Avoiding Oops

It’s fair to assume that the machine you are sewing on now is the most expensive one you’ve ever owned. Maybe it cost more than your first car. Clearly you want it to last as long as possible. For some owners, their current machine may be the last one they will ever own. Of course you need to keep your machine in good working order by having it serviced, but is that enough?

Here in the Northern Hemisphere we’re in the middle of summer. The days are warm, sometimes uncomfortably so, and it’s mostly sunny. A thunderstorm is not unusual and most of them come with lightning. Strikes from lightning are rare, but when they happen it can be devastating. A strike on your home can travel through the house wiring, destroying everything that is plugged in. You could prevent this by unplugging your machine at the first sound of thunder, but that isn’t practical. It’s especially impractical if you’re trying to finish a gift for the baby shower you will attend in an hour.

So you’ve installed a “surge protector” that you bought at the big box store for $10. It’s got 6 outlets on it and a light that shows it’s working. You’re good, right? Well maybe not. Most of the low cost surge protectors, if they work at all, are only good for one or two surges. The part inside that absorbs the shock is severely weakened by doing so. This part is cheap, which allows the product it lives in to be cheap. It doesn’t take a lightning strike to wear it out; in fact a lightning strike will likely jump right through it.

Lightning is not the only danger brought on by thunderstorms. Just your normal power can have surges and sags, all of which can happen without you even knowing. If part of your power grid goes out the company will switch distribution to keep your power on. When this happens you see the power go out briefly, then come back on. Sometimes this will happen several times in succession. Each time there will be a brief surge as everything powers up again. Those surges are invisible, but dangerous.

The most dangerous time for an electronic device is when it is first turned on. Once the ON switch is engaged electricity starts flowing through the parts at the speed of light. Any part that is just a little below par can fail from this first pulse. Imagine that when you roll out of bed in the morning, you are plunged into a vat of ice water. That’s how it is for your electronics. Power surges that happen over and over will stress devices, and at some point failures can occur. How can we prevent this?

To avoid an “Oops” you can use a(n) UPS. We’re not talking about the brown truck that brings your Amazon orders, but an Uninterruptible Power Supply. These devices plug into your wall plug and have some number of outlets for you to plug in the things you want protected. They monitor the incoming power. If it is too high or too low, they switch the power to your equipment from the wall power to power recreated from the storage battery inside the UPS. The switchover is typically very fast, so your devices never see a surge or a sag. When wall power goes back to normal the UPS switches again. That’s where the “uninterruptible” comes in.

Many of the high-end embroidery-capable machines made in the last 10-15 years have a “Resume” function that allows embroidery to resume at the point where it was when the machine was turned off. You may be thinking that this will protect you from power failure. It will not. When you press the button to stop embroidery, whether or not it is finished, your machine takes note of where you were in the design. If the machine is turned off with the switch or a power failure, you will resume at that point, not where you were when the power failed. The goal of using a UPS with an embroidery machine is not to keep sewing through the storm, but to allow you to push the STOP button yourself when the power has been cut. After the weather calms down you can resume with no problem.

UPS systems are available in my forms and prices. The main difference is the total amount of power that they can provide and the length of time they can provide that power before the battery is depleted. Power ratings are in VA, which is roughly the voltage multiplied by the total current used in amperes. So a sewing machine that uses 120 volts at 1.5 amps would be about 180 VA. Our machines are relatively low power, so even a 350VA unit will be sufficient. You’ll get 15-20 minutes of time before the battery goes flat, which gives you lots of time to stop, turn off your machine, and wait it out. Or keep sewing and hope! You do have to be mindful of how much you plug into the UPS. If you want to plug in the iron to finish up a project you will almost certainly blow the fuse inside. They are not made to provide that much power. This can also happen if you plug in your TV, 3 computers, your machine, and 2 phone chargers. Too much!

Other than the price, the main negative of a UPS is the battery. These are larger than your typical flashlight batteries, and they are lead-acid like the one in your car. That’s why a UPS is so heavy. Depending on how often the UPS switches to battery, they can last 2-4 years. Some of the UPS devices have a light showing the battery status, though you can’t always count on it working. I’ve had many battery failures that were not apparent until the power went out, and so did the UPS. When power came back the UPS would scream continually. Batteries are not that expensive, but I’ve found that the after-market batteries are usually much lower quality than the one initially installed in the UPS. Now I usually replace the entire UPS instead of just the battery. Whether you replace the battery or the UPS itself, don’t just chuck the discard into your trash. That’s very bad for everyone when the lead and acid hit the landfill. Most of the big box electronics retailers will recycle them for you for free.

Whether you need or want a UPS is up to you. If you live in an area where storms are rare you may want to assume the risk. For most of us it’s worth the cost for peace of mind to protect our machines. If you do get a UPS, after the first year I would suggest turning off everything plugged into it, then turn it off at its switch. Wait 10 seconds and turn it back on. If it powers up normally, green light, etc. then all is well. If it fails to turn on, or screams without stopping, the battery is likely gone and it’s not protecting you any more.