CONTENTS AT A GLANCE Understanding Power Problems
Blackouts Brownouts Surges and spikes Symptoms of power problems

Backup, Backup, Backup Troubleshooting Power-Protection Devices
Verifying electrical safety Testing battery backup/UPS batteries Tips for dealing with common “alarm” conditions Symptoms and solutions

Protection Devices
Surge and spike suppressors Line power conditioners Backup power Uninterruptible power supplies Sizing a BPS/UPS

Further Study

Power is one of those attributes of PCs that is often taken for granted (or at least treated
as an afterthought). Surges, spikes, and other power anomalies that occur in commercial power systems every day can damage the PC’s power supply—and often affect the drives and motherboard circuitry as well. Even when no serious damage occurs to the system, a loss of power can result in a loss of time and vital data for any office or organization. This chapter is intended to explain the concepts of power protection and show you the four major types of power-protection devices that are available. As a PC technician, this information will allow you to assist your customers in developing an adequate and reliable



power-protection plan that will suit their needs and budget. Proper power protection improves system reliability and reduces down-time.

Understanding Power Problems
Generally speaking, we have all come to take power for granted. In most cases, we simply tend to plug a device in the nearest available outlet and turn it on, assuming that an appropriate amount of voltage and current is available. If the device fails to function as expected, the natural assumption is that the device is at fault. In truth, this is not always the case. Computers and peripherals need certain minimum amounts of current and voltage at the ac line. If either value is too high or too low, the computer may behave erratically (or not work at all). Commercial power is generated as a sinusoidal (ac) wave similar to the one shown in Fig. 58-1. The amplitude of the wave represents voltage and the rate at which the wave repeats represents frequency. Voltage and frequency characteristics vary in different regions of the world. Regardless of region, however, the ac signal should be perfectly smooth and regular. In actuality, ac can suffer from a variety of ills: blackouts, brownouts, surges, and spikes.

A blackout is a complete loss of electrical power, where voltage and current drop to a very low value (typically zero). Blackouts are usually caused by a physical interruption in the local power network because of accidental damage by a person or nature. The interruption will usually affect an area that can be as small as a street or as large as an entire region, depending on the point in the power-distribution network where damage occurs.
Spike Surge (overvoltage) 150 110 70 Normal voltage Sag (undervoltage)




A comparison of ac sine waves during typical power problems.



Unless backup power is available, the loss of ac will invariably shut down the computer in a matter of milliseconds. In most cases, simply losing power does not damage a PC— memory is simply lost (along with any unsaved information). For casual home users, this is often just an inconvenience. For business users, however, losing power can mean the loss of valuable data and hours of lost productivity. In extremely rare cases, a sudden complete power loss can corrupt a hard drive’s File Allocation Table. The best and least expensive means of protection against a rare blackout is to save work regularly—every 30 to 60 minutes. That way, if power should fail, no more than an hour of work could be lost. For remote areas or regions that are subject to frequent power outages, a fast-switching Backup Power Supply (BPS) or a reliable Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) is highly recommended.

Perhaps more dangerous than sudden, complete power losses are brownouts—undervoltage conditions (also called sags) caused by questionable electrical wiring or excessive electrical load on an ac circuit. High-load items (like air conditioners, coffee pots, fan motors, overhead projectors, photocopiers, etc.) draw so much current that the ac voltage level drops. PC supplies are regulated, which means that the dc output provided to the computer circuitry will be constant over a range of ac input conditions. However, when ac conditions fall outside of that tolerable range, the supply will fall out of regulation. This results in intermittent system operation (the system mysteriously “freezes,” random memory errors occur, files might be lost or corrupted on the hard drive, and so on). Undervoltage conditions can also damage the power supply. Because the PC’s power supply responds to low ac voltages by drawing excessive current, serious undervoltage conditions can cause unusual heating that will eventually damage a PC power supply. If your customer complains of unusual system problems, such as those described, ask them to try their system on another circuit. Although one circuit might be loaded down, other circuits are probably not. If your customer cannot find a lightly used circuit (or does not have access to one), ask your customer to try disconnecting high-load devices in their area, such as air conditioners, fans, and heaters. If the problems disappear, advise your customer to have a new ac circuit installed from the circuit breaker (make it very clear that the new ac circuit should be from another line phase). Urban areas suffer from summer brownouts that affect entire areas. Such regional brownouts are usually caused by the massive air-conditioner load in the summertime. It is difficult to overcome brownout conditions because most backup power supplies do not engage until voltage levels drop below brownout levels (usually 85 to 95 Vac). However, an uninterruptible power supply will prevent unpleasant surprises because the computer runs from the UPS normally anyway. Brownouts and blackouts do not interrupt UPS operation.

Basically, spikes and surges are the same villain—they just take different forms. Surges are small overvoltage conditions (140 Vac or more) that occur over relatively long periods (usually more than one second). To regulate power to a desired level, excess energy must



be switched (in switching power supplies) or thrown away (in linear power supplies). In either case, excessive voltage creates overheating in the supply, and will eventually destroy it. Some supplies are designed to shut down in the event of voltage or thermal overloads, but you cannot always count on this feature in today’s proliferation of inexpensive clone PCs. A spike is a large overvoltage condition (perhaps as much as 2500 volts) that occurs in the space of milliseconds. Lightning strikes and high-energy switching can cause spikes on the ac line. For example, heavy equipment (such as drill presses, welders, grinders, and other highly motorized devices) can produce tremendous power spikes during normal operation, or when switched on and off. If your PC is on the same ac circuit as that heavy equipment, the spikes can damage the power supply. Although some supplies are designed with surge-suppression components [transformers, capacitors, gas-discharge tubes, and metal-oxide varistors (MOVs)], spikes that pass through surge suppression can damage the supply regulator or pass through the supply to damage any portions of the motherboard. Also remember that spikes can also pass along the everyday telephone line and damage your modem.

Before you run right out and invest hard-earned money in power-protection equipment, you should have some indication of power problems in the first place. Power problems are often difficult to measure because the power “event” occurs too quickly to measure without very specialized power-monitoring equipment. Still, some situations might suggest chronic power problems:
s s s s s s s s s s

The lights flicker or periodically vary in intensity. Frequent or regular errors occur in data transmission between network nodes. The PC stalls, crashes, or reboots for no apparent reason. Chronic or frequent component failures occur (e.g., modems don’t seem to last long). Chronic or frequent hard-drive failures occur. The CMOS RAM or modem NVRAM periodically lose their contents or become corrupted. The PC behaves erratically when other high-energy devices are turned on. The modem regularly loses its connection or fails data transfers. The monitor display flickers or waves. You encounter frequent or chronic write errors to disks.


These symptoms do not guarantee the existence of a power problem, but they should alert you to their possibility.

Protection Devices
A well-designed power supply is built to withstand many of the ills found in an ac power line. Unfortunately, the never-ending push to reduce component count and cost in clone



systems has meant that compromises have been made in the PC supply. You cannot always count on the presence of effective spike or overvoltage protection in original or replacement supplies. Therefore, you should understand the various options that are available to your customer.

Surge suppressors (such as the Best SpikeFree in Fig. 58-2) are simple and relatively inexpensive devices ($20 to $200 U.S.) that are designed to absorb high-voltage transients produced by lightning and other high-energy equipment. Protection is accomplished by clamping (or shunting) voltages above a certain level (usually above 200 volts). MOVs are often included, which can respond quickly and clamp voltages as high as 6000 volts. However, powerful surges, such as direct lightning strikes, can blow right through an MOV. Also, MOVs degrade with each spike. Once they have passed a number of surges, they are destroyed and must be replaced. There is no way to know whether the MOV is working or not, so there is no way to really tell if a surge suppressor is actually protecting the system. Many protectors show a neon lamp or LED that goes out when the MOV has blown or when the protector is no longer active. Good suppressors also incorporate a circuit breaker, rather than a fuse. This is convenient because a circuit breaker can be reset, but many fused units must be disassembled to replace the fuse. If possible, select a surge suppressor approved under UL1449 (or international equivalent). As a rule, remember that surge/spike protectors are the simplest and least expensive power-protection devices. They are also the most limited. Modems and fax boards are also susceptible to damage from spikes present on everyday telephone lines. When recommending protection schemes, do not forget to include tele-


The SpikeFree product line from Best Power. Best Power Technology, Inc.




The Citadel product line from Best Power. Best Power
Technology, Inc.

phone-line spike protection as well. Several of the Best SpikeFree devices (Fig. 58-2) also provide data-line protection, along with ac line protection.

Line conditioners perform all of the functions that a surge suppressor does, but they provide some additional power protection. Where surge suppressors are passive devices— functioning only when a surge is present—line conditioners (such as the Best Citadel line conditioners in Fig. 58-3) use transformers and capacitors for power isolation and highfrequency RF noise filtering. This results in a larger and more expensive, but more effective, power-protection scheme. Another advantage of line conditioners is their tolerance to brief brownout conditions. Because transformers and capacitors are energy-storage components, those components will continue to provide energy to the power supply during short brownouts (on the order of several milliseconds).

Surge suppressors and line conditioners will only take your customers just so far. Those devices can protect a computer from brief power anomalies and keep their systems off your workbench until it is time to upgrade. Sooner or later, though, power will fail. When your customer cannot afford to be in the dark (literally), you should recommend a supplemental power system. A Backup Power System (BPS) is an off-line power system that provides power to your computer only when main ac power fails. Power is supplied from a series of batteries that are kept charged while ac power is available. When ac fails, the dc battery power is modulated into ac and switched in-line to provide power to the system. Any decent BPS (like the Best Patriot backup supply in Fig. 58-4) can provide power for 15 to 60 minutes, depending on the amount of load attached to it—plenty of time to save any work in progress and shut down in an orderly fashion. The problem with some bargain-priced BPS units is their switching time. It might take several milliseconds to detect the loss of power and actually initiate the switch-over to battery power. In that few milliseconds, a PC might brownout or reboot anyway and defeat the point of having backup power in the first place. If a customer is having problems with





The Patriot BPS power line from Best Power. Best Power Technology, Inc.


The Fortress UPS product line from Best Power. Best Power Technology, Inc.

power switch-over, ask them to lighten the load on the BPS. Instead of trying to backup four machines with a BPS, try one or two and experiment a bit. A lighter load might allow the BPS to switch faster and preserve the PC’s operation. If operation is acceptable with a lighter load, the prescription might be more BPS installations. If problems persist, find a better BPS for your customer. A BPS that offers a FerroResonant Transformer (FRT) is often a good bet because an FRT can provide energy for several milliseconds to smooth the transfer to battery power. Another problem to remember is that a backup power system might not offer any significant level of power protection. Because battery power is free of ac anomalies, inexpensive BPS designs might omit surge suppression or line-conditioning features for the direct ac circuit. If power-protection devices are already available, the problem is moot. How-



ever, if your customer is not yet using power-protection devices, recommend a BPS (such as the Best Patriot) that incorporates surge/spike protection.

The UPS is probably the best all-around form of power protection available. It is also the most expensive. Where a BPS only provides modulated power when ac fails, a UPS is designed to provide modulated dc continuously—the PC runs from battery power all the time. Ac keeps the batteries charged, but line ac does not power the PC directly. As a result, the PC is isolated from even the worst line power anomalies. Like a BPS, a UPS will only provide power for a limited time after ac fails (depending on the attached load), which allows the user to save data and shut down. However, there are no switching problems to contend with. High-end UPS systems, such as the Best Fortress UPS in Fig. 58-5, provide an excellent combination of uninterruptible power, brownout correction, and surge and spike protection. One thing to consider when recommending a UPS is the type of modulation provided by the modulator. Inexpensive UPS devices modulate dc battery power into an ac square wave. This is “technically” ac, but remember that some PCs and peripherals do not work well with square waves. It is preferable to use a UPS with a power-inverter circuit. The inverter produces a precise sine wave (rather than a square wave), which is compatible with all PCs and peripherals.

Selecting a BPS or UPS is somewhat of an imprecise science because it involves determining both the load required for backup, and the amount of time needed to operate that load once power fails. The rule for BPS and UPS systems is that backup power is provided only long enough to save work and shut down the PC or network in an orderly fashion—anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. With this in mind, Table 58-1 offers some

COMPUTER Pentium PC with 15" monitor MMX PC with 15" monitor 386/486 PC with 15" monitor Pentium PC with 17" monitor MMX PC with 17" monitor 386/486 PC with 17" monitor Pentium PC with 21" monitor MMX PC with 21" monitor 386/486 PC with 21" monitor


Note: The computers include external accessories, such as modem, speakers, scanner, CD-ROM, and Zip drives.



examples of typical backup power capacities. Notice that backup power capacity is rated in volt-amperes (VA), rather than watts (W).

Backup, Backup, Backup
It is a strange fact of today’s society that the information contained in computers is often more valuable than the computer system itself. Serious power interruptions can damage a computer, but even more important is that vital data might also be lost from memory or the hard drive. Power-protection devices are intended to protect the PC from damage and keep the system operating in the face of poor or absent ac. However, power-protection devices are not foolproof. Regular backups of memory and disk files are vital to any protection plan. Advise your customers to save their work religiously. Saving every 30 to 60 minutes is usually prudent (more often in a busy office environment)—it is also free. If your customer does not have a tape backup to support their hard-drive files, seriously recommend a tape drive. System backups once a day (even once a week) can preserve vital data in the rare event that a hard drive is damaged by a spike or brownout.

Troubleshooting Power-Protection Devices
Power-protection devices (especially BPS and UPS systems) are often ignored once they are installed. In fact, power systems require a certain level of regular attention and are themselves subject to a wide array of problems that can affect the reliability of your PC or network. This part of the chapter examines many of the common situations that can arise with BPS/UPS systems and offers some suggestions for corrective action.

Before covering troubleshooting specifically, it is wise to review the overall electrical power and interconnection scheme used by the PC. Electrical power “events” can be conducted by any long cable connected to your computer, LAN, or modem. The tips listed can help you protect your equipment from potential damage:
s Use an UPS or surge suppressor to protect all ac operated PC equipment—especially

the main system (desktop or tower) and monitor.
s Verify that your ac power receptacles are properly wired (you might need the services

of a licensed electrician for this). Even though PC equipment might appear to operate properly under normal conditions, operating computer equipment from miswired outlets can pose a shock hazard. s Plug in all power protection and/or PC equipment line cords to the same ac circuit wherever possible. This basically means that power to all the PC equipment is controlled by the same building fuse or circuit breaker.



s RS-232 serial interface ports on computers, terminals, printers, plotters, and modems

are especially sensitive to damage from electrical transients because they use the computer chassis ground as a signal common. Protect both ends of an RS-232 serial interface cable longer than five feet (1.5 m) with good-quality serial-port protection devices that have been specifically designed for that purpose. Do not attempt to run RS-232 links between equipment in separate buildings—use quality short-haul modems instead. s Use good-quality network-protection devices to protect your Ethernet Network Interface Cards (NICs) and other LAN equipment at each end of a network’s 10Base-T UTP or coaxial Thinnet cable. Thinnet (10Base2) networks are especially susceptible to intersystem ground noise when the cable shields are inadvertently grounded at more than one location. Verify your system’s true single ground point and check to be sure that “T” connectors or any exposed connector barrels are not touching the metal chassis of your computer. s Use good-quality network-protection devices to protect your 4- and 16-Mbps tokenring network interface cards and other LAN equipment at each end of a network’s UTP cable. s Protect the telephone port of your telecommunications equipment (e.g., modem, fax, telex, answering machine, etc.) from damage caused by nearby lightning activity with a good-quality lighting or surge arrestor that was designed specifically for telecommunications equipment.

Batteries are electrochemical devices and they all fail eventually. BPS/UPS backup batteries are certainly no exception. If trouble occurs with your BPS/UPS system (or as part of regular maintenance on the power system), you should be able to test the batteries in a BPS or UPS for integrity. The following steps outline testing for +12-Vdc batteries:
s Be sure that your BPS or UPS is connected correctly, and has at least 50% of its total

load devices plugged in (desktop unit, monitor, scanner, etc.). Turn the system and attached peripherals on, and allow the PC to boot normally. Simulate a power outage by disconnecting the BPS or UPS line cord. Use a standard digital voltmeter and measure each individual battery voltage. Each +12-Vdc battery should read between +11.5 Vdc and +12.5 Vdc. Any battery measuring outside of that range should be considered defective and should be replaced. s All batteries should measure about the same. Any battery that differs more than 0.4 V from the rest of the batteries should be considered bad and be replaced. s Wait about five minutes and repeat the test (looking for one weak battery to discharge faster than the others). If any battery appears to be discharging faster than the others, it should be considered bad and be replaced.
s s s s


Many of the current generation of BPS and UPS systems incorporate a certain amount of “intelligence,” which oversees such features as battery charging and self-diagnostics. When important conditions are not met or errors are detected, the BPS/UPS will produce



an “alarm.” Although the actual means used to present the alarm (e.g., beeps, 7-segment codes, or alphanumeric LCD readouts), you should understand the essential alarm meanings and know how to respond quickly.
s Batteries disconnected The BPS/UPS batteries are not properly connected. Verify the

connection of all batteries in the BPS/UPS.
s Check battery The BPS/UPS has detected a possible problem with its batteries. Verify

s s











that all of your batteries are properly connected in the BPS/UPS. You should test all batteries and replace those that are defective. Check fan The cooling fan inside the BPS/UPS is not functioning properly. The fan might need to be replaced or the BPS/UPS might require factory service or replacement. Check fuse board The BPS/UPS has detected a possible problem with an internal fuse board. It might be possible to check/replace the fuse board, but this usually means that the BPS/UPS has failed and is in need of factory service or replacement. Check inverter The BPS/UPS has detected a possible problem with its inverter circuit (the circuit that actually turns battery dc back into ac). This usually means that the BPS/UPS has failed and is in need of factory service or replacement. Check MOVs The BPS/UPS has detected a problem with a MOV (Metal-Oxide Varistor) inside the unit. This usually means that the BPS/UPS has failed and is in need of factory service or replacement. Check power supply The unit has detected a possible problem with the internal power supply (which powers the BPS/UPS microprocessor controls). This usually means that the BPS/UPS has failed and is in need of factory service or replacement. Circuit breaker warning/shutdown A high output current is provided by the BPS/UPS. This usually occurs because excessive PC equipment is overloading the BPS/UPS. Shut down all of the PC equipment and reset the BPS/UPS. Then disconnect the extra PC equipment that is overloading the BPS/UPS. High ac out/shutdown The BPS/UPS is generating an unusually high ac output voltage and will shut down to prevent damaging the PC equipment. This usually means that the BPS/UPS has failed and is in need of factory service or replacement. High ambient temperature The temperature inside the BPS/UPS is too high. Be sure that the BPS/UPS is placed in a room temperature that is within the system’s recommended range (high-temperature industrial environments are typically bad). Also see that nothing is blocking the cooling vents in the BPS/UPS. High battery The battery voltage in the BPS/UPS is high. The problem might with the battery-charger settings, the charging circuit itself, or one or more batteries. This usually means that the BPS/UPS has failed and is in need of factory service or replacement. Low ac out/shutdown The BPS/UPS is generating an unusually low ac output voltage and will shut down to prevent damaging the PC equipment. This usually means that the BPS/UPS has failed and is in need of factory service or replacement. Low battery Battery voltage is too low for the BPS/UPS to operate on battery power and the unit will subsequently shut down. In most cases, you should see a low runtime error first. If the batteries are too low—even while the BPS/UPS is operating from ac, the problem might be with the charging circuit or the batteries in the unit. Low runtime The PC is running on battery power and the amount of battery time remaining is low (usually two minutes or less). Do an orderly shutdown of your PC



equipment immediately. In most cases, you do not need to shut off the BPS/UPS (when ac power returns, the BPS/UPS can automatically restart and begin to recharge its batteries). s Memory error Upon startup, the BPS/UPS unit has failed its automatic memory-validity test (usually in “intelligent” microprocessor-based BPS/UPS units). This usually means that the BPS/UPS has failed and is in need of factory service or replacement. s Overload The PC equipment is drawing more power than the BPS/UPS is designed to provide. This can seriously reduce battery runtime. You’ll need to shut down extra PC equipment (e.g., scanners, printers, etc.) until the error stops.

Symptom 58-1. The BPS/UPS will not turn on This is usually indicated if the power LED doesn’t light or if the unit doesn’t beep. Check that the ac power is available at the outlet and see that the ac line cord is connected to the BPS/UPS properly. If the unit has a circuit breaker or fuse, check to see if it has tripped. Reset the circuit breaker or replace the fuse as necessary. Also, be sure that the unit is not overloaded with excessive PC equipment (which can draw excess current and pop the fuse or circuit breaker). Symptom 58-2. A “site wiring fault” is indicated (usually while the BPS/ UPS is powering loads) This is most likely caused by a building wiring error (such

as a missing ground), an overload on the neutral wiring, or a polarity reversal between the hot and the neutral wires. There might be a “cheater” plug or adapter installed onto the unit’s line cord plug—resulting in no connection to ground. You’ll need a licensed electrician to check and correct the building wiring, as needed.
Symptom 58-3. The BPS/UPS is on, but the PC equipment is not receiving power The unit’s circuit breaker might be tripped. In most cases, this is accompanied

by a loud tone or error message, which indicates an overload. This means that the BPS/UPS has shut down because too much PC equipment is plugged in (such as a laser printer). Shut off the PC equipment and disconnect any “excess” devices—you might place them on a simple surge suppressor on a different ac outlet. Then reset the BPS/UPS (reset the circuit breaker, if necessary).
Symptom 58-4. The BPS/UPS indicates a power failure—even though ac power has not failed This often happens if the unit’s ac line cord has become loose.


Be sure that the line cord is installed properly. If the unit’s circuit breaker has tripped, an excessive load (from too much equipment) might be on the BPS/UPS. Disconnect excessive equipment and plug them into ordinary surge suppressors instead.
Symptom 58-5. The BPS/UPS beeps (kicks in) occasionally The PC equip-

ment operates normally. This typically indicates that the BPS/UPS is noting brief lapses in ac or other power anomalies. In most cases, this kind of operation is perfectly normal and indicates that the BPS/UPS is busy protecting the PC equipment from power problems. If it emits a distracting tone, you can often disable the audible alarm on most BPS/UPS systems.



Symptom 58-6. The BPS/UPS beeps (kicks in) frequently (often several times each hour) The PC equipment operates normally. This almost always indicates

that the ac line voltage powering the BPS/UPS to begin with is low or heavily loaded by other devices drawing current elsewhere. First, have the line voltage checked by a licensed electrician and corrected, if necessary. You might also reduce the sensitivity of the BPS/UPS by reducing the “transfer voltage” (the voltage at which the unit “kicks in”) by several volts—not all BPS/UPS systems provide this feature. Finally, try removing any unnecessary devices that might be “loading down” the ac line voltage (e.g., coffee pots or air conditioners).
Symptom 58-7. The BPS/UPS does not provide the expected runtime

First, check to see if there is an excessive load on the BPS/UPS (such as a laser printer). Disconnect any excess devices and plug them into ordinary surge suppressors elsewhere. If the problem persists, the batteries in the BPS/UPS itself might be weak from age or abuse (or have not charged completely after a prior use). Be sure that the BPS/UPS is given ample time to charge. Otherwise, test and replace weak batteries, as needed.
Symptom 58-8. The computer reboots when the BPS/UPS “kicks in” This occurs because the PC equipment does not have enough “ride-through time” until the BPS/UPS can react. In most cases, an excessive load is on the BPS/UPS. Remove excessive PC equipment from the BPS/UPS and try the system again. If the problem persists, you might need to replace the BPS/UPS with one that offers a faster “switch-over” time.

Further Study
That wraps up Chapter 58. Be sure to review the glossary and chapter questions on the accompanying CD. If you have access to the Internet, take some time to review these powerprotection resources: APC: http://www.apcc.com Best Power: http://www.bestpower.com/ TrippLite: http://www.tripplite.com

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