Technical Difficulties

Like a normal tech podcast, but broken.

Struggling with unreliable power at home and on the road, Gabe and Erik talk about how they make sure their gadgets stay running.

On the Unreliability of Home Electricity in the 21st Century

Lamenting the frequency of blackouts and brownouts in the Sierra Nevada and Northeast US, Erik and Gabe trade horror stories of natural disasters and run-of-the-mill outages.


Technical Difficulties

Sometimes Gabe and Erik’s Technical Difficulties are weather related:

2008 ice storm

Hurricane Isabel

Sometimes not…

Let’s Talk About UPSes a Little Bit

An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is simply a big battery that sits quietly plugged in to an outlet, trickle charging. Should disaster strike, however, it leaps into action and begins to beep loudly. Oh yeah, it provides power, too.

As a quick reminder, recall that a home’s electricity is supplied from the power company in the form of alternating current (AC), while a battery supplies its power in the form of direct current (DC). Since everything connected to a wall outlet via the UPS expects AC power, the UPS employs a power inverter to convert AC to DC for charging and DC to AC when powering your gadgets in a blackout.

Full circle

In a nerd’s house, this power is almost always converted back to DC. Digital devices need DC power, because the 1s and 0s everyone is always talking about are actually distinct changes between on and off using 0 and 5 volts (It doesn’t have to be 0 and 5V, but that is the convention). Since AC power is a flow of energy alternating between a positive and negative charge, it is ill-suited to represent 1s and 0s.

A nerd will of course turn this carefully-delivered power into tweets about power outages.

There are many good models of UPSes, but the common brands are CyberPower, APC and Tripplite. The naming conventions hearken back to the days when all computers were some color of gray, but there is a system if you look hard enough.

“It’s in dimensionless units of awesomeness.”

Within each brand’s line, there are products designed to handle a particular electrical load. When you dig in, you’ll see the capacities are listed in volt-amperes (VA), which is typically the way that AC capacity is measured. This makes sense given that AC power is what’s being supplied, but you can also find the battery’s capacity measured in watts, if that is more meaningful to you. there are various sizing tools designed to help, but although they have been updated since Gabe last looked…

Quadra LC II G5 PowerMac

…don’t expect the representative devices to have the most up-to-date specs.

Rather than allowing you to finish your magnum opus, a UPS exists to provide a graceful end to your current work. If you have un-monitored equipment, most new UPSes are able to communicate with a computer or server in order to initiate a normal shutdown. As Gabe mentioned, a 1000 VA UPS will add about an hour to a rMBP’s battery life.

Forced shutdown

My home server is a homebuilt ZFS server, and the boot drive can be corrupted after an unexpected shutdown, requiring the drive to be re-imaged. While the data you care about may be safe on the other drives (if you do it right, and buy a Synology if you’re not sure you did) that’s a pain that can easily be avoided with the help of a UPS.

In addition to the protections offered during a full blackout, UPSes are a good investment in areas prone to brownouts or other issues of power quality. The protection offered in this case is a smoothing or evening-out of the power that is coming from the power grid. During an under-voltage situation, a UPS will maintain acceptable power to attached equipment, and a line-interactive UPS can do so without the use of its battery.

The act of converting AC to DC power for battery storage, and then from DC to AC power for use, can distort the voltage and some sort of filter must be applied to correct this. Higher quality UPS equipment is more likely to provide cleaner power, so this is not the place to cut corners. Consistent low power fluctuations can damage computer hardware in many insidious ways.

If you’re having trouble selecting a UPS to buy, you could always just go with the what the hosts purchased. Gabe has the CyberPower CP1000 (Amazon average price $104.61, and Erik has the APC ES-750 (Amazon average price $86.45).

Buy Gabe’s

My APC is just fine, but I bought it off the cuff at Best Buy a few years ago. Knowing how much thought Gabe puts into his purchases, I’d say you should get the CyberPower if you can afford it.

Surge Protection

On top of the risk of under-voltage, there is a danger of voltage spikes. The types of UPSes sold for use with electronics are also designed to protect against surges, but dedicated surge protectors can be had for much less. Surge protectors work by blocking unsafe voltages of sending them to ground. They are rated by how much electricity they let through and by how much excess energy they can safely handle.

Surge protectors are extremely common, but if you are on the market for a higher-quality part, Erik’s choice is the APC Performance SurgeArrest 11 (average Amazon price $24.89). Keep in mind that he is prone to flouting the rules, which is not necessarily a good idea.

Bad memories

If you are wondering why Erik felt he needed permission to confess his rule-breaking habits, remember that he has often been subject to random inspections at home and work.

Home Sweet Home

“Have you ever looked into a whole-house surge protector?”

While it may be tempting to try to protect all of the electronics in your house from the evils of high voltage, whole-house solutions are not likely to be worth the cost. You could always ask Gabe for the name of his electrician.

Power on the Road

“Hey, do you mind if I put my surge protector in there?”

Charging electronics while traveling can be a challenge if you don’t come prepared. Once you arrive at your Holiday Inn Express, you can actually use the goofy lamp outlet if you remember to bring the swivel-plugged wonder that is the Belkin SurgePlus.

Average Amazon price $23.44


Gabe and I mentioned that the Belkin SurgePlus doesn’t have iPad class (2.1A) USB ports, but that’s no longer true. The new version supports 2.1A (combined) for its two USB ports. This was such a killer feature for me that I went out and bought a new one.

It’s easy to keep your batteries topped while sitting in your car, which may also be your office, and if you plan ahead, you can charge everyone’s batteries.

Average Amazon price $32.42

“The previous one I had was like this giant tumor that hung off of the dash”

When selecting a portable battery to charge without access to a power source, you can opt for a battery case or a battery brick. Both have pros and cons, and you likely know which you prefer before setting out to purchase one. One other benefit of the battery bricks that was unstated in the podcast is that they provide the ability to power anything that uses a USB charger.

Erik is partial to the Mophie:

While Gabe prefers the power brick variants:

“I tend to be a battery hoarder”

When it comes to keeping your laptop ready to use, the best bet is to either always be carrying your charger or to prolong your battery life. And you may need to do both.

Laptop Batteries

Gabe and Erik briefly touched on laptop battery best practices, but there seems to always be some controversy here. Apple says not to leave them plugged in, but other smart people say that this isn’t really a concern with modern chargers and lithium-ion batteries. Memory effect is definitely not an issue with Li-ion batteries, but they are still damaged by heat and only have a finite number of cycles (using and recharging 100% of battery capacity-not necessarily in one fell swoop-equals one full charge cycle) available to them. Minimize both of these ill effects, and the lifespan of your battery should improve. I lack the discipline (and desire) to charge only to 80%, while not dipping below 40%, but I know you are better than me.

“I’m UPS-promiscuous but with my Synology I’m pretty dedicated.”

Until next week

Erik’s old Garmin iQue 3600 may have lacked the battery life required to walk around the block, but it does serve as a reminder of how easy we have things now. Battery technology is a little better, power consumption technology is much better, and most of our devices never see a power cord during the day. We’ve come a long way.

Well, that’s it for this week. If you have anything that you’d like to add to or correct in the show notes you can find me on Twitter @potatowire or feel free to send an email to me at potatowire dot com.