Tips for weathering power outages

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As a central-California resident, I’m accustomed to a couple of flavors of weather—mild and not-as-intensely-mild-as-it-was-last-week. Yet this week we’ve been getting hammered with real, honest-to-god weather—hail, buckets of rain, high winds, thunder, lightning, and the occasional flurry of toads. And, because our power lines remain above ground—as the early decades of the 20th century intended—the power went phut and I spent much of the day in the dark.

But I was prepared. And you can be too with these few tips for what to do before and during those dark hours.

Get the right UPS

First, you should have an uninterruptible power supply (or UPS). And it must be robust enough to handle the devices plugged into it. Fat lot of good it does you plugging a Mac Pro, laser printer, and 30-inch monitor into a 350VA UPS. With such a puny UPS you’ll have just enough reserve power to utter “damn!” before the battery drains.

Different devices draw different amounts of power. An old Power Mac G5 sucks more power than a modern Mac Pro. An iMac pulls less power than a Mac Pro. And an Apple laptop of any stripe beats them all. Get a UPS that can handle your computer’s power pull. You can have a 1500VA UPS for between $150 and $200.

Be smart about what you plug into that UPS

Clearly you need to jack your computer and its monitor (if one isn’t built in) into the UPS’s battery-powered plugs. You should give careful thought to any additional devices that you attach to one of these plugs. Remember, a UPS is providing life-support to your Mac and you want its charge to last as long as possible. A laser printer will suck the life out of the most robust UPS in next to no time, so that’s out. You can also live without speakers, a second monitor, that external backup drive, and your lava lamp when on battery power.

If you have a laptop that you leave plugged in, feel free to jack it into an outlet that isn’t fed by the battery. This outlet can still provide surge protection, but since your laptop has a battery of its own, you don’t need the UPS lending assistance as well. (If you do later, you always have the option to plug the laptop into a battery-powered outlet.)

If you do have a laptop or iPhone or iPod touch and rely on the Internet to get things done (and yes, this can include checking the local power company’s outage map to see when you might have your power restored), plug your broadband modem and wireless router into the UPS. Thanks to a set-up like this I was able to stay on the Internet with my laptop and iPhone for three hours after my power went kablooey.

Get more than one UPS

Speaking of that previous set-up, this was possible because I have two UPS units. One is for my Mac Pro and monitor and is there simply so I have time to wrap up my work before I shut the things down—my 1500VA APC UPS provides about 15 minutes of power to these devices. Another 1250VA APC UPS feeds my DSL modem and AirPort Extreme Base Station.

Before the outage

Power isn’t perfect and there will come a time when you’re going to lose your fair share of it. Before that happens you can do a few simple things that help ensure you’ll weather the weather better than you might have.

First, make sure your UPS will hold a charge. If you’ve had one for a year or more, pull its plug and see how long it can power the items plugged into it. If it poops out almost immediately, check to see what you've plugged into it. If it seems like it should handle the load better, you may want to think about replacing its battery.

If bad weather is on the way, attach a key drive to your Mac and copy to it any documents you need to work on that day. Should the power go out, your UPS give up the ghost, and the power company shrug its shoulders about when you might get juiced again, you can take that key drive to a powered-friend’s house and do your work on their Mac (because, naturally, all your friends have Macs). Optionally, if you have a laptop as well as a desktop Mac, transfer those documents to the laptop.

Back in the old days, we worked on something called “paper” with “pens” and “pencils.” If your work allows for this kind of approach, print what you need and work on hard copy.

During the outage

Despite having a couple of UPSes, a MacBook Pro, and an iPhone, eventually my tether to the outside world was severed. Rather than pout, I chose to view this as an opportunity to do something productive with my gear when it could do nothing else but bend to my will.

I started by unplugging everything plugged into it—which included half a dozen external hard drive and countless USB and FireWire peripherals—dumping the gear into one pile and cables into another, and then sorting through the piles to see what I really needed to reattach to the Mac.

It turned out that at least four of the hard drives were there simply because I hadn’t bothered to unplug them after transferring their contents to a more expansive drive. Similarly, I discovered a Winchester Mystery House collection of cables—cables that seemed to have some purpose but, in fact, led nowhere.

After putting those drives aside, I found that I could consolidate the remaining power plugs into a single power strip rather than the three strips I’d used previously. And since I was dealing with power, I rechecked the connections I’d made to the UPS and found that I could eliminate some of the devices I’d previously plugged into the battery-powered outlets.

As everything was unplugged from the Mac Pro anyway, I thought I’d open it up and take a look around. Eww, dusty! Using a can of compressed air, I blasted out the gunk, figuring that doing so would help it run cooler, thus causing the fans to work less hard, thus giving me a smidgen more time when the Mac next ran from the UPS.

My work was done—or, at least, as done as I could make it. I pulled on a parka, lit an oil lamp, and thanked the stars above for the mild weather and reliable power that I typically enjoy.

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