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Defending Your Data: Part 1

Part 1: Surge Suppressors

(This post: How surge suppression can help protect your transportation management data. Next two issues: How an Uninterruptible Power Supply can keep your data and operation alive during a disaster and why data backups are essential to assuring the continuity of your transportation management operations.)

Are You Ready for Disaster?

Torrential rain pummeled the windows of the parking and transportation office.

Overhead, reverberating waves of thunder seemed ever louder and closer together. Despite the miserable weather, the lines at the counter snaked lazily toward the door. Suddenly, a loud crack, like the sound of a backbone being snapped in half, shook the office.

Panicked patrons cringed and the eyes of startled employees darted around nervously as the lights flickered…flickered… and then went dark…

If this happened in your operation, what would happen next?

Ideally, within seconds, Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) units and emergency lighting would kick on, reassuring patrons. Designated employees would report the power outage and check the condition of Surge Suppressor (SS) systems, replacing fried units to ensure against possible damage from another surge created by additional strikes or the restoration of normal power.

Once it was clear there was no further imminent danger to staff and customers, managers would invoke the organization’s Disaster Recovery Plan (DRP) and would begin checking for data loss. Data lost would be reconstructed utilizing the operation’s off-site, back-up capabilities, as needed.

While the safety of patrons and employees during a disaster is of paramount concern, an often-overlooked consideration in such events is the protection of data, an increasingly valuable component of any transportation operation. In the next three posts here at H2H2H.org, we take a closer look at how front line, mobility management professionals are defending their data.

Know Your Risk

Surge Suppression (SS) systems even out the peaks and valleys that are common in most public electrical systems. Such variances in power delivery, while often dramatic in the case of lightning strikes, can also be small and go unnoticed to the casual observer. Manufacturers of electronic devices frequently warn that even small, day-to-day power variances can degrade the performance of processor boards over time.

The first step is to know your risk. A Voltage Data Logger, like the USB model here or like the plug-in version here will measure your current and voltage input over time.

Forearmed with this information you can determine if you are in an area subject to “gray” or “dirty” power. This issue can be addressed in a number of ways. First, consult with your local utility, providing them proof of the problem and requesting action on their part. This may allow your problem to be solved at the utility’s expense. The utility may need to replace wiring or upgrade old transformers in the area, for example.

If the utility can’t – or won’t – address this issue, or you live in an area subject to frequent electrical storms, an electrical engineer can recommend a line conditioner. This device sits between your electric meter and your circuit box to smooth out voltage spikes and valleys. These solutions are for extreme cases, however. Line conditioners to service a small-to-medium sized business can cost thousands of dollars. This may still be less than the cost of replacing ALL of your equipment and lost data if you are hit by a significant surge.

Your First Line of Defense: Surge Suppression

Most preventive efforts can be more easily and inexpensively addressed with an in-line SS device. Without SS units in line with electronic devices, power surges flow directly to delicate electronics, torching them in milliseconds, destroying valuable data, as well as damaging hardware, such as motors, in the process. Another hidden danger of surges is slow and steady degradation of devices over time. One perfectly sunny day with no notice, no lights dimming, zap, you’re off line and you’ve lost everything.

Lesser expensive SS units merely act as fuses, burning out when delivered power exceeds a preset tolerance for power passing through the SS unit. These can also burn out over time, their protection whittled away by smaller, less powerful surges. Such units are cheap and easily replaceable and work best in areas where power variances are less common.

Invest in “Joules”

Protection capacity of such units is measured in “joules.” Generally speaking, the higher the joules rating, the better the protection. However, note that a direct strike of lightning can contain up to 500 megajoules (emphasis added), enough to overwhelm many lower-priced units. Some protection is better than none though; even that $9.99 SS unit offers at least a prospect of survival for your electronics through a small power surge.

Keep in mind if your SS can handle 300 joules, that means it can handle up to 300 joules at one time. But what happens if you suffer three hits of 100 each? Each hit degrades your protection. Some of these hits can be almost imperceptible to you or you may not be around to notice them. Hence, it is good practice to replace these units on a regular basis. The frequency would be determined by the quality of power, number of power outages, and storms in your area. A good “guesstimate” would be three years.

For operations with more risk in terms of power-related events or a large volume of centrally stored data, another approach is needed. More expensive SS units may be combined with a UPS and offer not only the fuse-like function of lower-priced SS units, but can also modulate unnoticed variances in power delivery, reducing potential damage to processor boards and extending the life of electronic equipment.Share-How-2

Other Solutions

If line conditioners are the high-end solution, there are also cheap, plug-in, line voltage monitors, like this one here. These are basically a switch that turns off the power coming through the monitor when voltage exceeds or falls below preset (by the manufacturer) tolerance limits. The “below” part of the equation is important because electronics can be damaged by low, as well as high, voltage. Most surge suppression devices don’t address low voltage problems.

The monitor begins timing the outage then restores power flowing through the device after a certain length of time (again pre-programmed by the manufacturer). The theory with these devices is that the most damage occurs just before and outage and just after when power is restored. Many of us have experienced this as power flickers before an outage then may stop and start several times as the utility restores the power. First, there is a surge, followed by wavering amounts of voltage.

Transportation hardware/software manufacturers now routinely recommend surge suppression or the closely-related communication (or “comm”) isolators for most devices, including card readers, gates, and fee computers. These prevent surges from damaging more than one device in a chain of devices, such as access card readers.

A final reminder is that surges from lightning can enter your devices via ANY wire connected. This includes antennas and cabling intended to carry data, not current. All inputs into your devices should be protected.

Defending Your Data: Lessons Learned

  1. Create a written Disaster Recovery Plan (DRP) that is accessible in an emergency.

  2. Review and revise your DRP on at least an annual basis.

  3. Train personnel in disaster event management.

  4. Seek advice from your IT professional or equipment solutions provider on proper surge suppressors for your particular.

  5. Install surge suppression and/or “comm isolation” on all electronic devices.

  6. Check surge suppressors quarterly to insure proper grounding and ongoing protection.

  7. Replace surge suppressors on a schedule as the protection they offer degrades over time.

(Please note, we are NOT endorsing the specific products linked in this article; these links are meant to be illustrative only of the types of options on the market. Want more information? Please check out our forums. If you have comments or suggestions for improvements to our content, please share your experiences with us and other professionals visiting our site. Add your comments below – if Comments are “on” – or by contacting us directly hereThis post was adapted from an article previously published in magazine or website format. The author retains all second serial and electronic rights. This work has been updated, edited and is distributed by the H2H2H Foundation with the express permission of the author.

 Our How-2 series are written by mobility management professionals for mobility management professionals. Thank you for helping H2 become the how-to resource in public and private transportation management.)

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