Sunday, November 23, 2014

APC UPS for the Suburban Power Outage

Each year around Thanksgiving time, I tend to start informally identifying a few items that I may want to pick up if the right sale should arise.  This year I had placed the purchase of an Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) on my wish list.  APC is the leading manufacturer of these devices in the United States (or at least in my area).  I had long recommended these devices in my Amazon store, but shamefully had been too cheap to purchase one.  I was happy to find that for me, Black Friday came early this year with Staples offering the 600VA model for around $45 minus a 15% coupon (and plus tax) brought my actual price to around $41.  The battery for these devices is estimated at around 3 years so the simple math would put the annual cost at around $14.  (Strong argument could be made that it is much less than that as at the end of 3 years, there would be some residual value to the device as the battery is replaceable so it would not be entirely true to say the device itself is 100% valueless at 3 years).

APC Battery back up

I recall my first exposure to an APC UPS device when the IT folks at work dropped this big, bulky device off to each workstation.  This was in the “old” days where folks commonly worked on a desktop computer and power interruptions could easily mean lost work.  A lot has changed since that time – most obvious is that many people no longer work on desktops; many work on laptops which include their own battery.  A secondary change that is less noticeable is that software has become more sophisticated so that often your work is saved in the background whether you remember to save it or not.  Thus, the early days of UPS (or battery backups) where targeted to disaster prevention as opposed to convenience.  If you lost power, the UPS device gave you enough time to clue you into the situation so that you could save your valuable work.  It is interesting to note that as our originally purchased work UPS systems expired, they were not replaced.  I suspect that this has to do with tighter dollars as well as a recognition that the risk of individual data loss is not as severe as may have been the case 5 years ago or so and therefore this expense was cut.

In my suburban home environment (and is often the case in urban environments as well), power outages are infrequent (my guess would be around 3 to 5 per year) and often brief (less than an hour).  For many doing nothing is a very viable option to address power outages.  The other extreme would be to install a comprehensive generator system.  A generator system can vary in cost from a few hundred dollars for a gas powered stand alone system to several thousand dollars for a sophisticated and comprehensive system.  If I were more mechanically inclined, I would be tempted to invest in a gas powered generator.  However, in addition to needing the know how to set it up, you also have the nuisance of another gas powered device to maintain and it should also be noted that these devices need to be operated outdoors and a little distance from your home to avoid the danger of carbon monoxide in the home.  Thus, a generator was not a preferred option for me.

As is the case with many households today, my household relies heavily on the Internet.  Yes, I know of those warm fuzzy stories of folks enjoying “family time” during power outages, but the loss of the Internet is felt by us even during those few brief suburban power outages.  Most notably is that we do not have “all you can eat” cell phone plans; we rely on prepaid cell service and an Internet driven (VOIP) home phone for our primary phone service.  Simply stated, when our power is out; our phone is also out… (But not any longer).

Here’s how our last power outage before APC UPS went down:  About 15-20 minutes into the outage, we were wondering if our outage was reported… of course, no Internet so we couldn't check National Grid's website so move on to plan B which would be to call National Grid, but of course we didn't have National Grid’s phone number because we no longer get paper billing so we went full circle where we needed to go “online” to get a phone number to call National Grid.  In the end, I used the “pay as you go” data from my smartphone to get the phone number then also used “pay as you go” minutes to call National Grid – with both using “pay as you go” rates, I would estimate that I probably burned through nearly $2 to work my way through the electronic call system to find out that our power should be restored by whatever time… hmm wouldn't it have been much easier and nicer to have just been able to whip out that iPad, connect to my Wi-Fi and get the status of our outage… plus, I could have used my Wi-Fi connection to order a pizza so that we could enjoy that power outage family time!  The modern reason to purchase and install an APC UPS is clearly no longer for disaster prevention, but more for practical convenience (and pizza).

There are many positive user reviews on Amazon relating to APC UPS so I will focus on my user experience and try not to rehash what has already been well said by many others.  First let me comment that although I had experienced the size and weight of a commercial grade APC UPS gauging from the pictures, I was expecting my 600VA APC device to be smaller and lighter.  I believe it is notable and worthwhile for anyone considering a purchase to go to their local store and take a closer look.  The 600VA consumes most of the space within its box and will give you a good idea of how large it really is (and the weight is apparent when you lift the box).  Nonetheless, despite finding myself somewhat surprised by the size, I was not deterred from the purchase.

One of my biggest questions (and likely) the first question of many other buyers is, “how long will it last when the power goes out?”  I was pleasantly surprised to see that APC has addressed this question directly on their packaging by providing what they call “typical applications” under a heading, “How much runtime will the Back-UPS provide?”  These are their examples with my comments in parentheses:

All-in-One PC (Ex Mac mini) / Entry-level desktop with 20” LCD monitor and Internet modem drawing bout 40 watts will yield about 43 minutes.  (Why they don’t think you would include a router in this configuration is puzzling).

Laptop & Wireless Network / Notebook computer, Internet modem and Wireless router all drawing about 80 watts will yield about 30 minutes.  (Would someone really be plugging their laptop into this thing?  I think it more likely that the laptop, iPad or other wireless device would be powered by their own battery source).

Home Office / Mid-range desktop with 20” LCD monitor, Notebook computer and Internet modem drawing bout 180 watts will yield about 10 minutes(Again, I would guess that a router would be likely and puzzled why not included.  I’m also confused why both a desktop and notebook is included in this estimate – does that mean it is one or the other or is it both?)

Here is what I included in my battery back up:  Cable modem, wireless router and Internet phone (Obi). Note:  An old phone that did not require an electrical plug is currently being used so that this phone line can be used in event of a power outage.  At some point I likely will add a modern “plug in” base phone to the surge protector only side, but will keep the older style phone nearby for emergency use.  My guess would be that these 3 devices would place me below or near the low end of the wattage requirement spectrum identified by APC’s examples and thus would likely yield around 40 minutes or so of runtime.

One of the most repeated “complaints” that I recall from reading many reviews for APC battery backups is the “beeping”.  APC uses audible beeps to alert users to different situations such as a power outage.  I suspect this can get very annoying if you frequently move your device or have frequent outages or for people like me who have no clue what one steady beep means versus intermittent beeps or one long and one short or whatever other Morse code of beepary that is employed.  Fortunately, APC also addresses this concern as well.  For the larger models, there is a switch or button; for others, there is PowerChute software that can be downloaded for free from their website and this was the first thing I did when installing my system.  Unfortunately, this meant resorting to my old faithful Windows VistA machine as APC does not provide software for Linux…and I did not think to try using the Wine application within Linux to do this.  (Also, note for Apple users – no soup for you, either).  Other than my windows machine being a dinosaur and slow, the install and disabling of the audible alerts using the software went smoothly.

The 600VA is advertised as having 4 outlets with battery backup and surge protection and 4 outlets with surge protection only for a total of 8 outlets.  Real life is not as generous; specifically, I think APC is a bit out of touch in regards to the wide-sized plugs that are now common on many electronic devices.  On the 600VA, 3 plugs are arrayed with traditional (close) spacing with a fourth outlet being spaced further apart to account for one wide-sized plug (see picture above).  In my configuration of 3 modest electronic devices, all 3 had wider, non-traditional plugs and their width fully obstructs the middle of the 3 traditionally spaced plugs so that I cannot make use of 4 outlets.  (I suspect that some users may workaround this with supplemental cords, but I suspect that workaround is not ideal and do not recommend it).

A final extremely minor critique that I would also make is that the on/off switch for the 600VA APC seems to be positioned in a spot where you may accidentally turn off the device.  This happened to me when sliding the APC out of my cabinet to take a quick picture.  Thankfully, I don’t plan to move this device very frequently plus it is in a location where it will not be accidentally tripped so having my modem, router and phone re-booted on this single occasion was only a very minor and temporary annoyance.

I won’t say that I’m looking forward to the next power outage, but for those infrequent and brief outages I am looking forward to having my wireless Internet available for a reasonable grace period… or at least enough time to determine that help is on the way and order a pizza.