Staying Productive During Storm Season

By January 17, 2016Uncategorized

Anyone living in the Vancouver area or the pacific northwest of the US these days can attest to the fact that our wind storms are becoming both more frequent and severe each year. And with these storm seasons come the dreaded power outages that can not only wreak havoc with your high-tech equipment, but could potentially destroy the deliverables that you’ve worked so hard to produce on your computer. Having dealt with a number of sudden power outages myself, I decided it was time to do something about it so I researched and purchased an uninterruptable power supply (UPS). In this article I’ll provide a brief overview of the unit I ended up purchasing, in hopes that the information might help you if you’re on the market for one of these devices.

I’ll start by mentioning that shopping for UPS devices is extremely confusing. The two main brands which dominate the market are CyberPower and APC but both have extremely confusing product line ups and marketing materials that don’t make the decision process any easier.

The types of UPS devices available range from basic power bars with surge protection, to full‑on, active power supply units that sport back up batteries, expandability, and the ability to control your PC’s power settings (i.e. to automatically shutdown your PC gracefully during an outage).

When I started shopping there were two main features I looked for. First, what I wanted most was a unit with a large enough battery that would allow me to continue working on my desktop PC for as long as possible in the event of a sudden power outage. I not only wanted enough time to properly shut down my PC but also the ability to transfer files that I was working on to a memory stick so that I could continue working on a laptop. The second feature I was after was a unit which had the ability to automatically shut down my PC gracefully during an outage in case I wasn’t around.

It turns out that the time period between a power outage event and the time when the battery is drained, is referred to in the industry as “parachute time”. In technical terms this is referred to as the “VA” rating which you should Google to learn how to calculate. Basically what it means is that you’ll want a unit with the largest possible battery (and ideally the ability to add more batteries), while using as few devices as possible on battery backup, and ideally those with the lowest power consumption. This combination will give you the longest parachute time.

After all of my research I ended up with APC’s 1500VA unit, partially because of its features, and partially because units from its competitor Cyberpower were sold out. And after about four months of usage, I have to say that I’ve been pretty impressed with the unit.

When connected to a basic desktop PC with a 24” LCD monitor, this unit indicates that it will provide approximately 61 minutes of power during a power outage. Interestingly, when I test this by pulling the plug, the amount of time indicated on the device and in the software UI changes to 68 minutes, so it’s not clear where the discrepancy comes from, but the extra time is a bonus. That said, an hour or so of backup is plenty of time. And since an additional battery can be added, this time could probably be doubled which would be handy for not only doing a proper shut down and file backup, but would even allow time to run additional accessories like a cable modem for internet access. After all, when the power goes out, most of us probably care more about Internet access than heat or lights!

Another feature I like is the PowerChute software which provides realtime performance analysis and can be configured to shutdown the PC in different ways. For example, it can be set to either shut the PC down after X minutes of a power loss, or to keep it on as long as possible. The only thing I would have preferred more however would have been the ability to choose which of the two options to execute depending on whether the computer is sleeping or not. Such a feature would handle those instances where I’m not around, so that a sleeping PC could be shut down ASAP, while a PC that is running remain on awaiting my return.

Another great feature is the sheer amount of outlets on the back of the unit, with five assigned to battery backup, and another five for regular surge protection. And devices connected to the battery backed up outlets get additional protection against brownouts, or “low voltage conditions”, which can be just as damaging to some electronics.

While on the topic of plugs, I have to admit that I didn’t care for the power cord included with the unit, though it’s a minor issue. The end which gets plugged into the wall socket points down and to the side, so when stretched for space, this angle eats up precious cable length, so I would have preferred to see the cable extend straight out from the wall. Another small cable issue is that the USB cable included with the unit has a proprietary connector at one end. While not a big problem, such cables are easy to lose (e.g. during a move), and speaking from experience, replacing proprietary device cables can be difficult sometimes. As such I would have liked to have seen a standard USB cable.

The unit itself appears to be well made and is extremely heavy due to the battery inside. The documentation indicates that the battery is good for about three years, which in my opinion, is a bit too short. On the front of the unit is an LCD display which is easy to navigate and can be used to view various performance parameters and to enable/disable an auditable alarm.

Overall, this is a great unit and such a product is something to consider before the next big storm hits. If you’re on the market for a UPS that will give you some decent parachute time, expect to spend a couple hundred dollars on a battery backed up unit such as the APC 1500VA. While not cheap, think of it like insurance for the next time the power goes out while you’re working on that important deliverable. Even if the power doesn’t go out, having the piece of mind that you’ll always be able to save your work, protect your hardware, and gracefully shutdown your PC is to me, worth every penny.