Disaster Strikes From The Air

by Bob Seidel

Hurricanes may not be (yet) in the forefront of the news, but bad weather certainly has been. Especially vexing locally are the strong thunderstorms that have struck recently. I have had a number of calls from clients who have experienced equipment loss due to these storms, so perhaps it is time to discuss the effects of lightning on your PC and sound system equipment.

But before we get into some details, the bottom line is that nothing protects you better than having good backups. We have discussed backups many times in this column, and yet it never fails to sadden me that many people think they are above this rule and that it doesn't apply to them. Take good backups, verify that they are viable, and make sure you take some backup media (CDs, etc.) off-site in case of a fire or flood. I particularly like using the small USB backup hard drives. But also important when using these is to then take the drive to a trusted friend, neighbor or relative and copy your data onto their PCs hard drives. Buddy backup done this way is your best protection.

All of your equipment should be on surge protectors or Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) to protect you from surges in incoming voltage. You can also get lightning or surge suppressors for your phone lines and for the coaxial cable from your cable TV provider. But the effectiveness of these units is never 100% - nothing is ever going to protect you from a direct lightning strike. If you can, the best protection is to unplug everything you can from your PC and other equipment - this includes speaker lines, USB equipment, etc. It might be a good idea to label the cables going into the back of your PC to make it easier to re-plug after the storm.

If your PC does get damaged, the most probable symptom is that it isn't going to power up. This may be due to actual damage, or may be just a build-up of a static electrical charge inside the unit. The first thing to do is to remove the power plug from the back of the PC and let it sit for half an hour. Then re-plug and see if it starts up. Sometimes it will.

In my case, my wife's PC recently seemed to work after a storm, but the sound volume in the speakers was very low. I knew the problem wasn't the speakers themselves as I had tried another set. I checked all the software settings, and everything seemed to be OK. So I did the above procedure, and after re-booting all was working well. I believe that the sound circuitry on the motherboard was incorrectly detecting the speaker system plugged in and after letting any charge dissipate it was then able to configure the speaker outputs correctly.

If your PC still does not start up, it could be either the power supply or the motherboard itself. In either case, you have sustained some damage and it may cost a bit to fix it. If the PC is old (more than three years), you might just consider buying a new unit. The data on your hard drive is probably OK (especially if the PC was off during the storm) and you should be able to get your old data from it, or from your backups.

So now we come to the extended warranty question. There are a number of dealers who will attempt to sell you an extended warranty when you buy a new piece of equipment. I rarely buy them myself, but they can be useful in these situations if in fact you are covered. A client found out the hard way that this is not always the case. She had purchased an extended warranty for her new PC that claimed to cover power surges. But (it says in the fine print) it doesn't cover power surges due to lightning! And even if it did, the response of the company was that my client would have to wait for a service appointment, wait for parts to be ordered, and then wait again for a service person to come and install them - a minimum of two weeks. Could you afford to be without your PC for two weeks or more?

So the bottom line to protect yourself during a storm is to shut down the equipment, pull all the cables out of it that you can, and of course take good backups.

(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport - Oak Island area. You can visit his Website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail questions or column ideas to him at bsc@bobseidel.com. For specific inquiries, please call Bob Seidel Consulting, LLC at 278-1007.)