We like to take our advice pointers from real-life events and risks. For those of you who did not know it, PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric Company) shut off power to an estimated 2 million people in Northern California this week to reduce the risk of starting a wildfire owing to climate conditions and questionably adequate maintenance by PG&E of its lines. One of the authors (Jeff) had personal experience with the shutdown as PG&E cut the power to his house/office. We expect that more or similar events will occur in and out of California as a result of similar conditions, likely aggravated by issues relating to climate change or global warming (yes, President Trump’s assurances notwithstanding, we believe in the reality of global warming and the fact that it will induce many changes in how we interact with the environment). The purpose of this paragraph is to lay a foundation for this issue’s tips and advice, not to make a political statement or to create an environmentalist manifesto; so let’s identify the problems and talk about how to deal with them.
The first problem is that when power shuts off and then comes back on, the restoration of the power can cause what experts (and knowledgeable laypeople) call a power surge. If strong enough, the power surge has the potential to damage sensitive electronic equipment. The second issue relates to protection of your data. When power cuts off suddenly, it can cause the loss of unsaved data and can also cause corruption to data files. You can experience a power failure almost any time, regardless of global warming or other climatic issues.
Tip 1: Back Up Regularly
You should have a reliable backup plan in place. It should back up your entire computer and all your data not less than once per day. You fare better if it backs up more often. Remember that you will lose everything not backed up if your computer crashes or you have a power failure. We like the idea of an automatic backup plan and a manual plan as well. Our manual plan backs up all data every day onto a small portable drive. That allows easy transfer of the data to a laptop in the event of a power loss that continues for a prolonged period of time. We note that if you have a deadline to deal with, a couple hours may equate to a prolonged period of time. We prefer the manual backup onto a drive rather than to the cloud because, in the event of a power failure or power shutdown, you may not have Internet access. If you stored your backup in the cloud and do not have Internet access, you will not have the ability to recover it immediately (not until you recover Internet access), which will prevent you from continuing your work in the short term.
Tip 2: Get a Backup Battery
A backup battery (sometimes called an uninterruptable power supply, or UPS) gives you the ability to remain powered up after a power failure and the opportunity to save your work. You need to make sure that your backup battery connects to your electrical supply and that you plug your computer, hard drives, printers, and WiFi devices into the battery backup to have them continue to work after a power outage. The backup battery should cost between $100 and $250. The battery is not designed for you to keep working indefinitely after an outage; it will give you a few minutes to save and back up your work.
Tip 3: Get a Surge Protector
Surge protectors offer relatively cheap insurance against damage to devices from power surges or spikes. You can have spikes in power supplies at almost any time, with or without an outage. We recommend that you get surge protection for all your electronic equipment. We even carry a small surge protector with us when we travel. Please note that many surge protectors have multiple outlets, but not all multiple-outlet strips offer surge protection. Also, surge protectors come in varying levels of protection and at varying costs. The power of a surge protector to suppress a spike is measured in Joules. We prefer surge protectors that will handle at least 2,000 Joules. We do not suggest you consider any that will not handle at least 1,000 Joules. One of the best in our opinion, the Belkin 12-Outlet Pivot Plug surge protector, will handle 4,320 Joules and should handle all your critical equipment. We have seen it on Amazon for $35.09. For travel you may want to consider the TrippLite TRAVELER3USB. Dell sells it online for $19.99.
Tip 4: Unplug Your Devices
In the event of a power outage, the restoration of power may cause a power surge (a spike in the amount of power coming into the line). The surge can damage your equipment if it remains connected to the line. Accordingly, we recommend unplugging your devices if you anticipate that you will have a power outage. For example, PG&E gave its customers 48 hours’ notice that it would shut down the grid. You also might want to unplug your devices as a precaution if you will not use the device for a few days or longer. If you get larger surge protectors (capable of accommodating numerous plugs), you should be able to get critical equipment plugged into one or two surge protectors and easily disconnect the whole chain of equipment by pulling the plug on the surge protector.
Tip 5 (Bonus Tip): Buy Some Power Banks
If you take all the precautions listed above but have no power in your laptop battery, tablet, or smartphone, you will still have no ability to access or use your data. You will also have no ability to access the Internet or e-mail or to make phone calls. Because you won’t have power to your electrical outlets, you will need to have another way to charge and/or power your devices. Yes, you can go to a friend’s house, the library, or your local coffee shop and plug your devices into their electricity—assuming that they have not lost their power, too. If the outage continues long enough, you may need to go that route. As we found some time ago, because of the way we use our devices, they do not have nearly sufficient battery life for our needs even on a normal day. Accordingly, we have acquired power banks (power storage devices) of various sizes and shapes to enable us to recharge and/or power up our electronic devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops, e-readers, cellular WiFi hot spots, etc.). We operate on the theory that the more power the better when it comes to power banks, but we also like to travel light a lot of the time and, therefore, keep some smaller pocketable devices around as well. We have found that whether you have a power outage or not, if you use your devices heavily, you may well find yourself without power at a critical time. Accordingly, we almost always carry one or more with us. Some of the larger and more powerful units have multiple plugs to let you charge more than one device at the same time. You will find pricing on power banks all over the place. We have found some decent Ubio Labs 10,000 mAh units at Costco with both USB A and USB C ports at very reasonable prices. Be sure that any power pack you get will accommodate your device. Not all power banks charge at the same rate of speed. Most of them will work with phones. Many work with tablets, but a relatively small percentage carry sufficient power to run a laptop. In terms of a device powerful enough to run a laptop, we like the HyperJuice AC (list $199.99). That charger has several ports as well as a standard American AC plug receptacle to accommodate chargers or other small electrically powered devices (e.g., electric toothbrush, electric razor, etc.). Don’t try to use it for devices with a high draw of power (desktop computer, microwave, hair dryer, etc.) as it cannot accommodate those things. If you want that, get a generator or a solar panel and battery system. The power banks use lithium-ion batteries as their energy source. Current domestic airline regulations require that you not put them in your checked baggage. If you travel with them, you must put them in a carry-on and bring them with you into the cabin. Note also that current domestic airline regulations impose a 100WH limit on power banks and batteries. The HyperJuice AC provides 100WH, so you can legally carry it on domestic planes. If you fly on flights originating out of the United States, be sure to check with the airline before you go.
To borrow a phrase from my (Jeff’s) college days (and totally change its application): Power to the People! We hope these tips help keep you running and powered up in the event of a power failure or shutdown.
Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 3, October 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.