Computer Troubles or Power Problems?

Just what is the problem? You’d think Apple Inc. could make a program for the Mac without any bugs! What are those coders up to! Yeah, yeah, yeah – its all Apple’s fault!

Now, wait just a darn minute! Are you sure some of the blame isn’t yours?

I have been getting lots of calls about Macs not working as they should. These are the same kinds of problems that I saw at about the same time last year – and the year before – and the year before.

I am hearing about Time Machine backups that fail, computers that are having hard drive catalog errors, and programs that suddenly quit. When I run Disk Utility First Aid on the drives, I am seeing lots of errors. I haven’t seen this many hard drive errors since early last fall. In fact, I have even had trouble with my own computers.
Just what is the problem? You’d think Apple Inc. could make a program for the Mac without any bugs! What are those coders up to! Yeah, yeah, yeah – its all Apple’s fault!

Now, wait just a darn minute! Are you sure some of the blame isn’t yours?

I have been getting lots of calls about Macs not working as they should. These are the same kinds of problems that I saw at about the same time last year – and the year before – and the year before.

I am hearing about Time Machine backups that fail, computers that are having hard drive catalog errors, and programs that suddenly quit. When I run Disk Utility First Aid on the drives, I am seeing lots of errors. I haven’t seen this many hard drive errors since early last fall. In fact, I have even had trouble with my own computers.

How is the weather?

In my case, I am 99% sure I know what caused my problem – and Apple had nothing to do with it. I live in thunderstorm country. That means power surges, spikes, and flickers are a way of life. They potentially occur every time we have a rain storm. Over the past few weeks, we have had at least 6 big storms. While I have not lost power, my lights have flickered and appliance clocks have reset. That means anything that is plugged into a power socket in my home potentially has been affected.

Now, I see that some of you are loosing interest in this story. At this time of the year, you don’t get rain, much less thunder or lightning – but you very probably are having surges, spikes and brownouts as overloaded circuits are being re-directed around the power grid. Just what is causing these overloads? It’s hot. Air conditioners are running full time, refrigerators and freezers are working overtime. We are just using more electrical power.

So how does this affect your computer? Well, your computer is storing its files on a hard drive, and hard drives are easily damaged by even minute fluctuations in power. You might have power strips for your equipment, but those do wear out. Each surge, spike and sag make the power strips less effective. I bet you can’t remember when you last bought a new one! But there is even more to this story…

Check out your power source

Let’s take an inventory of your power sItuation. I will bet that it is somewhat like mine. I have a beautiful office filled with wonderful furniture that we bought less than 4 years ago. The problem is, my computer equipment has all changed in the past four years.

Back then, I had a 17” iMac G4 and one Epson Ink Jet printer. I also used a 15” PowerBook G4. I had one external hard drive.

My equipment has exploded in recent years! Now I have a 20” Intel iMac, a 17” MacBook Pro, a 20” HDTV that I also use as a secondary monitor. That little Epson has been replaced by an Epson All-In-One, a Brother Laser All-In-One, and an Epson Printer that will handle 13x19” paper. I also added a Primera Bravo DVD printer-burner, four additional hard drives, a second AirPort device, the Eye-TV. I almost forgot to add the four new hard drives, the Time Capsule, the cable TV box and numerous power supplies for my iPhone, iPod, and cameras…

I think you are getting the picture. A sphagetti soup of cords and plugs! While I do have an APC UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply) and I have added several new surge protectors, too much of my equipment is no longer plugged into that UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). In fact, only a couple of the hard drives, my iMac and the power supply for my MacBook Pro are plugged into it. It looks like it is time to buy another UPS and to trace all of my power lines to make sure the most vulnerable equipment is plugged into a UPS. I also need to make sure I haven’t broken any of the UPS power rules.

But I don’t care if my computer shuts down!

When you are buying a UPS, consider why you are buying one. In my case, the most important part of a UPS is not the battery. It would be nice if I could shut down my computers systems gracefully while they are running off the battery, but we have very few “real” power outages and those often occur when I am not at home or asleep.

I use a UPS for its power conditioning capabilities. In effect, when my computer is plugged into my UPS, it is running off the battery inside the UPS. That battery is continuously being re-charged. Powering your computer from the battery instead of directly from the electrical line allows the UPS to clean up the power fluctuations. It absorbs the spikes, surges and sags and delivers electricity that is much more “even.” It is far better than a simple surge protector strip in protecting my equipment.

Watch where you plug things!

Every UPS that I have encountered has two different kinds of outlets. While some are a part of the battery backup system, there are others that only provide the surge protection features of the unit. However, due to the nature of the UPS, those surge protection features are much stronger than simple surge protector power strips.

So let’s see…

My UPS is several years old. When I bought it, a unit with 6 outlets was pretty good. But the model that replaced it has 10 outlets and the price is the same as what mine cost.

You willl need to do a little planning to most effectively use the UPS outlests. On the battery-powered outlets - Plug your computer and main monitor first. Then plug in the power adapter for your MacBook or MacBook Pro. In my case, that leaves me with one additional outlet since I have an iMac. I have used it to plug in my most important external hard drive. Your printers NEVER get plugged into the battery outlets. Printers, especially laser printers draw a huge amount of power as they start up and they can quickly drain the battery.

I am using my other three outlets for the rest of my hard drives.

Connect a surge protector power strip to a UPS? NEVER!


No matter how many power outlets you have around your computer, it is never enough! Since UPS units tend to have 6 to 10 outlets, you will always need more. The natural inclination is to just plug a surge protector into one of the outlets of the UPS – DON’T DO IT! Why? Because when there is a surge, they can get into a fight and it can get ugly! At best you can ruin the UPS. At worst, you can melt the plastic of your Surge Protector. To read all the gory details, go
here and look for the Power strip surge-protection hazard heading.

Time for another UPS?

In my office, the left wall contains three wall units with space for equipment. My desk is a peninsula connected to the middle unit.

The first unit contains my two all-in one printers, my telephone and it is the place where I plug recharge things like cameras and iPods. It needs its own power supply, and this unit does not need a UPS. A good surge protector that is replaced every couple of years is sufficient for this area.

The last unit contains my Primera Bravo II DVD printer and burner and my wide format Epson printer. On top of the unit is my network. There is a Time Capsule, an AirPort Extreme, my cable modem and the cable TV box. This is the place where I need to add a UPS. Or perhaps I need to move the old UPS to this location and add a new 10 outlet in the middle unit.

The middle unit contains five hard drives, my two computers, my secondary monitor/TV, the EyeTV, a FireWire hub, a USB 2 hub and spare outlets for visiting clients, family members, and friends. No matter what I do, this area never has enough plugs!

Fortunately, when we had our house built four years ago, we had the electrician put 4 outlets on 4 separate heavy-duty circuits along this office wall. No matter what I plug in, I never see flickers and flashes. However, in the home we left, I had to be very careful about what and where things were plugged in. If you see signs that your circuits are overloaded in your computer area, a visit from a good electrician could help to solve some of your power issues.

I want to thank you for reading along as I assessed my office space and its power needs. Now, I need to replace two of the older surge protector power strips with the new ones I just bought. I need to put a new UPS on my shopping list and I need to make sure that everything is plugged into its proper place.

If you need some help reviewing and planning for your computer area power needs, give us a call at
Bob LeVitus Consulting. We offer training, troubleshooting, and technical support. We’d be happy to give you a hand!

Pat

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