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Electrical Surges: A Growing Problem in Facilities

by: Art Barkman

My car wouldn't start. Then it did. So, I took it to my local garage. Their diagnostics showed nothing. It was then that I realized that I don't drive a car, I drive a computer. The same thing happens to my computer and computers are what control cars today. Another "out of the clear blue sky" glitch. The guy at the garage said it happens and is often weather related.

Electrical surge problems in facilities come mostly from three sources: Mother Nature, your utility company or are generated internally. These sources were always there but with the proliferation of computers and computer controls in office and manufacturing equipment, their growing complexity and delicateness, there are more things that can and do go wrong as the result of these "spikes" in electrical power.

As power shortage problems increase around the nation, facilities managers can look forward to more electrical surge damage. We can also expect that insurers will adjust their rates to compensate for those losses. Business lost during a utility power blackout is not covered, but damage from a surge following an interruption is covered.

Mr. Matthew T. Glennon (Assistant VP for electrical loss control at Hartford Steam Boiler) reports that lightning and electrical surge damage is a major cause of losses for Hartford Steam. Over the past five or six years such claims cost the company an average of about $15 million each year. He stressed that equipment doesn't have to be damaged if it has proper protection.

Business sectors that typically register the most electrical damage claims are those with a heavy computer load, data centers, office buildings and hospitals with sensitive diagnostic equipment- any place with sensitive electronics.

Two of the key methods of protection are outside surge protectors hardwired to a utility box and an uninterrupted power supply (UPS). While most of us are familiar with UPS systems as a means of keeping computers running in the event of a disruption of electrical service, the contribution of surge suppression systems is not as well known.

A power surge that lasts for just one-millionth of a second can render a local area network (LAN) inoperative. The cumulative effects of nano-second surges corrupt data and equipment. In fact more than 95% of equipment failure is from the cumulative effects of transient voltage surges. This degradation over time slowly degrades equipment until it suddenly fails. That "out of the clear blue sky" syndrome.

The best defense is a "zone defense." Protect everything from everything. Isolate each piece of equipment in your system - electrical, data, voice, security and alarm. They are all connected to something that can transmit an electrical surge. Surge suppression devices in those connecting lines can prevent serious loss of data, equipment and time.

Too frequently, these devices are perceived in the manner as life insurance or seat belts. You don't need it until you need it. With rising insurance claims, we can expect our insurance carriers to insist on or encourage their use through their rate structure.

Art Barkman is President of Somerset Marketing Group (, a firm specialising in facilities products and solutions. He can be reached at 800/221 0580, or through his website.