An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) combines surge protection and battery backup into one unit. Adding a UPS to your computer, router, or other electronic device protects them from damage and ensures uptime.
Uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units aren’t just for data centers and overly cautious geeks. There are plenty of good reasons to connect your PC to one and even use them around your home.
What’s an Uninterruptible Power Supply?
An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is an electrical device that combines surge protection with a battery backup. The primary function of the UPS is right in the name: to supply power, in an uninterrupted fashion, to the devices plugged into the UPS.
If your UPS unit is charged, you can unplug it from the wall, and all the attached devices will continue to function until the battery is exhausted—much like a laptop unplugged from its charger will run off battery power.
In addition to the primary function of supplying uninterrupted power, the UPS unit also has additional features like power smoothing, PC-to-UPS communication to enable graceful shutdown if you’re not there with the computer to do so yourself, and additional features. Most units have divided power outlets so you can split the load between devices you wish to keep on during a power disruption event and those that aren’t as important.
For example, if you have multiple monitors hooked up to your computer, you might opt to put the primary monitor on the battery backup to extend the battery runtime. You’ll be down from three monitors to one when the power goes out, but you’ll also get extra time.
Why Would I Want to Use an Uninterruptible Power Supply?
Many people think the only use for UPS units is in high-demand facilities like server farms, where stability and uptime are crucial. They are certainly important in such applications, but we’d encourage you not to downplay the importance of protecting your own equipment and data!
UPS Units Protect Against Blackouts and Surges
Issues with electrical distribution are among the primary causes of damage and failure among electronic devices. If your devices, computer included, had their way, they would get a steady and uninterrupted supply of power forever, never even turning off.
It’s not particularly economical or environmentally friendly to leave all our electronics on all the time just to spare them the slow ravages of powering on and off over their lifetimes, though. What we can spare them from, however, is the harsh electrical conditions that come from sudden power loss and the surges that occur when power is restored to the grid.
The cost of a UPS pales in comparison to the cost of replacing an entire computer, game console, or another expensive or delicate device.
UPS Units Protect Against Dirty Power and Voltage Drops
One common thing we hear about Uninterruptible Power Supplies is the idea that you don’t need one if you don’t have frequent power outages at your home.
At first glance, that makes sense. If the UPS unit is for keeping the power on when the power goes out, and the power doesn’t go out very often, then you don’t need one, right? As a long-time UPS user, however, I can assure you that even if you think you think the power delivered to your home is perfectly stable, it is not.
I thought the power in my neighborhood was stable, but after I installed my first UPS unit I quickly discovered that there were voltage drops and other issues multiple times a month. Just because the power doesn’t cut out entirely doesn’t mean the fluctuations aren’t harmful to your equipment.
Unstable power might not matter much when dealing with an incandescent light bulb or a space heater. But even if the power rarely goes out, we recommend you get a UPS for your computer and other sensitive devices.
UPS Units Prevent Data Loss
It’s easy to gloss over data loss in an age when so many people use online backup solutions and cloud-based file storage. But just because you’re running a Backblaze client on your PC or syncing files to your Google One account doesn’t mean you’re invincible.
If your hard drive (or entire computer) dies, you’re in for a headache. Not only do you risk losing data that was in the process of syncing or hadn’t synced yet, but most people also don’t actively back up all the files on their computer, nor do they do complete system backups.
So if your hard drive dies, you’re not just out the data that didn’t get backed up, you’re also out the time it will take to reinstall your OS of choice, install all your apps, and so on. (If the thought of being unable to do a bare-metal restore makes you nervous, now’s the perfect time to create a complete backup of your computer.)
Anything you can do to keep things smooth and stable for your PC, like using a UPS, ensures your hard drive and additional hardware are safe and happy.
UPS Units Can Help Keep You Online
Uninterruptible Power Supplies aren’t just for your computer, although that’s the most common reason people buy them.
They’re also quite handy for keeping other hardware in your home online in the face of power disruption events like blackouts and brownouts. In fact, we strongly recommend getting a small UPS for your internet modem and Wi-Fi router to help keep yourself online during power outages.
And, again, even if you think you have stable power in your neighborhood, it’s worth investing in a small UPS for your network gear. The same voltage sags and issues that cause problems for PC also cause problems for your modem and router.
If you have frequent connection drops or other issues, you may need to request your ISP send you a new modem or replace your aging Wi-Fi router. But you might also simply need a basic UPS to smooth out the bumps.
A UPS unit for your router and modem is also great during a power outage because you plug your phone charger into the router’s UPS. Even if the lights are out and you can’t turn your TV on, at least you’ll be online.
Frequently Asked Questions About Uninterruptible Power Supplies
In addition to our arguments in favor of adding one or more UPS units to your home, let’s look at some of the most common questions people have about UPS units so you can pick the right UPS for your needs.
How Much Does an Uninterruptible Power Supply Cost?
You can expect to pay around $50-60 for a small basic UPS. More advanced UPS units with more capacity and features typically cost more like $150 or more, with large rack-mount UPS units easily costing $300 or more.
How Do You Select the Right Size Uninterruptible Power Supply for Your Needs?
When in doubt, it’s not a bad idea to size up your UPS unit. More battery capacity means more run time when you need it.
UPS power terminology is a bit more arcane than other computer terminology you’re likely more familiar with, however, so it pays to understand how the number of volt-amperes translates into battery runtime based on the hardware you’ll be plugging into the UPS.
Does an Uninterruptible Power Supply Require Maintenance?
You won’t need to perform routine maintenance frequently on your UPS unit, but for models with user-replaceable batteries, you will likely need to crack it open one or more times during the product’s life cycle.
While you can always replace the entire unit to avoid the maintenance, it’s much more economical to replace the batteries. A brand-new UPS might cost you $150, but replacement batteries only cost $40.
What Kind of Batteries Do Uninterruptible Power Supplies Use?
Unlike the batteries in other devices around your home, like your smartphone and Bluetooth speakers, Uninterruptible Power Supplies don’t use lithium-ion batteries. The batteries in your UPS are lead-acid batteries, like the battery in your car.
Are Uninterruptible Power Supply Batteries Dangerous?
Uninterruptible Power Supply batteries are not dangerous in the sense that lithium-ion batteries are. When they fail, they simply stop holding a charge, and there is no risk of the more dramatic and explosive failures lithium-ion batteries are known for.
They contain lead and acid, but they use a sealed lead-acid design, and unless you take a drill or a handsaw to the battery case, they are safe to handle.
Are Uninterruptible Power Supply Batteries Recyclable?
Yes, sealed lead-acid batteries are recyclable. Many large hardware stores like Lowes and Home Depot will accept small sealed lead-acid batteries for recycling, as will most municipal hazardous material disposal facilities. You can also use the Call2Recycle to locate a local recycler.
Can I Plug a Power Strip into an Uninterruptible Power Supply?
You can plug a power strip or cable splitter into the power outlets on a UPS as long as you do not exceed the power rating of the outlet with the devices.
For example, if you had a handful of small low-watt devices in your home office you wanted to keep powered on during an outage, but you’d already used up all but one of the battery-supplied power ports on your UPS, it would be fine to plug in a power strip or cable splitter to plug multiple devices into that single outlet.