Protecting your computer from storm damage.

Do you switch off in a storm? Computers and Storm Damage.

A few things you may not know about computers and lightning.

Lightning strikes during a storm can damage computers.
Lightning strike over our neighbours roof in a storm!

We’ve had some rough weather lately and one of the downsides is the rash of calls we’ve had about storm damaged computers. Here’s a few things Dave taught me about computers and storms this week:

It doesn’t have to be YOUR house that’s struck by lightning.

I never used to switch off in a storm, because I figured “What are the chances of my house being struck by lightning?” (Mind you over the weekend we were stopped in traffic at Berri and lightning hit the road between us and the car in front… quite spectacular once we peeled ourselves off the ceiling!). But the lightning doesn’t actually have to hit your house.

Because the power lines are all connected – if the lightning strikes a nearby home, or a transformer the surge can travel along the lines to your house.

But I have a Kambrook! That’s like a surge protector?

I got this one wrong too. The cheap Kambrook (Power Boards) most people use are designed more to stop you plugging in too many heaters and overloading your house wiring – they don’t offer a lot of protection from power spikes going from the house to the appliance. Almost every client we’ve had with storm damage was using a powerboard of some kind – no one has enough wall plugs to connect up a home office without one.

There are more expensive surge protectors available, but they are mainly designed to protect against normal daily power fluctuations (either from the electricity company or from large appliances switching off and on in your home). Some clients have left their computers on during a storm because they thought their surge protector would cover them – and it might even have saved them from a small surge, but … it wasn’t enough to protect them from a nearby lightning strike. They would have been safer switching off at the wall.

Phew- the storms over so I guess I got away with it!

I thought that if the storm took out my computer it’d go kerblewie in a shower of sparks as the lightning struck the roof…. Apparently not. Little surges can do small amounts of damage to the delicate wiring. Think about how close together those ‘wires’ are on a circuit board – excess power can jump between two of them. That could mean just shortening your computers life span a little, or it could mean multiple component failure over the next few weeks… or it could mean instant kerblewie. We’ve had one case recently where the power supply and hard drives were replaced after a surge, then a week later the graphics card went – it wasn’t a co-incidence. Small arcs on the circuitry can make a weak point for ‘rust’ to start and that can take a while to completely shut the circuit down.

But I have a fuse box!

So did everyone else who’s called us in the last few weeks. They aren’t fast or sensitive enough to protect the more delicate computer components.

At least it’s under warranty….

We’re getting a stack of calls about surge damage – and so are our suppliers. Acer and IBM and Toshiba all know what to look for because storm damage isn’t covered under warranty. You might get lucky and have the item replaced, but with the current weather they’re “checking it twice”. Some people will have a bit of cover under their insurance policy.

But my computer wasn’t even on!

Switching off helps a lot, but Mum and Dad weren’t so crazy when they ran around turning everything off at the wall, and even unplugging their electrical items. When the power point is switched on there’s still some risk of the electricity getting to your computer, switching off at the wall reduces that to ‘almost no chance’ and if the cord is unplugged the electricity can’t find your computer at all.

How do I protect myself?

  • Bigger companies can invest in a UPS system with trickle surge protection. We have one – to protect our clients’ computers while they are in our workshop. If you are going to be paying 50 staff members to sit around the coffee room every time there’s a storm, then a good UPS is an excellent investment. But they are not priced for the small office or home user. Cheaper UPS’s offer some protection, but only the expensive ones are meant to stop a surge, and even they won’t deal with a direct strike.
  • Try to remember to switch your computer off when you leave the office or house in case there’s a storm while you are out.
  • Switching off at the wall and even unplugging are your best options to protect your computer.
  • Also think about your modem, router and other equipment – because they can blow too. Personally I’m switching my washer and dryer off at the wall after the calls we’ve had this month – diamonds might be romantic but when there’s children involved a girl can’t live without her washing machine!

I’ll add another plug for our favourite theme – backup! If your computer dies a fiery death that’s pretty bad, but it can be fixed or replaced. If your data can’t be recovered (whether it’s kids photos, business records or your almost finished literary masterpiece) that’s a lot harder to recover from.

A few extra things to know:

  • If the PC is completely dead (no lights at all) there is still hope – often the power supply will go first, and that’s actually quite a cheap part to replace. There’s no guarantee that there won’t be additional damage on other components, but it’s not unusual to replace the power supply and have no further problems.
  • A laptop running on battery power is safe to use in a storm (unless of course you sit under a tree!)
  • Some of the newer computers have a bit more tolerance for small spikes, though the new SSD hard drives’ tend to be delicate.
  • If you are interested in a surge protector, you should look for something with a high Energy Dissipation (Joule) rating – if it has no Joule rating it’s a power board, not a surge protector. A higher Joule rating means it can handle more surges for longer before wearing out, so something approaching 5,000 is better than 500. A low Clamping Voltage like 300V is fantastic – that’s the point where the protector will switch off, so the lower the better. A Reaction Time of less than 1 nanosecond is excellent, and you actually want a model that will stop working when the surge protection wears out – some of them will keep going as a power board even after the MOV expires, and you won’t know they have stopped protecting your appliances. You do get what you pay for – a $20 board is probably good enough for the kitchen kettle, but spending over $100 will get you much better protection for the high end appliances. From personal experience I recommend you look for something that doesn’t have enough LED’s to light up your bedroom like an airplane cockpit… unless that’s your thing.
Follow us on FaceBook or Google Plus if you’d like to keep up to date with the latest IT news, scams to watch for and new tech reviews!
If you need computer repairs, or you’d like to know more about protecting yourself check out our Help Me Dave website for Business or Home IT Support services.