Electronic Killers, Heat and Power Surges

I received a fair amount of email asking about my comment that excess heat and power surges were the number 1 and 2 causes of electronics failure.  This is absolutely true so I decided to use the learning topic this week to explain why and give you a more complete explanation and some examples.

Power Supply

Electronic components have heat ratings.  They’re designed to operate in a specific heat range and with few exceptions the hotter you run a electronic component, the less its lifespan.  This can be a very significant difference.  Some components like central processor units (CPU), graphic processor units (GPU), power supply regulators (all IC chip technology) are much more sensitive to heat than other components like resistors, capacitors, coils,  and diodes.  This is why the CPU and GPU of computers always have fans or some form of auxiliary cooling device attached.

Take my power supply that failed which I talked about in last weeks blog and this weeks blog.  It was rated at 200,000 MTBF (mean time between failures).  That’s over 25 years of life under normal operating temperatures on average, before it was expected to fail.  It failed at 3 years.  Why?  Because I failed to clean the vents providing the critical air flow necessary to keep it at a reasonable temperature.  With the vents blocked with several thick layers of dust air couldn’t flow per its design, the components heated up beyond their ideal temperature, and eventually the power supply failed.  22 years earlier than it should have!  I’m guessing the power supply operated for at least a year at this heat before failing.

Power supply

Heat is the enemy of all electronics.  Remember this before covering air vents with books or other equipment, or when choosing the type and number of fans for your next computer build.  Remember this and clean your air vents often.  I knew this and I still got lazy and didn’t realize how badly they were blocked.

Fan

Power surges are the next most common enemy of electronics.  Almost all modern electronics run on DC (direct current) power.  100% of electronics running any sort of digital processing or IC chip.  However, DC power DOES NOT come out of the wall.  Wall outlets provide AC (alternating current) which must be converted to DC.

Power supplies and/or power adapters convert AC to DC.  The battery charger for your camera is probably run by plugging in a power adapter (small brick like device) to the AC outlet and then plugging it’s power output cord into your battery charger.  The power adapter is converting AC into DC.  Virtually all modern devices have these adapters.  Cell phones, battery chargers, GPS’s, external hard drives, laptops, calculators, and most everything else.  A desktop computer uses a bigger source called a “Power Supply” that does virtually the same thing.  Your flat screen television, microwave, stereo receiver, all of these types of devices have an internal power supply that converts AC to DC.

Power supply

Not all power adapters and power supplies are created equal. DC (direct current) power should be very clean (free of AC ripple voltages) and the output constant, even under heavy load the output should remain clean and at a constant voltage.  Cheap low power adapters are rarely an issue, but power supplies used in desktop computers, televisions, and stereo equipment are frequently an issue because they use more power and the more power you draw, the more difficult and expensive it is to provide clean and constant power.

Have you ever noticed that laptop computers tend to be more reliable and stable with less BBSOD’s (big blue screens of death) or other glitches or issues?  The reason for this is simple.  Laptop computers run off DC voltages (the battery) 100% of the time.  The battery is providing 100% of a laptops power 100% of the time, clean and constant, from the battery.  The AC adapter charges the battery, and the battery runs the laptop.  The battery acts like a sort of UPS (uninterruptable power supply) which protects the laptop from power surges and ripple voltage providing a clean reliable source of DC power.  A desktop by comparison uses a lot more power and that power is provided in most cases by a very cheap power supply that converts AC to DC with no battery in the middle for isolation as in the case of a laptop.

It has been my personal experience, and accepted throughout the industry, that almost any electronic item that uses IC (integrated circuit) technology will run very stable and last almost forever, if from the very start the device is run from a UPS device in the case of a computer, or a high quality surge protector in the case of stereo and televisions.  For instance, most think that a desktop computer will operate correctly until it fails to operate at all.  This could be, but there’s far more to it.  If a desktop computer is operated without a UPS or surge protector, and is equipped with anything less than a top quality power supply, then it’s very possible AC power surges and fluctuations are causing wide enough variations in the power supplies output of DC voltages, that these variations can stress the operating range of different IC components in the computer which can/will result these components not operating correctly while the rest of the computer runs on as normal. 

This sort of damage is cumulative over time and eventually you end up with a computer with enough “scars” that they’ll cause what appears to be random glitches and errors and malfunctions.  Usually these aren’t random, but rather there are “scars” in RAM or other components that only get accessed during certain operations.  They might appear to operate properly during one software instruction/operation, but not the next.  What you end up with is a “glitchy/buggy” computer, and most will blame the computer manufacturer, Windows, Leopard, viruses, malware, or anything but the real cause.. which is operating a relatively delicate computer without a UPS, surge protector, or top quality power supply.  Ideally you’ll have a UPS with a built in surge protector and a top quality power supply.  At the minimum you should have one or the other.  Please know, you cannot run without a UPS or top quality power supply, start experiencing errors/glitches, and then add a top quality power supply and UPS.  The damage is done and the defective parts of the computer must be replaced to guarantee stability. 

The problem is, these sort of problems are most often impossible to pinpoint and even more impossible to get warranty replacements for components that appear to be working.  Power “scars” have been the cause of more headaches for electronics technicians than any other cause.  Even the best technicians will spend 10-20x more time troubleshooting, spraying components with “instant freeze” and then a heat gun, and whatever else helps them track down these sorts of issues.  The military, major corporations, and factory repair centers have learned long ago it is much more ‘cost affective’ to replace entire assemblies or circuit boards, then it is to trace these types of issues.  It is far better to avoid the ‘scars’ by using a UPS and top quality power supply.

Cheaper power supplies for all kinds of electronic equipment such as desktop computers, televisions, stereos, etc, provide a much less ‘clean’ DC voltage, often having much higher amounts of AC ripple voltage.  Also, you probably realize that AC power from your AC outlets provided by the power company surges regularly.  If you’re supposed to be getting 240vac, you’re constantly getting voltages above and below that, something like 200-280vac’s and even worse ranges during periods of high power uses (hot days, busy times of day, etc) Power supplies are designed to provide their DC output voltages for a pre-determined range of AC power with a specified amount of AC ripple voltage.  The higher the quality of the power supply, the more range of AC power it can accept and still provide the required DC voltages, and the higher the quality of the power supply the cleaner the DC voltages (less AC ripple) which means your electronic equipment lasts MUCH longer.  Not only will your electronic equipment last longer, but it will run more reliably and with less power induced malfunctions.

Even cheap power supplies tend to provide a decent DC voltage at moderate loads.  Put the equipment under load however and those DC voltages start fluctuating greatly and ripple voltage increases sharply. 

Now you know why a 500watt desktop computer power supply can cost as little as $10 USD’s, or as much as $350 USD’s.  A high quality power supply provides more constant and clean DC voltages while accepting a wider range of input AC voltages, and it maintains this high quality DC voltage from idle to maximum rated load. 

Power supply

There is nothing better you can do for your desktop computer than ensure it’s equipped with a high quality power supply that provides the required load.  Once you’ve done this, the next step would be to place a UPS (uninterruptable power supply) such as one from APC (American Power Conversion) between the AC wall outlet and your computers power supply.

UPS

Have you ever noticed that high quality power supplies are bigger and much heavier than cheap ones?  For instance, that a DVD or CD player can be heavy or feather light?  That a stereo receiver or tape player can also be very light in weight, or very heavy?  Most of these differences in weight are due to them being equipped with high quality power supplies.  The components that allow for constant and clean voltages are physically bigger and heavier than lesser components.  Other weight differences in such equipment will be traced to heavier electric motors, heavier transport systems equipped with ball bearings vs. limited life bushings, and so forth.

Electronic manufacturers have long figured out that the average consumer won’t be using their equipment for many total hours before replacing it was a new model, so they often make “disposable” electronics which are sold very cheaply, and then “enthusiast” or “professional” electronics which they know the consumer will use much more and keep longer.

To summarize, the best thing(s) you can do for your electronic equipment, computers, chargers, stereos, televisions, etc.. is keep them as cool as possible, and if you have the option of selecting it’s power supply then select a high quality power supply.  Use a UPS (uninterruptable power supply) for all devices with IC chips (laptops, computers, etc) and for as many of your other devices as feasible.

Portable UPS

How this relates to your digital camera:  A DSLR’s image sensor is only “powered up” when the shutter is open, or during live view.  The more warm/hot a image sensor becomes, the more noise they produce, and the less their life expectancy.  This is why for years DSLRs automatically turn on noise reduction during long exposures.  This is why exposures lasting for more than 20-30 seconds seriously drain batteries and why noise reduction is always turned on.  Most photographers don’t use long exposures often enough to reduce the life of their image sensors (DSLRs) but all this is changing with LIVE VIEW.  Live view will be used more often and for longer periods of time.  Remember, the hotter your image sensor becomes the more noise it produces.  If you were using “live view” to view/compose your scene for a few minutes then the sensor is hot, and it recording more noise.

But what about movie modes?  Yes, recording movies with your DSLR seriously heats up your image sensor and drains your batteries very quickly.  The prototype of the Canon 5d Mark II allowed the DSLR to record movies up to 30 minutes in length.  By the time the production version was released Canon had limited this to five minutes after learning the heat was prematurely destroying the cameras expensive sensor and inducing huge amounts of noise.

My final advice?  Be cool and be steady.  Don’t skimp when it comes to power.  You get what you pay for when it comes to cooling systems and power supplies.