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[This is the first article in a series dedicated to simplifying information technology for the medical professional, with an emphasis on practical advice and useful solutions to common problems.]

As your practice has grown, you’ve continued to upgrade your computer systems. You are likely to the point of having to resolve IT issues everyday. These days, when your computer systems stop functioning, your business suffers and the flow of the business day is put on hold while the IT department (or you) look for the elusive cause.

There are underlying basics that can eliminate some of the causes of problems, making diagnosis and repair faster. One of those problems is with electrical power.


The Problem with Power

A rack-mounted UPS (lower left) protects this critical network configuration.

We live in an age where countless data is created, transmitted, and stored. If your systems have a constant and steady flow of electrical power, they will last longer. During a prolonged outage, data can be saved and equipment shut down in an orderly fashion.

Many  people are surprised to learn that electric utility companies do not guarantee power to be on 100% of the time. They consider it a good year if they are on over 98% of the time. Therefore, disturbances should be expected and anticipated.

Sags, surges, noise, spikes, and blackouts are examples of common power events. Sags, or brownouts are short term decreases in voltage levels (we’ve all seen lights go dim). This is the most common power problem, accounting for 87% of all power disturbances according to a study by Bell Labs. When a sag occurs, the computer must use more amps to make up for the decreased voltage, creating more heat. This constant heating and cooling causes stress on the electronic components eventually leading to a failure. Sags also cause sporadic keyboard lock-ups and system crashes.

Blackouts are a total loss of utility power. Besides loss of data and inconvenience, during an electrical storm, many blackouts may occur which stress the connected loads.

A spike is an instantaneous, dramatic increase in voltage. It is commonly caused by lightning and can enter through electrical, network, serial or phone lines and can damage or completely destroy components.

A surge is a longer version of the spike and is usually caused when a large load (HVAC, magnetic resonance equipment) switches off. Again, the surge causes undue stress on equipment.


The Costs of Downtime

Manufacturers of life-safety equipment typically design for power events. Conversely, network gear is usually sold on price, leaving the user to choose how critical their processes are. For every practice, data is quite valuable. Real time network connections, both inter-office and to the outside world, are becoming the livelihood of businesses across the globe, particularly as government and industry practices automate payments and processes.

Costs of Downtime per Industry:
Energy: $2.8M/hr
Telecomm: $2M/hr
Financial: $1.5M/hr
Retail: $1M/hr
Chemicals: $704K/hr
Health Care: $636K/hr
Media: $340K/hr
AVERAGE: $1M/hr.”
[source: Network Computing (http://www.networkcomputing.com), March 5, 2001]

The cost of power problems comes in the interruption of work for the office staff, equipment damage and loss of data, notwithstanding the frustration.


Fixing the Problem

The costs of uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) have come down dramatically. These systems contain a battery so that during outages the power is on for a few minutes, allowing time to save data and for orderly shutdowns. Most power events are short in duration, so it’s likely that a UPS will allow your systems to stay on, or “ride-thru” a storm. A constant flow of steady power will make your equipment last longer, as well.

Do not buy a UPS on cost alone. Look for voltage regulation and spike suppression. Buy a high quality system, properly sized for your load, and compare the manufacturer’s warrantees and return policies.

A rack-mounted UPS (lower left) protects this critical network configuration.

Randy Collier is President of Comp-Utility Corporation, and is a registered professional engineer in the state of Texas.