Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Melting

August 2013

By Mike Gould

        "I'm melting..."
            - Wicked Witch of the West, and my desktop

Sometimes sulfuric acid is not your friend. I have a custom-made 20ft-wide desk with a nice Formica covering. Upon said desk sits my color photo printer, laser printer, scanner, computer monitors, keyboard, wireless mouse, macro keypad, WEMU cup filled with pens and scissors, stapler, DVD burner, tape dispenser, laptop, box of tissues, and a weird looking black hole burned into the surface.

Continuous Power to the People
Living out in the boonies as we do, we are regularly subjected to power outages, brownouts, and other manifestations of DTE vs. The Elements. By elements I'm referring to tree limb-destroying wind storms, not chemicals like sulfur and sodium bicarbonite, although I'll be talking about that below.

For years I have been recommending the use of an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) between your computer components and the wall socket that feeds them. A UPS is a metal box with a power cable and a bunch of electrical sockets on the back. In between these items lives one or more lead acid batteries. You plug the cable into the wall, and your computer and all its gizmos plug their cables into the back of the UPS.

The UPS has all sorts of power filtering and surge suppression built in to protect you from lightning bolts and such (See my previous article "Bolts and Volts", URL below), but it's main claim to fame is that battery. The way it works is that the UPS monitors the juice flowing into it from the wall. When there is a voltage sag (brown out) or the power goes out completely, the battery kicks in and keeps your computer running long enough for you to do a graceful save and quit. Otherwise, if you are typing away at that fifteenth chapter of your vampire/zombie bestseller-to-be and things go dark, you lose everything since the last time you saved. And if that ten page scene with the swordfight between Lestat and George Romero was the crucial climax of the book and you didn't save it, you will be one unhappy Twilight wannabe.

When Darkness Happens to Light People
We recently had a gas-powered generator installed next to our garage because of the less-than-perfect performance of the local grid. And while we were at it, we had a whole-house surge suppressor put in as well. But I still need the UPS because there is a lag between when the power goes out and when the generator kicks in. This works pretty well: I will be at my Mac, banging out another edition of this wacky-yet-beloved column - the winds blow, the rain falls, the lights go out, and yet I am still bathed in the glow from my three monitors as the battery in the UPS instantly picks up the slack and the words continue to flow into the document before me. The UPS reminds me that I'm sitting in the dark by beeping at me. A moment later, the generator kicks in, the beeping stops, the lights come back on, and I meet my deadline. Life is good.

Bad Acid Trip
The batteries (there are two in my unit) in my UPS are of the sealed lead acid variety. These are much like the jobbies in your car, except they don't have the little caps on top where you can top up the juice (sulfuric acid) for your juice (12Volts DC) if needs be. The batteries are around 8" x 2" x 6", made of super strong plastic, ultrasonically welded to ensure the sulfuric acid stays inside and not all over your desk. Except when it doesn't.

We had some pretty bad storms blowing through at the end of June, and the generator came on a couple of times for an hour or two. After one such incident, I was firing up my iPad for a nice web surf in the family room when I saw our network was down. I headed downstairs to my office where the Comcast/Internet/Routing/Network doodads live to reset the router, and was greeting by the cheerful beeping of the UPS unit.

The UPS also beeps when it's batteries are dying, so I figured it was time to replace them. They are generally good for three to five years, so I figured I was due. I unplugged the UPS, plugged all my computer gear into a simple plug strip (which instantly fixed the network problem), and hauled out the UPS for its trip to the battery store. And found a dark stain under the unit. Uh oh.

Assault and Battery
Not a stain, a hole melted into the Formica. A seam on one of the batteries had leaked and acid had flowed through the UPS box onto the surface below and eaten my desktop. I dumped a bunch of sodium bicarbonate onto the mess, along with some water. The resulting mess fizzed a bit, and the bicarb neutralized the acid. I scrapped things up with a putty knife and was left with bare particle board where once there was countertop. The weird thing was that the mess was dry when I found it, which meant the leak had happened sometime in the previous week, during which the UPS was still working, although with only one battery.

If this ever happens to you, make sure you wear rubber gloves, old clothes, and eye protection when cleaning up. If this stuff can eat Formica, imagine what it can do to your skin...

A quick trip to my buddies at Batteries Plus resulted in a fresh pair of batteries for a mere $55.00. And as one of the batteries was still good (although two years old), I had a unit that I could put into another UPS I have which protects my TV/audio system. Hey, you don't expect me to tolerate gaps in "Myth Busters" during thunder storms, do you?

There are many UPS units that I have dealt with in the past decades, and this is the first catastrophic failure I have seen. My recommendations: use a UPS, but put a rubber tray under it, just in case.

"Bolts and Volts" article:
http://mondodyne.com/b2b/smbiznet.116.shtml

Mike Gould has a hole burned into the surface of his desk, was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 2.2 Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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