Danger Zones: Protecting Your Gear from Natural Disasters

Recently, one of my clients had a bit of bad luck - his property was struck by lightning. You might think that's uncommon, but it was the second time in 3 years his house had been hit. Last time, the only damage was to the windows and satellite dish next to the tree that exploded. (Afterward, you couldn't find a piece of the 35-foot-tall tree longer than 6 inches.) This time the outcome was worse, with extensive damage to all of the house's electrical systems, including the phones, security, network, lighting, and A/V control.

Because I'd installed the A/V gear, I wanted to know how the surge from the strike got into the house's wiring. I always use surge protection on all network cables from DSL or cable modems that go into an A/V system. But in this case, a telecom subcontractor - not my custom-installation company - had wired the network and phone systems.

During the original installation, I'd verified that there were surge protectors on the incoming DSL lines before connecting the A/V system to the home network. But the lightning struck directly over a buried network cable that connected the guest house to the main house - a line that came directly into the main switch with no surge protection. The surge fried almost every network port connected to that switch, including much of our IP-based control system. Once I found the problem, I had to use some creative wiring to isolate the surge-protected A/V system from the main home network.

Brownouts are another threat to your electronics. The opposite of a surge, a brownout is when the voltage dips lower than what your gear needs to run properly. A surge protector only helps when there's a sudden spike; it doesn't have extra energy to fill in when the voltage sags. But companies such as APC and Panamax have started making battery backup systems (often called "uninterruptible power supplies") specifically for A/V equipment. These also have voltage regulation, and include surge protection for network, phone, and cable- and satellite-TV connections. For $160, APC's BT1000MC provides your entertainment system with full protection from the outside world.