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Look Out For Lightning 28 May 2002 Edition
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It has been a wild and wet past 24 hours here.

The power has gone out and even when it's on there appear to be beefy dips and surges on the line -- so large in fact that one particular voltage spike took out my TV in an impressive cloud of smoke.

Even when the power is remotely stable, persistent thunder-storms have forced me to unplug the modem for extended periods (which also explains why this morning's column is late). If this one gets killed by lightning that would increase my pile of dead modems to a total of five.

Fortunately the 1KVA Siemens UPS that sits under my desk has (so far) done a splendid job of keeping my two main PCs running -- but I discovered that the cheap 600VA unit had a duff battery which gave my other PC a backup life of about 45 seconds -- oh dear.

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If you've got a good UPS and a generator then you can remain pretty much immune to the effects of power surges, spikes, brownouts and failures -- but dealing with large spikes coming down the phone line is a whole different story.

As my pile of dead modems will testify, it doesn't actually take much of a lightning bolt to turn $200 worth of sophisticated communications hardware into a useless lump of plastic and wire.

The problem is that when a large electrical discharge occurs, the magnetic pulse produced causes a voltage to be induced in any wires that may be nearby.

This is very similar to the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that accompanies a powerful nuclear explosion.

Although it is generally very brief, this induced voltage can be extremely high. Unfortunately, it doesn't take an awful lot of voltage to punch holes in the delicate electronics we're using in our modems and computers.

What's worse -- because our phone and power lines don't always take identical routes to our homes, the effect of voltage spike produced by the lightning can be greatly magnified when you have a device that is connected to both. Such devices include modems, cordless phones, etc.

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    Of course the smarter amongst us will be using a lightning surge protector on our modem lines -- but don't rely on these simple devices to protect your gear. They may help with smaller spikes but they're certainly not a guarantee against damage if the lightning is really close.

    Here are some good rules of thumb for protecting your gear in the worst of winter's thundery weather. When a thunder storm starts, or even looks imminent:

    • Disconnect your modem from the phone line. Pull that plug right out!

    • If you don't have to use your PC for anything else, turn it off and pull the power plug from the wall.

    • If you can afford it -- get a UPS. Even a cheap UPS is better than nothing and should give you a modicum of surge protection along with a few minutes of time to shut down your PC properly if the power goes out.

    • Get a lightning protector for your phone line -- just in case you don't realise that there's a storm coming. I lost one of my modems to what was almost literally a "bolt out of the blue." The sun was shining but a massive black cloud was looming overhead and a single bolt of lightning was all it took.

    • Use an external modem rather than an internal one. This helps ensure that in the unfortunate event of a powerful lightning bolt nearby, the damage is probably going to remain limited to the modem itself and not involve any of the expensive bits inside your PC.
    One fairly low-cost option (albeit you get what you pay for) is one of those multi-way power boxes that have built in power and phone-line protection. The Zap Catcher is an example of this type of unit (albeit somewhat overpriced).

    Of course the magnitude of this whole problem will be significantly reduced when our houses and businesses are all fed by fibre-optic cable -- since this means that the modems will only have connection to a single electrical circuit.

    I just hope I don't run out of modems while I'm waiting.

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