Can electrical outages damage computers beyond repair?

Lisa V July 10, 2014
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There was an electrical outage at my dad’s. Although he had his desktop PC unplugged, when he turned it on the screen flashed that the USB connection had an overload and the computer would be shutting down in 15 seconds.

Is his computer beyond repair or what can we do to get it up and running again? He has a Dell computer and is running Vista with Internet Explorer. My knowledge is extremely limited on all things electronic and his is no better. So any help or advice you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you.

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  1. Alan W
    July 10, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    If the computer was unplugged at the time of the outage then that couldnt be the cause of the problem as no electricity or connection was available to the machine. I would follow Hovsep's advice and let us know any further details.

  2. Andrew
    July 10, 2014 at 10:14 am

    You haven't given enough info to fully answer your question, hiowever here's some info which may help. This answer is rather long because it is both info and troubleshooting guide.
    An electrical outage won't damage a computer, although it can cause some data corruption if the computer is running. This is basically because the computer may have been halfway through updating a piece of data when the power went out - a bit like if I was interrupted overtyping the word "damaged" with "corrupted" and ended up with "corrged". Obviosly tghis didn't happen in your dad's case, as his PC was unplugged.
    What can damage a computer is a power surge, which sometimes happens just before a power outage. As the PC was unplugged, and the message mentioned USB, my guess is that the PC was connected to a mains powered device, probably a modem, via a USB port when a power surge happened just before the outage.
    Because the PC could identify that USB had been overloaded, my guess is that the PC is recoverable.
    1) Unplug all USB devices except the keyboard and mouse, and see if the PC starts. If it starts and the keyboard and mouse work, the damage may be limited to the mains powered device. i.e. the PC is probably okay.
    2) If the PC doesn't start, take the PC to be repaired.
    3) If the PC starts, but the mouse and keyboard don't work, see if a different mouse or keyboard will work. If not, or if you can't get hold of another mouse or keyboard, take the PC to be repaired.
    Caution: It's easy to get ripped of on PC repairs. In my experience the best value for PC repairs is a good discount PC shop.
    1) The above solution assumes that you don't have a knowledgeable friend who can try various recovery boot options.
    2) If the PC is running Vista it's probably a bit old, and it may be better to replace it.

  3. Oron J
    July 10, 2014 at 10:04 am

    The scenario you describe is unlikely (if the PC wasn't plugged in then the power outage would have made no difference), but your father's problem stands, so let's consider it on its own. The error message means that a *device*, rather than the computer itself, is faulty. I suggest you diagnose it as follows.

    Switch the PC off. Disconnect the computer from everything, apart from the screen, keyboard and mouse and switch back on. Do you get an error? If so, try unplugging the keyboard & mouse (one at a time) and see if the error goes away. Otherwise, try plugging in the peripherals you had disconnected (printer, router, whatever) until you get the error again.

    Basically, at some point you will probably find out which device is causing the problem. You now need to establish whether its the device on the USB port. Plug it into a different USB port and see if it works. If it does, the problem is with that USB port. If not, it's the device.

    Next question - repair. If it's a faulty USB device, then you will need to replace it (if it's very expensive, perhaps a repair might be worthwhile). If it's a USB port, or several then you can't repair it as such, but there are usually easy workarounds:

    For a desktop PC, get a USB expansion cards. These are usually cheap (< $10) and add 2-4 USB ports to the back of the PC. Some cards will require the installation of driver software, others won't, but at any rate, the procedure is simple.

    If it's a laptop, or you don't want to open the PC, you can get a USB hub and use that to "split" one of the working ports into multiple ports. I would recommend you get a powered USB 2.0 hub with at least 4 ports. The reason I recommend USB 2.0 is that given the PC's age, it is unlikely to support USB 3.0 so a more modern hub would be both overkill and use more power needlessly.

  4. Hovsep A
    July 10, 2014 at 9:32 am

    i think USB ports reset when you reboot your computer, Disconnect everything from the USB ports and reboot. Then connect just the mouse and keyboard. If the ports still don't work, USB controller can be fried?

    you can also try to reset cmos battery first, unplug from wall remove cmos battery for 1_3 hrs, replug and reboot.

    you can connect a powered USB hub if the back ports still work.