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Power Quality Issues Cause Computer Problems

Computer Lightning Protection & Smart Power Systems

Power Quality Issues Cause Computer Problems

By Drew Robb

Rampant Power Quality Issues Causing Blue Screens, System Freezes and Logic Errors
Electronic power conditioners are necessary to provide “computer grade” power.
Data protection is a strange subject. Companies spend a fortune on anti-virus software,
intrusion detection systems, firewalls, and spyware blockers. Yet according to W. Curtis Preston,
a data protection specialist at GlassHouse Technologies Inc., most problems lie within, with over
80 percent of security leaks are generated internally.

Similarly, when people think of preventing data loss due to power supply problems, they
typically consider an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) or a surge suppressor. Recent studies
by Bell Laboratories, however, indicate that less than four percent of power-related problems
would be addressed by such devices. Thus, even networks and computer systems that are well
protected by UPS and surge protectors are at serious risk.

“Power problems caused by small surges, spikes, and sags in the electricity supply cause 15
times more problems today than viruses,” says Bahram Mechanic, CEO of SmartPower Systems
Inc. of Houston, TX, a maker of power protection and conditioning equipment. “Servers,
workstations and networking gear can best be protected by using transformer-based filters.
Whereas old style power conditioners were large and expensive, a new breed of inexpensive
electronic power conditioner is being deployed today in the computer room.”

Studying the Problem

Downtime causes millions of dollars in damage annually to computer networks around the
globe. In many cases, people attempting to troubleshoot the cause of downtime waste hours
addressing the wrong problem. They blame the software, the network, viruses, spyware, and a
host of other causes. Sometimes they are correct and this resolves the problem.

Often, however, they are correcting the wrong problem. Power-related issues are frequently the cause of timeouts, unexplained downtime, and other commonplace system or networking glitches.

Two major studies of power quality have been completed in recent years. The first one, by
Bell Labs, found the following areas accounted for most power-related issues:

  • Blackouts – 1.4%
  • Surges higher than 200 volts – 2.4%
  • Sags – 14%
  • Surges less than 200 volts – 82.2%.

These results are confirmed by a similar study performed by IBM which found:

  • Blackouts – 0.5%
  • Surges higher than 200 volts – 2%
  • Sags – 10%
  • Surges less than 200 volts – 87.5%

Thus around 80 to 90 percent of the time, electronic equipment is being affected by tiny
surges as opposed to lightning flashes or blackouts. To make matters worse, these little spikes
wreak havoc in terms of logic confusion, system errors, and frozen screens.

“Everyone has had their computer lock up on them,” says Anthony Loguidice, assistant vice
president of service for Sharp Electronics of Canada Ltd. “If there’s spikes and surges on the line
it can cause quality issues and a lot of odd problems.”
The reason this situation has remained largely under the radar screen lies in the fact that there
are actually two distinct types of spikes and surges. Most people protect themselves against one
(occurring in what is known as “normal mode”) but fail to pay any attention to the other
(occurring in “common mode”)

Most electrical wiring inside any building has three wires: two wires that carry the power are
called “hot” and “neutral”; and a third typically green wire which is for safety and a logic
reference point called the “ground.”

Normal mode power noise occurs between the hot wire and
the neutral wire causing damage to power supplies, PC board blowouts, and other catastrophic

Common mode noise, on the other hand, occurs between the hot or neutral wire and the
ground wire causing logic confusion, data loss, system errors, blue screens, or mysterious service
calls that end without an actual problem being located.

Relating this back to the two studies, blackouts and large surges account for less than five
percent of all power problems and happen in normal mode. As these events are catastrophic,
most people who have experienced one tend to deploy protection technology to guard against
further normal mode hazards. Yet 80 to 90% of all problems actually happen in common mode.
While these events are usually not disastrous, they generate all kinds of mischief, consume end
user time, result in data loss, and generate a torrent of help desk traffic.

Why is this? Microprocessors normally work with five volts DC (some of the newer models
work with 2.7 volts DC, which makes them even more sensitive to small power anomalies). In
effect, they act as high-speed switches being turned on and off millions of times per second. The
off-state (zero volts) equates to the binary 0 and the on state (5 volts) equates to 1. This gives you
the foundation of the binary language (0100110010) by which computing functions.

“Any spike greater than one volt confuses the logic – the microprocessor being read as a 1
rather than a 0,” says Mechanic. “The end result is screen lock-ups, time-outs or delays.”
But in this day and age, surely electrical wiring is such a precise science that such issues are
minimized. Not so. Apart from the fact that the power coming in from the average utility is dirty
– way below the level of stability required to safely run electronic equipment – many big cities
suffer from decidedly poor wiring.

“Surprisingly, the San Francisco Bay area has some of the worst wiring,” says Bob Schoon,
President of Schoon Corporation, a copier-fax-printer business in San Leandro, California. “The
neutral voltage there is always all over the map.”

Protection Options

What should be done, then, to better protect computer systems and networks? Let’s take a
look at the pros and cons of the various options available on the market.
Surge Protectors or surge protectors are devices that protect equipment from excessive
voltage (spikes and power surges) in the power line. They divert power from the incoming hot
line to the neutral and/or ground wires. Alternatively, they can absorb the energy within the unit.
Surge protectors are relatively inexpensive and offer excellent protection against catastrophic
high-voltage spikes in normal mode. However, they fail to handle the relatively small over and
under-voltages that occur in common mode which momentarily disrupt computer networks. As
large scale normal mode surges account for only about two percent of all power problems, they
are an incomplete solution.

UPS is a backup power supply used when the main electrical feed has failed or drops to an
unacceptable voltage level. Small UPS systems provide battery power for a few minutes. This
gives users enough time to power down critical servers without suffering data loss – otherwise
anything stored in the computer’s memory is lost during a blackout. More sophisticated systems
are tied to electrical generators so power is available for several days. UPS systems can also
include a surge suppressor.

UPS should clearly be part of any power protection strategy. But it has to be understood that
blackouts make up around one percent of power quality situations. Even including large sags (10
to 14% of the problems), that leaves over 80 percent of the power quality concerns untouched.
Isolation Transformers (also known as line conditioners) have gained popularity in recent
years. A transformer changes one voltage to another and is made from two coils of wire close to
each other (or wrapped around an metal core). Power is fed into one coil to create an
electromagnetic field. The electromagnetic field causes current to flow in the other coil. An
isolation transformer uses this technology to prevent current from flowing directly from one side
of a circuit to the other. These devices are an excellent way to filter out normal mode voltage
spikes (down to less than 10 volts) and common mode spikes (down to less than 0.5 volts). On
the downside, they are heavier and more expensive than more modern alternatives – costing about
$1,000 for a unit with adequate server protection.

Transformer-Based Filtering (Electronic Power Conditioner)

Recent technological advancements in the field of power conditioning have now yielded
devices that provide “computer grade” power at the same price as limited-function surge
protectors and a fraction of the price, weight, and size of isolation transformers. Known as
transformer based filtering (TBF) devices, the latest circuits include transistors, thyristors,
capacitors, and relays to handle power conditioning duties in tandem with a small transformer.
This intelligent digital circuitry provides greater functionality than a traditional line conditioner or
isolation transformer.

TBF units provide basic protection against massive spikes up to 6000 volts as well as small
common mode spikes and surges. In addition, they constantly monitor the line power. If voltage
goes too high for more than 5 cycles (80 milliseconds), for instance, the motherboard could blow
out. The TBF cuts the power off to prevent damage to the machine.
Further, new TBF technology can identify miss-wired outlets. If a ground wire is loose, or
the neutral and hot wires are reversed, the device will not let the power reach the protected
machine. Prolonged over-voltage protection (POVP) is another feature built in to the device.
The loss of the neutral wire, for example, can lead the voltage to increase to the 160 to 200 volt
range for an extended period of time. A TBF unit disconnects the output to keep mission-critical
systems safe.

Smart Power Systems’ TBF, for example, compresses all this functionality into a 17-ounce
package the size of handheld cassette tape recorder. Built-in RJ11 and RJ45 connectors extend
protection to telephone and network lines.

Independent Testing

A 2005 research study by PowerCET Corp confirms that TBF technology matches and in
some areas betters the performance of more expensive isolation transformers.

“The Smart Power Electronic Power Conditioner kept let-through voltages below 10 volts
line/neutral and 0.5 volts neutral/ground,” says Thomas Shaughnessy, vice president of research
at PowerCET, a Santa Clara, CA-based power quality consulting firm. “The Smart Power
products removed output power when applied voltages exceeded preset limits and automatically
reset when applied voltage returned to normal levels.” On one test, for example, surges of 3000 volts were used on a variety of isolation transforms as well as the TBF. The results showed that TBF surge attenuation on common mode was less than 0.5 volts, the same as an isolation transformer.

Power Energy Number One

Blackouts and line sags make it essential to protect servers, workstations and networking gear
from electrical harm. UPS and surge suppressors offer safeguards against catastrophic events
such as burned-out motherboards, and keep computers operating at least long enough to prevent
data loss. But these methods are not enough in a dirty-power environment as they fail to address
power enemy number one – low voltage spikes.

That’s why isolation transformers or TBF units are required to cleanse the power coming along the utility line and take care of other low voltage factors. Otherwise freezes, system hangs and data loss will result. UPSs with TBF units are recommended as they are about half the price of a comparable UPS with line conditioner unit, and are much smaller and lighter. Smart Power Systems offers a wide range of UPS with TBF products. For those with UPS and surge suppressors already in place, TBF technology (model Smart Cord) can be added inexpensively to upgrade those units.

For more information on power conditioning, filtering, ups or surge suppressors, call
Computer Lightning Protection at 1-800-792-6312
or visit

Approved Retailer for
Smart Power Systems at 713-464-8000
or visit
Smart Power Systems, Inc.
1760 Stebbins Drive
Houston, TX 77043


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