Battery Backup Power - What You Need to Know

Category: Hardware

A reader asks: 'What do you recommend as a backup power supply for computers? During the last storm, my PC crashed and we lost power for several hours. If I had a battery backup, I could have saved my document, and gotten online to check for 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

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 APC Back-UPS 600VA ($57) which provides battery backup and surge protection for your home computer, router, and peripherals. It has 7 total outlets (5 provide both battery backup and surge protection; 2 offer surge protection only). There's also a USB charging port for your smartphone or tablet. APC says the battery in this model should last 3-5 years, and are replaceable. This model gives you about 23 minutes of battery backup with a 100-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.

The APC 1500VA Back-UPS Pro ($152) has 10 outlets, and will keep your gear powered up (100-watt load) for 68 minutes. A display on the unit will tell you how many watts are in use, and the amount of battery time remaining.

Other popular UPS models to consider are the CyberPower 825VA ($80) and the Tripp Lite 1500VA ($164).

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. Some internet service providers install an interface box with a battery backup unit. When I had Verizon FIOS service, that battery would only last about 15 minutes. So during power failures, I plugged the FIOS battery backup into a UPS so I could continue to make phone calls and exchange electrons with the Interwebs. For outages longer than a half-hour or so, a gas-powered generator will be necessary.

It's important to conserve every watt of power when running from 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 "Battery Backup Power - What You Need to Know"

(See all 23 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Lucy
05 Mar 2018

@J
Re: Disposal of an old UPS

I would suggest you contact your trash company to ask.

In our last home we could leave old batteries alongside our recycling can (not inside the can) and the driver would pick it up and place it in a compartment on the truck and take it away.

Our current home require us to drive to the "Transfer Station" and hand over to the Household Hazardous Waste folk.


Posted by:

Ron
05 Mar 2018

We got an APC 450 about a year ago; seems to be fine. Originally had my back-up drive and gateway (NetGear) connected but the COMCAST tech said not to put the gateway on it...I think because it could add too much power when coming off a power loss and the power came back on. Is that possible or a real concern???


Posted by:

Bob H
05 Mar 2018

I've used APC branded UPS devices for two decades, and would not be without. Started out with a 350va unit for old desktop and internal modem. As I've added more electronics, I've upgraded and now have three 1500va units for all in one desktop, TV and settop box, and communication closet wi-fi router and weather hub. I like the AVR feature and it's interesting to see the LCD display fluctuations in power to the livingroom unit. I also have several older units from 1000va down to 850va. I get batteries online and APC provides a no-cost (to me), return shipping label. In addition, we have a 17.5K propane backup generator, but it can take 45 seconds from shore power loss to load shift, so the smaller older UPS devices take care of that


Posted by:

Frank P
05 Mar 2018

I didn't realize that the battery was replacable when my first UPS failedand I disposed of it. A worn out battery is the most common reason for UPS failure. Go online a buy a replacement battery.


Posted by:

Art Rocker
05 Mar 2018

Longer battery life? Converted my APC620 to a much larger external battery. The APC acts as a battery charger on AC or generator...the 75 amp hour battery (yup, that's a big one) will run my Chromebook, phone modem/router, and phone for at least 2 hours of use per day. The big battery also gets a solar charge in long term outages. If you're not up to this strategy...the APC 1500 is a great option.


Posted by:

Ralph
05 Mar 2018

@Ron, I've been using a UPS for well over 15 years, and have everything plugged in to it including my wireless cable modem. During a power outage, I power down my computer, then my UPS. After power returns and is stable, I start my UPS, then my computer. No worries. Your gateway (router?) is a low current device.


Posted by:

Sarah L
05 Mar 2018

In 2003 I lost my refrigerator and computer to a surge due to an unfortunate squirrel. I got an APC unit Wichita has made life simpler. One place for all the needed plus. Best Buy accepts the old unit for proper disposal, even if I buy the new unit elsewhere. It makes an audible signal when the power goes out, which is handy in daylight when it might not be immediately obvious. I will soon switch to fiber optic cable for my connection and replace my modem and router with a gateway, so I appreciate the warning to ask about plugging it in to the APC. I assume I can, but it will be new to have such a high speed connection. PS doing this on my phone, an ad is covering up the middle of this post, so I hope all words are spelled correctly.


Posted by:

Wayne
05 Mar 2018

I don't need an APC. My computer is a laptop!


Posted by:

IanG
05 Mar 2018

I bought a UPS 3 years ago after losing power in storms (in the UK) which caused the power to be off for over 30 hours. It worked well - for nearly 3 years.

And then, in January this year, we had a short outage (not more than 30 seconds) and the UPS didn't cut in. I suspected a defunct battery - even though the display on the UPS said the battery was 100%!. It took me until the end of Feb to finally locate and order a new and suitable battery. Meanwhile, I had 3 more very short outages of power and the last one caused my computer (a desktop) to crash and then refuse to reboot again. I was furious.

I took the computer to pieces (I had built it in the first place so knew my way around) and eventually got it running again but only after removing all the connections on the back, and replacing them one by one once it had booted.

The makers of the UPS (a CyberPower 480W/800VA) said they didn't advise fitting just a new battery, but to replace the unit with a new one! Well, not being made of money, I disregarded their advice and fitted a new battery ( a difference of £80 approx. for a new unit against the battery cost of ~£25 including tax and postage).

It didn't take very long to open the unit: just 4 screws plus some very difficult-to-part plastic clips in the covers. Now all is working fine again APART from the fact (which I have yet to cure) that the initial start screen hangs for about a minute before loading Windows.


Posted by:

Chuck
05 Mar 2018

@Wayne - I thought the same thing, totally forgetting about my router/modem. Fortunately, I had plenty of power in my smartphone.


Posted by:

James Pietruszka
05 Mar 2018

No mention of UPS power Quality. Most UPS' generate an approximate sinewave that will power computers, tools, and most electronic devices. The sinewave output Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) is usually greater than 5%, some UPS' having 10% or more. I believe all the UPS' referenced in the article are the approximate sinewave type.

Some electronic devices operate erratically or not at all with an approximate sinewave UPS. These devices require a true sinewave UPS, which of course costs more than the standard UPS. This sinewave THD is typically better than 5%, sometimes better than the sinewave coming out of the wall socket.

If any devices do not operate properly, or overheat, using an approximate sinewave UPS those devices require the true sinewave UPS.


Posted by:

Robert A.
05 Mar 2018

If you have a desktop computer, and it's connected to a battery back-up unit (BBU), the computer essentially runs on battery power all the time, while the AC current from the wall plug continuously charges the batteries, much like a laptop runs when you have it plugged into the wall plug.

Eventually, after several years, the lead-acid batteries loose their ability to hold a charge, and die, not unlike a car battery, and need to be replaced. Once the batteries die, you need to unplug the computer from the BBU, and plug it directly into an AC wall plug to get it to run again. So you need to get the unit or just the batteries replaced ASAP, to be safe.

I have an APC tower unit which I purchased from either Costco or MicroCenter about five or six years ago. About a year or so ago, I got an audio alarm from the unit indicating that the two batteries had died, and the computer would not power up. After plugging the computer into the wall, and getting it up and running again, I did an on-line search for "computer back-up unit replacement batteries," after finding out Best Buy doesn't sell them.

I found what appears to be a small franchised battery store called Batteries + Bulbs that carries BBU batteries. For about $70.00, the guys there were able to replace the batteries with slightly larger units (1300 va) than the ones that originally came with the unit (1100 va), giving me a little more back-up time than I originally had. They also took the old batteries for recycling, at no charge.

If you're lucky enough to have your home connected to a whole-house natural gas or propane powered back-up generator, from, say, Generac, Honeywell or Kohler, you can get by with a smaller BBU, say 350va, for around $50.00, as it will only really be needed for the short time, generally within 20 seconds, or so, for the back-up generator to start up and kick in with AC, until the power is restored by the electric utility.


Posted by:

William Wilson
05 Mar 2018

Too many persons think, well I have a battery back-up and so safe. Only partially true. Battery back-up is not an UPS, which will run for hours or days. The purpose of battery backup is to inform the computer power has dropped, the computer (program normally supplied by the battery backup manufacture) goes into shut-down or snooze mode. This is not an instant response, and depending upon your computer, could take a few seconds of SDD drives or few minutes to fully shut down. Your battery backup has to have the capacity and some to spare to supply power until shut down. Most batteries are similar to car or moto batteries, they have a defined life time and as grow older, their capacity weakens.


Posted by:

Chuck
06 Mar 2018

One thing that may help extend the life of your batteries is to exercise them periodically. You should unplug your UPS from the wall (many have a test switch so you don't need to mess cords) and run on the UPS for a few minutes. You also can't always rely on the power meter if it has one. Many times it well only be reading voltage and can't really tell you about the overall battery health. Just like a car battery. Sometimes it will read 12 volts until you turn the key and it drops way down. We used to load check our UPS and fire exit light batteries. As far as a true sinewave UPS, wouldn't that run into the thousand dollar range? I used some pretty complicated equipment with a mid range (price vs. quality) inverter before and had no problems. One last thought. I was working in a wind power facility and we had a very heavy duty UPS system for our SCADA. I put off replacing the batteries. Always have a schedule and follow it. It was no fun doing that by flashlight in the middle of the night.


Posted by:

Rich
06 Mar 2018

I take the battery out and put alligator clips on the leads and hook them to a car battery. It will keep a computer, monitor, modem and landline up for 4 hours
You can use batteries in series if you need more time


Posted by:

HA
06 Mar 2018

In LA, Goodwill accepts all old electronics.


Posted by:

Karen
06 Mar 2018

After recent Hurricane Irma in SoFL, power outage was widespread and lasted for us about a week. Cell service from AT&T and Verizon remained available, TMobile and Sprint not. Sprint was back up about a day after the storm was over; TMobile took about 3 days. AT&T internet (UVerse) was not available until after our entire neighborhood got power back. So, yeah, even though our phones and laptops were good to go (we have solar chargers and extra battery backups), the internet was less so. I think the same was true for Comcast, the other home internet provider. So, we used our phones instead. UPS are useless in such a situation, IMO.


Posted by:

Brian
06 Mar 2018

@J
Re: Disposal of an old UPS

We always recycle our old ups units by donating them to our local Goodwill store. Many times, Goodwill can refurbish the old UPS to a good working order and resell it at a huge discount. We have done this for th past 10-12 years now with no issues!!


Posted by:

Walter
07 Mar 2018

Replacing batteries in old UPSes (if they work) is pretty easy and the batteries aren't very expensive. Also a small ups on your router/internet connection can keep you up and running for many hours as they only draw a small amount of watts.


Posted by:

Cheryl
26 Jul 2018

We have a Tripp Lite PDU40TDUAL strip plugged into a 16amp 240v outlet. Our APC1500 battery backup is plugged into this and all our server boxes are plugged into the Tripp. I was looking for a better solution to this setup for battery backup. Would it be possible to use a 2200 on this same setup? We just need more time on the backup.


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