Solid state electronics, like computers and business telephone systems, are especially susceptible to damage from lightning, brownouts, blackouts, and other power issues. To compound the situation, these devices are connected to each other via lots of cables, providing a “path of least resistance” that allows electrical surges to traverse across the network. The end result is that a single power strike can damage multiple devices at the same time.
In order to protect your networked systems from lightning strikes and other forms of power fluctuations, make sure that your organization follows these best practices:
Protect non-critical computers and network equipment with Surge Protectors – Surge protectors are essentially switches that direct power spikes to ground, instead of to your equipment. There are three main switches in use today, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Your best bet is to choose a product that uses three-stage protection, which includes gas discharge tubes, metal oxide varisters, and diode arrays. When choosing between models, choose the product that offers the most joules of energy absorption that you can afford. A $5 power strip is not a surge protector. Make sure that you have the right product!
Protect critical equipment with uninterruptable power supplies – Typical products to get a UPS include servers, telephone systems, switches, and routers. UPS’s will combine surge suppression and a battery backup in one device. It’s not uncommon for a brief interruption of power lasting less than a second to turn a computer off, causing corrupted files. Intelligent UPS units can actually shut down the computer automatically, which is especially important when you have weekend power problems affecting your server.
The goal of the UPS is to keep your critical systems running long enough to save documents and shut down the machine, typically 5 – 15 minutes. Most power outages only last for a brief period of time, so 15 minutes should be sufficient. If downtime due to power outages is not an option, the run time offered by the UPS should exceed the time it takes for your backup power generator to start running. Make sure that you provide for enough overlap in time to make sure that you’re covered.
Protect your equipment from outside services – Most of the lightning damage that I see comes from unprotected cable modems and telephone lines. A ground lightning strike a mile or so away can travel through the ground to these types of buried lines and enter your building. By following the line in, the lightning will then spread through your entire network until the energy is completely dissipated. You’ll often see blown ports in your switch, telephone system, or computer network card come from this type of strike. You can buy surge protection for cable (coax) and telephone lines to protect these services.
If you have Ethernet (computer) cable running outside of your building to support another office or for a wireless network antenna, make sure that you have surge protection on both sides. You may also want to double up surge protection before and after your cable or DSL modem. For a very small premium in price, you can get a lot more protection.
Review your power protection equipment regularly – Over time, these devices wear out. Most cheap one and two stage surge protectors will only protect your equipment for about 100 power surges, and they happen much more frequently than you think. Even worse, it’s not uncommon for these devices show that they are working properly in their diagnostic lights even when they have failed. Commercial class equipment will protect you for about 1000 surges, showing that the price difference is justified.
You’ll also want to make sure that the grounding block for your business telephone system is properly installed. Less reputable vendors will eliminate this critical protection in order to keep their prices low or sell you the product but fail to install it properly, in hopes that lightning will destroy the entire phone system before it would need replacing due to age. It’s up to you to check up on their work to protect your investment.
Computer networks and business telephone systems are an essential part of today’s business environment. They make our employees more productive and improve customer service. Simply put, we would be less profitable without them. Make sure that you follow surge protection best practices to protect your equipment and the bottom line.