How Power Outages Can Damage Your Computer (And How to Protect It)
Your PC relies on a consistent stream of power to stay on—but sometimes, your mains supply may not be so reliable. If you live in a neighborhood prone to outages, you might be wondering: can a power outage damage a PC, and what can you do to protect yourself from its effects?
Let’s explore the risks of a power outage and how to avoid them.
The Different Types of Electrical Anomalies
The electricity flowing through your home is not constant. Electrical currents can ebb and flow, dipping above and below what’s ideal. Both too much and too little power can cause problems.
When power completely shuts off, it’s known as a blackout. These tend to occur due to issues beyond your control (e.g., power station disruptions, damaged electrical lines, etc.), but sometimes they can be self-inflicted (e.g., by shorting or overloading circuits).
There’s a similar issue called a brownout when your electrical voltage experiences a temporary drop without fully blacking out.
If you’ve ever seen your lights dim for unknown reasons, it was probably due to a brownout. These can be intentional as a way to reduce electrical loads and prevent blackouts, though they can also be unintentional.
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the power surge. This is when an appliance receives more electricity than intended for at least three nanoseconds.
Surges happen due to several factors, including short circuits and electrical line malfunctions. If the increased voltage only lasts one or two nanoseconds, it’s a power spike, which is most commonly caused by lightning.
Can a Power Cut Damage Your PC?
So, can a sudden drop in power cause problems for your PC? As it turns out, yes, both for your data and your hardware.
How a Power Cut Can Damage Your Computer
The sudden shutdown after a blackout is the primary danger to a computer’s health. Operating systems are complex, and they must go through a “shutdown sequence” to make sure all running processes have correctly terminated before powering off.
A sudden loss of electricity will interrupt this sequence and may leave processes “half-finished.” This has a chance of corrupting files and threads, which then damages the operating system.
System files are the largest concern. If the operating system is busy editing an important file when the power outage hits (such as during a system update), the sudden cut will corrupt the file. Then, when you try to reboot the computer, the operating system trips up over this corrupted file and fails to boot.
If you’re lucky enough that your system files are unscathed, you may still lose vital work. If you don’t get into a habit of constantly saving your work, a power cut could set you back to square one. Power cutting out mid-save may corrupt your work.
Furthermore, frequent power outages can reduce the hard drive’s physical lifespan. The read-and-write head, which hovers over the spinning platters during operation, snaps back into its original position upon power loss.
This sudden movement can cause tiny imperfections that accumulate over time, increasing the likelihood of a “head crash.” This is when the head touches and scrapes the platter surfaces, effectively destroying the hard drive.
Solid-state drives can also suffer catastrophic damage from sudden power cuts. Issues can range anywhere from data corruption to total malfunction.
How Post-Blackout Power Surges Can Damage Your Computer
What’s worse, a power outage may not be the end of your problems. An outage is often followed-up by a surge once the electricity comes back online.
A power surge will overload and fry the electronics within your PC. While an outage doesn’t do a great deal of damage to a power supply or motherboard, the subsequent surge will. This will result in a computer that won’t turn on after a power outage occurs.
As such, if you want to stay safe from a power outage, it’s worth investing in power surge protection too. There’s nothing worse than skillfully negating a blackout, only for everything to fry due to the surge afterward!
Protecting Against Power Outages
While power outages won’t tear through a computer as a power surge will, they can still do damage. As such, if you want to take care of your data’s health, it’s a good idea to invest in some anti-outage precautions.
Using an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) to Prevent Power Outage Damage
For protection against power outages, you need an uninterruptible power supply. This apparatus contains a backup battery that will continue to provide power to your computer even when your power goes out.
UPS devices can also come equipped with surge-protected outlets, making them a useful two-for-one purchase. If you live in a building or location that frequently experiences outages, surges, or both, a UPS will be a strong investment.
It’s important to note that a UPS unit only powers your electronics for a few minutes. This means it’s not a great solution if you want to continue working through an outage.
However, those few minutes give you plenty of time to shut down your computer manually to prevent damage. UPSs can sound an alarm to alert you of an outage, or even tell your PC to shut down immediately.
Using a Laptop to Work Through Outages
If you instead want to continue working through a power cut, why not use a laptop? Laptops avoid the power outage problem entirely; when the electricity cuts out, it switches to the battery.
As such, if you’re in an area that suffers from power cuts frequently, it may be worth changing to a laptop. While laptops aren’t as powerful as a full PC, they’re far more usable when the power drops out than a computer.
Of course, it feels bad to buy a laptop because your power situation isn’t ideal. Fortunately, grabbing a work laptop doesn’t have to break the bank. Be sure to check out the cheapest high-quality laptops for an affordable way to continue working through outages.
Get a Good Surge Protector for Post-Blackout Power Surges
Whichever means you choose to protect your data from sudden shutdowns, you also should enhance it with surge protection.
While this doesn’t protect your hardware from the actual blackout, it does shield it from any power surges that happen post-blackout. As such, grabbing a surge protector covers you from every danger that can occur during a blackout, while also stopping power surges in general.
Buying a surge protector can be a little confusing, as they come with specifications that detail how good they are at their job. If terms such as “UL Rating” and “Clamping Voltage” make your head spin, consult our guide on if surge protectors are necessary .
Keeping Your Computer Safe
Power outages can damage system files and data and the subsequent power spikes can destroy hardware. As such, if you live in a neighborhood with unstable power, you should take the time to protect against both and save some headaches.
If you’re interested in other ways of keeping your computer safe, make sure you’re not making these common mistakes that will damage or ruin your motherboard .
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