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Spec’ing, choosing and testing a UPS for the home office

I’ll keep this one pretty much to the point and let the pictures do most of the talking. In my kitchen cupboard, I have this:

Circuits in the kitchen cupboard

It may well be related to the vicinity of the chocolate, but the kids seem to like hitting those switches. For some reason, they particularly like doing it when I’m right in the middle of this:

Editing work in Camtasia

Editing Pluralsight courses is laborious work. I do it on my desktop so I get all four screens to look at and I invariably have a heap of other things open at once, each positioned in the right place on the right screen so I know exactly where to look for what and when. And then it all goes black. No warning, just a kid looking for chocolate.

Now I could move the chocolate, but I also have these:

Kettle, bread maker and toaster

For some reason, the bread maker in particular likes tripping the circuit. The other two I’m not so sure about, but I also have my suspicions about them. Everything is on the same circuit as the PC so when one of these guys plays up that’s it – I’m down.

There is way too much friction in getting back up to normal pace. The “flow” goes out the window and I reckon I get set back an hour each time, all things considered. That’s if I didn’t lose work too and certainly that’s happened before with Camtasia.

So I needed a UPS. I put it off time and again because they do cost a few dollars but eventually the ROI was clear. But what do you get? I asked around:

The consequent threads off that question tell part of the story in terms of how many options there are. One conclusion I arrived at pretty quickly though was that without being able to measure my power consumption, I was going to be shooting in the dark. So I got one of these:

Power meter showing 247W

I plugged in the stuff I needed to survive during a power outage, namely the PC itself, one of the four monitors, the NAS (apparently bad things can happen if it’s mid-write and power goes) and the router / modem. I kept this guy running for a few days and obviously it fluctuated based on what I was doing, but about 250W was the power it was drawing under normal usage. This is with a 6 core i7 with an SSD and three mechanical drives plus a couple of opticals and a high end AMD R9 290X GPU. It’s going to suck some power at full load, but that’s rare and of course if you’re doing something power intensive when the lights go out you can always back that off to conserve UPS juice.

I then looked seriously at UPS options, primarily from APC as this was where most of the recommendations came from. The sweet spot of price and uptime during a power outage was the Back-UPS Pro 1500 which meant this:

Power draw graph for the UPS

250W should be good for more than 20 minutes (the “B” line includes an additional external battery pack), so that’s more than enough time to get the kids out of the kitchen and turn the bread maker off. If it’s a serious outage, it also gives plenty of time to save everything I’m doing and shut down gracefully. I don’t have to worry about continuing working as full power outage is extremely rare (maybe once every few years) and it’s just not worth the rapidly escalating cash investment required to keep things alive for additional minutes.

So this is what about $400 Aus gets you:

The APC UPS

Which then arrives in a very heavy box like this:

The UPS in the box

The reason it’s so heavy is because of this sucker:

MASSIVE battery in the box

Batteries add some serious bulk but hey, all it’s going to do is sit on a shelf so let’s not worry too much about that.

Moving on, here’s what you get plug wise:

Diagram of ports on the back of the UPS

There are a few key things here:

  1. Surge protection for phone and ethernet
  2. The left bank of IEC sockets (they’re those things we call “computer plugs”) will all receive power when the lights go out
  3. The right bank is merely surge protected and they’ll die when there’s no power
  4. Number 9 is the “master” – that’s where the PC plugs into
  5. Everything shaded in dark grey (the other UPS protected outlet and the three surge protected ones) are controlled by the master and will have power to them killed if the PC goes to sleep or is turned off (you have to manually enable this feature)

This is pretty neat as it’s more than just a UPS, that last point in particular. Here’s how I plugged everything in:

  1. PC in the master
  2. Primary monitor in the UPS powered socket controlled by the master (number 8)
  3. Modem and Synology NAS in the UPS powered slots
  4. Screens 2, 3 and 4 (c’mon, you know you want 4 screens!) in the right bank of sockets so that they’re surge protected and controlled by the master so they’ll shut down when the PC is off, but they won’t stay on in a power outage
  5. Printer and sound system in the remaining surge protected slots not controlled by the master

The unit then sites off to the side and looks pretty neat:

UPS on the desk with NAS and modem

What it all means is this: I can completely lose power but the PC and the primary screen will continue to run as will the modem and NAS. Nothing I’m doing will be interrupted unless it’s something like recording content (the APC starts beeping when power goes) or other activities dependent on the other screens. However in each case I can pause, restore power and then continue. Worst case, I’ve got heaps of time to shut down gracefully and save things properly.

Now all that is great, but the important question is how does it perform when power is killed? I got everything wired up, killed the power at the point and…

UPS showing 26 mins remaining when power is off

The UPS starts beeping obnoxiously and the fan kicks in right away. The unit switches from telling me the present voltage to telling me how long I’ve got before the juice runs out in the battery. The PC keeps running, one monitor stays on and the NAS has lights on it. The modem wasn’t yet wired up (need an IEC socket converter) so that’ll draw a little more from the UPS, but clearly it’s telling me I’ve got around 26 mins to either get power back or shut everything down.

This worked 100% how I’d expected first go and with zero mucking around (other than ordering some more cables and converters). I reckon this is a perfect blend of price and battery life and if you’re like me with a pretty high-end machine but only worried about short outages, it’s ideal. There’s a heap of configurability beyond what I’ve mentioned here too, but frankly the value proposition is in how easily it worked out of the box and really, that’s the way I like to think of my electricity – I don’t want to have to think about it!

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Hi, I'm Troy Hunt, I write this blog, create courses for Pluralsight and am a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP who travels the world speaking at events and training technology professionals