Saturday, March 11, 2017

Why I Unplug

I may have posted this here before, but I think it’s important enough to bear repeating.

Spring is almost upon us, and the season brings thunderstorms with it in most of the U.S.  Thunderstorms mean lighting. Do you know how dangerous lightning is to your electronics? Do you unplug your computers, televisions, stereo systems and any other electronic devices before a storm?

If not, why not?

Let me tell you a true story.

Some fifteen years ago, my family and I went to a concert in a city about fifty miles away. It was a great concert and we all had a good time. We noticed on the drive back that there were increasingly large puddles on the ground as we neared home, but didn’t think much more about it. It was late and we were all exhausted, so we went directly to bed.

My youngest daughter, who has always been an early riser, was the first one up the next morning. Her favorite thing to do at that time was to listen to the radio or a CD on the stereo (with earphones) and rock in the rocking chair. She was dismayed when she turned on the stereo and found it didn’t work.

Instead she tried to turn on the television, but it wasn’t working either. Since the lights were on, she knew the electricity was functioning, but apparently not much else was. As a last resort, she decided to turn on the computer and play games. You guessed it. Computer wasn’t working either.
At that point she was still the only person awake, so she grabbed a book and tried to read, but she was understandably distraught.

Once the rest of us got up, we went through the house, checking everything to see what worked and what didn’t. We didn’t know until later, when we talked to neighbors, that there had been a very bad thunderstorm the night before.

There’s no way to know for sure, of course, but we have to assume that lightning hit either our house or one of the power lines very near it. The final tally of destruction: stereo receiver, VCR, television, and computer. We were fortunate that the television and computer were both older and about due for replacement anyway.

We learned our lesson. Now when there’s a thunderstorm approaching, we unplug everything, not just from the electrical lines, but from the cable and phone lines as well. If we’re going out of town for a day, we check the weather forecast. If we’re leaving for longer, we unplug everything just for safety.

Yes, it’s a bit inconvenient, but it would be more than just inconvenient to replace our electronic equipment these days. And since I’m an author and web designer, the loss of a computer would be more than just inconvenient. It wouldn’t kill my business because I back up relentlessly, including using an automated offline back up service. But I would likely lose several days of work time, replacing hardware and restoring software and data. I’d rather lose an hour of work time than risk losing days’ worth.

In a previous career I was a computer software programmer/analyst.  I worked for a company that sold turnkey systems – hardware and software bundled together, installed and modified for the client’s needs.  I did that for fifteen years.  In that time I had two clients whose computers were completely destroyed by lightning strikes on power lines.

We always set up backup systems for our clients so they didn’t lose their custom software or their databases, but it still cost them time and money to replace the hardware and restore all their software to a functioning condition. In one of the cases, the computer was supposedly protected by a heavy duty surge protector.

A side note about surge protectors – they’re a good idea. Really. They do help protect your expensive electronics against routine power spikes. But the dirty little secret of surge protectors is that the affordable ones you buy in the stores are not always fast enough to protect your equipment from a direct lightning strike.

I unplug all my electronics when the weather turns nasty. Unless you live in a place that isn’t prone to thunderstorms, I strongly suggest you do so as well.

Note: if your computer is hard-wired into a network, usually by an Ethernet cable to a modem or router, you need to unplug that as well.  Electricity can follow your cable line into the house as well as the electrical wires. And if you have a multi-function printer, that is probably plugged into a phone line, which is also a conduit. The wisest move is to unplug everything!


  1. I'm a believer in unplugging. I've never had any personal losses, but living on the Gulf Coast we have a lot of thunderstorms especially in the spring. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Wow. You made a believer out of me.