The Perils of Poor Power

I’m in the midst of moving my office to some new space (larger, nicer, more comfortable, etc.), and the process of building and moving to this new space has brought up a big technology issue that many of us don’t consider on a regular basis – electric power. Unless you live in Hawaii, you’re probably used to having a plug-in heater underneath your desk to keep warm. You may also be using a nice laser printer at your desk, and even be using fluorescent light bulbs to be more environmentally friendly (at least on the electricity). Since it was 12 degrees (yes, Fahrenheit) when I headed out of my driveway this morning in Knoxville, Tennessee, I’m guessing that many of you are using those heaters today.

Please stop, and check your desk now. If the heater, laser printer/copier, microwave, or fluorescent lights are on the same breaker as the computer, talk to someone about getting a dedicated circuit for the computer equipment. My experience dealing with technology (including my own bricked five year old PC) suggests that the hardware failure rate for systems which are on the same circuit as any of these devices is higher than that for people who are not on the same circuit as these devices. While this is anecdotal evidence only, many users in small offices may not be familiar with the issues that can be caused by these devices. Here’s what happens:

1. Heater or Printer draws large amounts of current during its warm-up or operation.

2. This drop in current disrupts, or “browns out” the power to the electronic equipment. While these brown-outs may not seem like that big of a deal, they cause big problems on the circuitry of computers and other electronic devices (for that matter, static electricity is an issue as well).

3. After hundreds of these “brown outs”, the electronic equipment dies a painful death, and you and your people wonder why you seem to have so many issues with equipment, this may be the case.

Some solutions to these power problems include:

1. Dedicated breaker and separate outlets for all computer equipment. While this may be cost-prohibitive, this is the preferred solution. I had this done in my new space, and can’t wait to get all of my stuff over there so I can have my printers in the same room as my computers and my space heater.

2. Uninterruptable Power Supply. Filtered power with battery backup (e.g. a UPS) is a requirement for all server applications anyway, and a good idea for all workstations. Today I purchased a 1300VA/780 watt UPS for the low price of $165 (APC model BX1300LCD at Office Depot). Trust me – it’s cheap compared to the cost of downtime.

3. Surge protection for everything that touches the network. While it may seem paranoid to put surge protection on your cable TV wire, phone jack, electric power, and network cable, I’ve seen numerous situations where there was ONE device plugged into a network which wasn’t covered by surge protection, and a lightning strike used that unfiltered plug to push a huge surge through a network, taking everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) out.

While this isn’t a huge shock for most of you, I wanted to mention this today so you public practitioners can get your electronics separated out before the year-end surge hits for 2008

Until next time, Happy (audit) trails.

Brian Tankersley, CPA.CITP