Surge Protection: Storms and faulty operational equipment can cause damage without warning. Protect now or pay later.

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October 01, 2013
Notes from an IT Service Shop
Geoff Griswold - geoff@atlantaomnigroup.com

Several years ago, a major hotel in northwest Atlanta experienced something that most hotels do not. The hotel was built of concrete and steel, with thick glass windows and had weathered many fierce storms with potential tornadoes.

During a storm the hotel suffered a direct lightning strike, not just a close one, but a direct hit. The results were disastrous to the electronic equipment, compressors, kitchen equipment, electric reader board signs, and numerous other items that were either damaged or completely destroyed.

Prior to the storm the hotels’ management felt that adequate protection was in place but the severity of the strike was just too much to overcome. This example may be a severe case, but protecting against surges and strikes can be cost effectively achieved.

A power surge is a jump in voltage over the normal range of 120 volts (the excess is called transient voltage). Voltage is the force that carries the current from one end of a circuit to another. If an increase in voltage lasts 3 nanoseconds or more it is called a surge. Less than 3 nanoseconds is considered a spike. Either one can damage equipment.

While most think of lightning as the biggest cause of damage, when actually high power electrical devices, such a refrigeration equipment cause many more surges than lightning. Other causes of surges can include downed power lines, faulty wiring inside the building and problems along the electrical grid. Protection for a hotel, residence or any other building begins with surge protectors.

A basic surge protector like a power strip consists of components that divert excess electricity or neutralize it. Another type of surge protector uses a gas discharge arrestor. This is a glass tube that becomes a good conductor when excess power needs to be discharged to ground. Both of these protectors are priced between $10-15.

Spending a bit more money(between $20 and $25) can result in a better quality surge protector with features such as site wiring fault warning light, protection status light and more advanced electronics installed inside the strip. 

A good power strip can give basic protection but additional equipment is needed to provide adequate coverage. A surge station can be purchased for each important computer and server in the hotel. These devices sit on the floor near the computer and offer line conditioning for telephones and faxes.

Uninterrupted power supplies (UPS) are a must item for servers and other shared devices, as well crucial Internet connections and devices affecting guest service. UPS ratings and models can be confusing. There is the voltage/amperage rating that indicates the capacity the device is able of handling in terms of electrical voltage.  An example is two devices with 120 volts and 1 amp each would require a v/a rating about 120. Some newer models have outlets that provide both power backup and surge protection.

It is also important to know how long, approximately, a UPS will operate without the battery running out.  This will give computer users and others adequate time to shut down their systems before the UPS battery is discharged.  UPS units are usually not needed in areas of the hotel covered by emergency generators. One exception is that some generators can cause surges as they power up so sensitive equipment might need to be surge protected.

Even with a good UPS, surge protection should also be used as some UPS units use low end surge protection components.

Underwriters Laboratories is a non profit independent organization that tests and rates numerous electronic and electrical products. It is important that a surge device is listed as a transient voltage surge suppressor which carries the numbers UL 1449.  There are also voltage to ground ratings, the smaller the better because less voltage is allowed to the connected device during a surge.

There are surge protection devices that can be installed directly into an electrical panel or breaker boxes.  In home environments, this could be adequate protection but in a hotel, where numerous panels exist, it might not be effective.

Data, as well as hardware in a computer should be protected, especially if phone lines are involved in using a modem. Higher end surge protectors provide in/out ports for wires.

There are some misconceptions about surges. One misconception is that transformers (the power supply for many notebook computers) are surge protectors. This is false and should not be used as a substitute for rated surge protection. Another misconception is that any surge protection is better than nothing. This is also incorrect. A wrong (or cheap) protector can divert the access electricity in a way that can hurt sensitive equipment.
Protect equipment now, or pay heavily later.

Geoff Griswold is a field engineer and general manager of the Omni Group, an IT services company specializing in the hospitality industry. He can be reached at (678) 464-2427 or geoff@atlantaomnigroup.com.

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