Computer Backup Power - What You Need to Know

Category: Hardware

What do you recommend as a backup power supply for computers? During the last storm, we lost power for several hours. If I had a battery backup, I could have gotten online to check email and weather updates. Is an 'uninterruptible power supply' what I need?

What Kind of Backup Power Do You Need?

A sudden loss of electrical power can cause your computer to shut down or reboot. Of course, you will lose anything you were working on at the time of the power glitch. But power failures can also cause head crashes in hard drives, which can damage a disk and the data on it. To guard against power failures, get yourself an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to provide a backup power source for your computer.

A UPS, at its core, is a battery backup power supply. It includes circuitry that instantly switches from line power to battery power in the event of a power outage. The simplest and cheapest type of UPS, called a standby UPS, does nothing more. But power outages are not the only hazards your computer faces.

Fluctuations in line power quality are much more common than blackouts. A voltage spike or its opposite, a voltage drop, can adversely affect your equipment's performance and lifespan. Protections against this type of electrical power hazard should be part of your UPS.

UPS battery backup power supply

A line-interactive UPS is also relatively inexpensive; it filters and conditions line power as well as providing battery backup. An on-line UPS provides the highest quality line power and the greatest protection against power outages. Most home computer setups require no more than a standby or line-interactive UPS.

What Features Do You Need in a UPS?

A UPS may include other features as well. Monitoring ports on a UPS can tell attached equipment to shut down gracefully in the event of a power outage, in case no one is around to shut things down manually. Fax and modem telephone-style outlets may be provided on a UPS to give these devices surge protection. Some unprotected power outlets may exist for printers and other devices that do not need battery power but should be protected against power fluctuations.

The capacity of a UPS is measured in volt-amperes (VA). How much capacity you need in a UPS is a function of the power needs of all the components you wish to protect and the amount of time that you want to be able to run on battery power. APC, a major UPS manufacturer, has a handy calculator that can help you determine what the capacity of your next UPS should be.

One of the most popular consumer-level UPS models is the $59 APC Back-UPS ES 550, which provides battery backup and surge protection for home computers, and your phone/fax/modem/DSL line. Automatic system shutdown software is included. This model gives you about 10 minutes of battery backup with a 200-watt load. That's enough time to save your work and shutdown, but not a good solution if you want to stay up and running during a longer power outage.

A similar model is the CyberPower CP550SLG uninterruptible power supply. Other popular brands include Tripp Lite, Eaton, Liebert, and Minuteman.

Don't Forget About Your Internet and Phone and TV

During a storm or other hazard, it's quite possible that the electrical supply lines might be down, but the telephone, cable or fiber optic lines are just fine. A battery backup unit can power your landline phone's base unit, as well the modem/router for your Internet connection. My phone and internet service is Verizon FIOS, so there's an interface box with a battery backup unit in my garage. That battery will only last about 15 minutes, but it plugs into a wall socket to keep it charged up. So during power failures, I plug the FIOS battery backup into a UPS so I can continue to make phone calls and exchange electrons with the Interwebs. (For outages longer than a half-hour or so, I use a gas-powered generator.)

It's important to conserve every watt of power when running from battery backup power. So if you have your computer and other gear connected to a UPS, I recommend turning off the printer, speakers, external hard drives and other non-essential items unless you're actually using them. I have a dual-monitor setup, so I power one of them down, too. Laptops and tablets use a lot less power than desktop rigs, so consider moving to a smaller screen when running on auxiliary power.

But I Already Have a UPS...

I had a Tripp-Lite TE-600 UPS for many years, and there were many times when the lights flickered in the house, causing televisions and alarm clocks to shut off or reset. My computer never even flinched. Even during power outages, my trusty computer plugged away, while the rest of the house was dark. But during the winds that Hurricane Irene brought to my area, we lost power and my UPS failed when the internal batteries died of old age. Fortunately, I only lost the document I was working on, and I've since replaced that unit with a beefier model that'll run my desktop appliances for at least 30 minutes.

A UPS contains a battery, of course; typically, a lead-acid battery much like the one in your car. Such batteries are generally good for several years, but eventually they do need to be replaced. UPS units and replacement batteries are available online, but pay close attention to shipping charges; these things are heavy and expensive to ship! It may be a better idea to shop locally, when purchasing a UPS.

Do you have a battery backup UPS? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Computer Backup Power - What You Need to Know"

Posted by:

Michael
27 Feb 2015

Thank you Bob, All your information is great, I pretty much save everything. This is great stuff.
Again thank you.

Michael


Posted by:

Daniel
27 Feb 2015

I have had someone tell me that the system APC uses is not as good as TrippLite/Cyberpower uses. Don't remember the technical details, but it had something to do with the wave signals and if it failed exactly when a wave was in the wrong position the APC might not kick in. We have some poor quality service in our area. We had trouble with one APC unit shutting off when lights blinked sometimes. Other times it worked appropriately. We switched to Cyberpower and haven't had an issue.


Posted by:

Robert Hicks
28 Feb 2015

I have been using a Tripp-Lite for about 10 years and have been pleased with it's performance. I have to replace the battery about every 3 years or so; I have found them at a local battery supply for a reasonable price. My UPS has saved my bacon on more than one occasion and the power filter is a requirement out here in the boonies.


Posted by:

Daniel Wiener
28 Feb 2015

I've bought a couple of CyberPower CP425G UPS's over the years, but sooner or later (usually just a few months after the warranty expires) the battery craps out and all that's left is an expensive surge protector. The battery is by far the heaviest and most expensive portion of this otherwise-reasonably-priced UPS, so it's not cost effect to buy a replacement battery. I know, I've tried. The battery + shipping cost almost as much as a brand new UPS.

So at this point I'm rather discouraged. Should I simply accept the fact that any UPS will die and have to be replaced periodically? Or are there any decent UPS models which will truly last a long time? Is a UPS really worth it if it could crap out just when it's needed most?


Posted by:

Fred Cherney
28 Feb 2015

I have 3 backups. One is for my desktop, one for my PVR and one for my internet booster so I don't lose my phone, TV recording or e-mail. Best investment I ever made.


Posted by:

Paul
28 Feb 2015

If you have a laptop like I do you have battery backup. In the last storm without power. I watched a movie on my laptop and played some games until the internet came back on.


Posted by:

Clay
28 Feb 2015

Thanks Bob. I've run APC battery backups for years. I presently have two APC XS 1500's working. The only problem I have ever had with them was the battery having to be replaced after about ten years. They give me roughly twenty four minutes of backup time, and are set to shut the machines down after five minutes of no power. They protect two identical systems with 850 watt power supplies, one 240 gig SSD, and four 1 terabyte drives in each machine, and have no concerns about their not being adequately protected. They work when they are supposed to and do self checks every week.


Posted by:

Gary
28 Feb 2015

I use the APC units, they work great for short-duration outages...and yep you need more (bigger) UPSs if you want go more than 15 mins in a power outage, but 15 mins is plenty of time to save everything and do normal shutdowns...the APC units are cheap and reliable.


Posted by:

John
28 Feb 2015

I work from home, customer service, I found that most of these need to be replaced after a few years, they will not keep a charge and when you lose power, have a minute or less to shut down pc, Found one that has a replaceable battery, cost of battery about half the cost of a new UPS. Only drawback is I cannot pick up at my local store, has to be shipped to me.


Posted by:

Citellus
28 Feb 2015

I have been using UPS for years. Since I moved to a rural area, I also have a small one to power my pellet stove, if necessary. It is my only source of heat and needs very little power to use its computer and turn the auger.


Posted by:

Jene
28 Feb 2015

Yes, but I'd go one step further: an on-line UPS should be on the "essentials" list, along with virus protection, firewalls, and backups. "Dirty" power can be more damaging than a complete power outage. A quick power "hit" (the lights just flicker) can cause some circuits to quit even though the computer keeps running. I had a situation where one of my computers would re-boot whenever the microwave cycled. (They were both on the same circuit.) And, if you have an application that needs to run during an outage, check the run-time rating -- it doesn't always line up with the power rating. Finally, check out sources and prices for replacement batteries -- after 3-4 years, they'll no longer take a full charge.


Posted by:

Richard
28 Feb 2015

Definitely! I have 3 - 2 fairly new APCs and an old MinuteMan I picked up Dumpster Diving (its ancient).

I put new, fresh batteries in all 3 about 3 years ago. I use one for where I use my Laptop and where the telephone is plugged in; one for the router, printer and mid tower desktop and, finally, one for the TV and dvd player, etc.

FidoNet originally convinced me of their usefulness.


Posted by:

Jon
28 Feb 2015

In the past 15 years we've had one power cut caused by an idiot with a digger cutting a supply cable.

My wife is American and used to brownouts and power cuts summer and winter in the USA and took quite a time to get used to our attitude to Electricity supply here (Wales UK).

Just to show the real difference if a cut lasts two hours all disabled and elderly people registered will have been visited by one of the disaster organisations accompanied by hot tea and blankets in the winter. Power cuts are treated as the disasters they are not as minor problems.

I honestly sympathise with my relations in California and Oregon who have no choice but to put up with such bad service. If we, in a backward looking country like the UK can do it surely the USA can too?

We'll probably be getting a supply for Aunt Denise (North California) for her next birthday so thanks for the info.

Jon


Posted by:

Ann
28 Feb 2015

I was just today searching the net for a new UPS since my 10 yr Belkin failed during a power outage. The battery must have been really low, but the Belkin never indicated a low battery problem. There was not one second time to shut down properly. Luckily, the outage didn't cause any data loss (that I know of). Thanks Bob, for posting this info, and handily on the day that I need advice!


Posted by:

John
28 Feb 2015

I've used the usual Tripp-Lite and APC UPSes for my computer, but then found inverter/chargers like this: http://www.amazon.com/TRIPP-APS1012SW-Inverter-Charger-Hardwire/dp/B006R64SM2/ That, along with any number of batteries (I just have 2 large AGM-type), provides a lot of UPS capacity. Power usually goes out during a blizzard or hurricane, when I don't want to be outside playing with my generator, but I need my sump pump, at least. Use the generator after the storm.


Posted by:

Liz J
01 Mar 2015

My UPS failed without letting me know. From the posts, I get the impression that some UPSs indicate when the battery is getting low. If so, what brands should I look for. I'm in country (rural) Australia, where the power supply reliability is deplorable (and I believe fluctuates).


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