely on that indicator as foolproof. Energy absorption is rated in Joules so when shopping the more the better. Here's a few different surge protectors I personally use and like.

Tripp Lite Isobar - Brand name protection, noise filtering, metal housing, high quality. Choose your  outlet configuration.
Tripp Lite Basic Power Strip - Brand name, noise filtering, metal.
Belkin 10 Outlet - Nice large metal power strip with quality components.
Tripp Lite 3 Outlet - Small, fits on outlet. Value oriented.
Belkin 6 Outlet - Replaces outlet plate and screws into place. 6 outlets swivel. Value oriented.

* If your equipment that needs protecting is very expensive and you want to kick it up a notch, consider a surge protector which uses "series mode protection" instead of MOVs. This isn't a cheap option, but when only the best will do this is it. There are no sacrificial components that wear out. I use a Furman Pro-R in my home theater signal processing rack. Besides series mode protection you get advanced filtering capabilities, power factor correction with reserve current, and a slew of other features. There are other companies out there that also produce series mode protection surge suppressors such as ZeroSurge & Brickwall which are a little more affordable.

While treating surges at the outlet level is good, you should also consider a surge protection device right at your main breaker panel. This type of device has two main advantages. Its the first place a surge is seen and can act quickly to absorb energy before its distributed to various outlets. Second, they protects every device in your home including split phase 240v appliances! Modern clothes washers, dryers, dish washers and ovens are often found with advanced electronics inside and benefit from this type of surge protection. Also they are no longer expensive and can be found cheaply on Amazon or Home Depot. They aren't hard to install if you're comfortable working inside an electrical panel. If not, its very easy for an electrician to install and shouldn't cost very in labor. I use this Eaton Surge Protector for less than $100, but there are many others.

UPS - Uninterruptable Power Supplies, AKA Battery Backups

Battery backups not only provide you with extended uptime when the utility power completely fails, but provide a steady source power for times when you have power fail for half second or so. Many times during a blackout when the power is restored it can flicker back and forth for a second or so before its solid. This is also VERY bad for electronics. Battery backups can fill in this gap and prevent damage. They can also provide boost & trim functions which deal with sagging power during brownout conditions as well as over voltage conditions. As you can see they are the second layer of protection next to surge protectors in keeping your electronics safe. Many have built in surge protection as well, but keep in mind if they are MOV based they don't last forever, so I always encourage using separate surge protection in conjunction with battery backup systems.

My battery backup of choice is the APC-Smart UPS. I've tried others and always come back to these. APC is the leader in the field of UPS systems. What makes these better than the average lower priced battery backup you find in stores is the fact they output a real sine wave instead of a square wave or stepped square wave, so the output waveform looks identical (and in some cases better) than what the utility company provides. Sine wave output makes appliances with motors start easier, they have less harmonic content to be filtered by the appliance, and some computer power supplies simply refuse to run on a square wave input.

When shopping for an APC-Smart UPS, first you must size it correctly for your load. They are rated in volt-amps, which a a measure of power similar to watts. If you're interested in the details of these differences much is published on the internet and can easily be found with a simple search. To make it simple, I'll talk mostly about watts. A very common sized backup is an APC-Smart UPS model SUA1000 backup. Its rated for 1000va / 670 watts. Which means, you can't connect a 1000 watt load to it and expect it to sustain power. There are general rules of thumb I've read about, such as 60% upsizing the backup to the load, but there is wiggle room to be had. If you're battery backup is rated for twice the load you place on it, you'll get longer run time and less stress on the batteries, so that's what I aim for. If you don't know how many watts your load is going to be, grab yourself one of these handy little Kill A Watt electric usage meters to measure the power consumption of anything you plug into it.

Speaking of run time, this is an area most people don't think about. At full load 670 watts, our example SUA1000 is good for about 4 minutes of runtime before it shuts down. At half load 335 watts, its rated to run for 4-5 times as long, which takes it out to 18 minutes. See why I like to size them at 2x the load? You get 4-5x return on the runtime. You'll also find that "bigger" backups support heavier watt loads, but don't necessarily give you longer run times, even with smaller loads. However 5-20 minutes often gives you enough time to properly shut down a computer or unplug devices until utility power is restored. That said if your goal is to keep a device running as long as possible, such as a critical system like a boiler's controls, or a sump pump or even your cable modem/router then you need to pay close attention to runtimes and look for an APC-Smart XL backup. The XL means extended runtime. You pay slightly more for the XL models, but you get longer run times, better batteries, more watt capability, and heavy duty components with better cooling. You also get an Anderson connector on the back to plug in additional battery packs for even longer runtimes. In fact, the XLs are the only type I purchase anymore due to these features. An APC-Smart 1000XL for example will run for 10 minutes at full 800 watts and 33 minutes at half power 400 watts. If you have a 50 watt load, it will run for 5 hours! Compare that to the non-XL version which would run a 50 watt load for 3 hours. Models differ, so its very important to research the runtime charts. I find the APC-Smart 1000XL tower to be a really good bang for the buck UPS. It has a longer runtime than the much larger APC-Smart 1400XL, despite its capability to power a larger load. I use one on my DIY network rack and it keeps my router, modem, and main switch and access points running for hours on end.

Know that the batteries will typically last about 3-5 years. Expect to replace them at these intervals. The best prices can be found online. I tend to examine my batteries after a few years, because once they start to fail they can crack, bulge and leak. When you do replace batteries, find out how to perform a "reset" to let the UPS know you have new batteries and the runtime will be accurately displayed.

My next tip is while these APC models are pretty expensive, you can find them refurbished with new batteries for a great price. My favorite place to purchase them is Full disclosure - My only affiliation with them is that I'm a happy customer. The prices are about the best I've found from all the online stores. I've bought several from them and I've been satisfied each time. Expect to pay a nominal shipping charge, because these are heavy items. I can tell you my last purchase from them was a 60 lbs rack mounted SMX750 that was double boxed and bubble wrapped and arrived in perfect shape.

In a future article, I plan to document playing around with connecting large external batteries on these XL backups to really push the runtime out for days at a time. There is more to it than just plugging them in!