Computer Column #356
Last year column #345 covered income tax return software in the middle of the summer because adopting new software should be done well ahead of the start of tax season. This year we will cover keeping online life going in the middle of foul weather. Those in northern states do not expect snow until November or December. However, floods, mud slides, brush fires, tornados, and hurricanes can occur anywhere in the summer months.
An inexpensive portable hotspot will supply Wi-Fi from your cell phone account in many situations.
But first, here are follow-ups to two earlier columns. Column #350 in the March 2018 issue reported that the Microsoft Edge browser was available for Android mobile devices, but that we had some installation problems. The latest MS Edge for Android is available on Google Play, and it performs well. It is especially good for reading Microsoft’s Bing News.
Column #316 for April 2015 reported that polycarbonate plastic CDs and DVDs with sensitive data should not simply be put in the trash or recycled. Trying to destroy them manually for data security may be dangerous. Most paper shredders now being sold can shred these disks without jamming. Read the description before buying, and follow the instructions.
When my first computer would not run, I was told, “See if it’s plugged in!” Today’s computers still need electrical power. Desktop machines must be plugged in to a live outlet, and laptops and mobile devices require periodic charging—often from a wall outlet. A storm can knock out power for seconds or days. Much of Puerto Rico was without power for months after Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
The first defense for an outage is an uninterruptable power supply or UPS into which the desktop computer and its peripherals are plugged. It will keep things running for minutes or a few hours, depending on the specs. Urgent tasks can be completed, and provisions can be made to operate without power if the outage is long.
The UPS stores power in its large battery. When wall outlet power fails, the UPS automatically supplies electricity to the computer. Outlets are available to plug in mobile device chargers as well. A UPS usually protects against power surges from lightning and a power company’s attempts to reconnect as well.
There are many brands, including the popular APC and CyberPower. Visit an office supply superstore, electronics store, or reliable computer repair shop. The technician should suggest a UPS with enough capacity for your equipment and estimate how long an outage it will survive. Prices are from under $50 to over $500 depending on capacity. The technician should immediately ask the make and model of your computer and any separate monitor.
The battery in the UPS is usually lead-acid or lithium-ion. Lead-acid batteries need replacement every four or five years, and manufacturers make this easy. Check the user manual for the replacement schedule of a lithium-ion battery.
The ultimate preparation for long power outages is an auxiliary generator running on gasoline or diesel fuel. One will cost about $500 and up. Many carbon monoxide deaths are reported each year because such generators are improperly located or vented. See the link at the end of this column for more information on safety. A portable generator should be 20' or more from any occupied building when running. Check the manufacturer’s instructions, local law, and your insurance provider. Guard against theft. A professionally installed, permanently mounted generator may cost $2000 and up. See the second link at the end of this column for more information. When using a generator to power any electronic device, it is wise to use a surge protector.
Mobile devices may be the only computers available during a long power outage. They run for hours on their own batteries and can be recharged in an automobile. Portable battery packs and solar chargers are inexpensive and sold everywhere. Of course, the battery pack chargers have to be recharged periodically to be ready for an outage.
All computer users these days have access to cloud storage such as Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, Apple iCloud, or commercial sites. Make a habit of keeping a cloud backup of important documents in progress, especially when foul weather is expected. Google Android and Apple iOS devices have apps for downloading from cloud storage. There are apps for editing and transmitting documents too. If extensive editing may be required, invest in a Bluetooth portable keyboard for the mobile device. Some printers can print directly from a mobile device if they have power.
A lot of computer and mobile operations need the Internet. E-mail and searches are just two examples. If power is out, home or shop Wi-Fi is out too. A device, usually called a router, connects cable or telephone service to the Internet and generates local Wi-Fi. A router needs power too. However, a router only uses ten or 20 watts of power. A separate UPS for the router will keep it going for hours or days. People who get Wi-Fi from a satellite dish may be able to do the same.
If the cable or telephone wires come down with the power lines, router power will not help. Survey your neighborhood in advance for other Wi-Fi networks. Public libraries, restaurants, coffee shops, and recreation centers are possibilities. It may mean a drive in foul weather, however. Cable networks and telephone companies often have Wi-Fi sources for subscribers who are away from home. These may be generated by local subscribers’ own routers in addition to the subscribers’ own Wi-Fi and are subject to the same power outages. Still, be sure to have a copy of the sign-on codes in your mobile devices.
Cell phone systems are hardened against outages. Cell towers have backup power generators, and the networks maintain fleets of portable towers that can be dispatched in hours in major emergencies. If your cell phone service is available, your computers and mobile devices can connect to the Internet using a device called a portable Internet hotspot. Small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, the hotspot will operate for up to a day on a charge. I recently drove 616 miles from Lake Worth, Texas, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, getting Wi-Fi all the way with a portable hotspot in my luggage.
Your cell phone company will charge its usual data rates, and you may have to add the portable hotspot to the account like an additional phone. Hotspots often cost under $100 and should be bought from your cell phone service provider. Universal models are difficult to set up. Some cell phones can be set up as a portable Internet hotspot. Look for “tethering” in the user manual or an online guide to the specific phone.
Think through the possibilities for interrupted electric power and Internet service. Routinely store documents in progress on the cloud. Purchase, install, and test a UPS and other backup equipment. If you do not own a tablet, buy an inexpensive 7" or 10" one and learn to use it. Install tablet apps to do the important jobs.
Portable generator safety: www.cpsc.gov/s3fspublic/Portable_Generator_Safety_Alert_2017_5123.pdf?5zYC5oSH8WSNeBNsFMGm1L0J0.s1W07a
Cost of permanent generator: www.fixr.com/costs/install-backup-generator
Originally published in the September 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest