Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Natural disasters remind us that are computers, among other things, are at risk. I'll look at protecting your computer and more importantly, your data.


With the passing of Hurricane Irene where I live (my home was spared any damage), what do you suggest is a good plan to protect your data and your hardware from these storms?

That's actually a scenario that many people overlook until it's much too late. I'm not talking about hurricanes specifically, but any disaster that could take out all of your computer equipment at home.

There are a few things that we can do to protect the hardware, but in all honesty, that's not the most important thing.

It's not the most important by far.

Let's face it: hardware can be replaced.

Protecting hardware

I'm not sure that there's anything specifically that you can do that's reasonable to protect your hardware from an extreme natural disaster. Be it a hurricane (as you've described), an earthquake (as the area that I live in is at risk of), or something as simple yet disastrous as a house fire. Unless you keep your hardware in a waterproof bomb shelter, there is going to be something that could potentially destroy it all.

"The bottom line is that computers can be replaced, but your precious data cannot."

That being said, surge protectors are inexpensive and easy and should probably be used by just about everyone. Lightning arrestors and related equipment should definitely be used by those in lightning-prone areas. Uninterruptible power supplies (UPSes) are definitely worth considering for those whose homes are prone to power issues or those who need to keep their machines running after the power goes out.

But as I said, it's difficult to protect all of your hardware from all possible disaster scenarios.

And to put it bluntly, that's okay. Hardware can be replaced.

What's not okay is losing your data. That can't.

Protecting your data

I talk a lot about backups here on Ask Leo!, mostly because I hear so often about people that have lost extremely important things due to common mistakes and failures.

Very common mistakes and failures.

So I would hope that at a minimum that you already have some kind of backup regimen in place. My preference, of course, is an automatic full and incremental backup of your entire computer.

The problem with those backups, however, is that they tend to be very large and typically require an external hard drive or even another computer for storage. As a result, they remain on site. That means if something happens to the site - meaning your home - both your computer and your backups are at risk.

That's where off-site backups play an important role.

Off-site backup

Typically, an off-site backup is a backup of only your data and not the system, installed programs, configurations, or personalizations. A backup that would contain all of that, essentially a backup of your entire computer, is typically much too large to transfer over a typical internet connection in any reasonable amount of time. As a result, off-site backups tend to focus only on your data.

The criteria for an off-site backup is very simple: you should backup all your data that could not otherwise be reconstructed should your computer and at home backups be destroyed. That means your important files, financial records, photographs, videos, and so on. As I said, anything that would be permanently lost if all of the computer equipment, backups, CDs, DVDs or whatever at home were suddenly lost.

Off-site backup alternatives

There are several alternatives:

  • I think that it's important for any backup to be automated and that includes off-site backup. With that in mind, that makes a very strong case for online backup services as a solution for this problem. True backup services, such as Carbonite, Mozy, Jungle Disk, and others, are specifically designed to backup the data, and only the data, from your computer to their servers at some remote location. As a convenience, many then also offer the ability to then access your data via a secure Web connection from any computer on the Internet.

  • Another alternative are services like Dropbox and several of its competitors. Dropbox is billed as a data-sharing service that allows you to share files across multiple computers and with other Dropbox users. As a side effect, those files are also stored on the Dropbox servers, effectively becoming off-site backup. Depending on how much data that you have, their free plan might even suffice.

  • Often overlooked is that if you have your own website through an ISP, hosting service, or other website provider, it's very possible that you have the ability to store a significant amount of data online. The trick here is to come up with a solution that is both secure and allows you to automate backing up your important data. Unfortunately, for this kind of scenario, you pretty much have to roll your own solution.

  • Other non-automated solutions include periodically copying important files to some sort of media that can then be taken somewhere else. In the past, when my wife had a retail business, data would be stored on a pair of external drives, one at that business and one at home. We would simply swap the drives periodically.

    What most people think of is simply writing important data to CDs flash drives and the like and taking or sending it to a friend or family member periodically, or storing it in a safety deposit box at the bank. These are all viable solutions as long as they happen religiously on a regular schedule.

The bottom line is that computers can be replaced but your precious data cannot.

If something happens to wipe out all of your computer equipment at home including all of the backups that you have so carefully created, you truly have lost everything if your data is also not stored somewhere else. Depending on your needs, there are several solutions for implementing an off-site backup and I strongly recommend that you do so.

Article C4918 - September 1, 2011 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

September 6, 2011 8:16 AM

After Mozy changed their pricing structure I switched to Backblaze. I've tried multiple services and found Backblaze to be the easiest and least expensive for the average computer user. Try might like it.

Robin Clay
September 6, 2011 11:32 AM

If it's not under a separate roof it's not a backup. Full stop.

If it's not under a separate roof it's not an offsite backup. I don't want people to think that the all backups require a different location. There's a lot of value in on-site backups and I'd claim they're actually used more frequently. That being said they don't protect you from the true major disaster scenarios.

Steve McCarron
September 6, 2011 1:59 PM

Most programs today allow you to save data to almost any location on your system. What I did was to make a separate partition on my hard drive which I call data files. You can organize as you want, by program, by month, year and what ever method you can dream up. When I get the thought to do a back up, I throw a DVD into my drive and copy every thing on my data drive to a DVD with your favorite software. Store a copy at some one's else's home or at the office, some where off site. Like Leo said, hardware can be replaced, but not your data. Electronics fail, just pray it is not your hard drive that fails.

Nick H.
September 6, 2011 2:27 PM

For many 'lay-people' reading this who may be confused or dismayed at some of the computing expressions, a simple USB key today can be simple enough to use to save personal documents and photos until a more sophisticated solution can be understood.
Once copied, keep it in your car or at work. Obviously a relatively 'temporary' solution, but far better than nothing at all.

Glenn P.
September 6, 2011 3:59 PM

Nick H. wrote:

"...a simple USB key today can be simple enough to use to save personal documents and photos... Once copied, keep it in your car or at work..."
Folks, never, ever  keep valuable electronic devices in your car (and if you've put valuable data onto a cheap USB drive, then yes, it has just become valuable) -- the extremes of temperature (especially, high temperatures in summer) can absolutely fry  the components in such devices. We've had two-way radios "die" on us that way, from just that very cause. Remember: electronics are temperature-fragile!
September 10, 2011 4:43 PM

I'm in the process of copying all my photos to Gmail's Picasa Web Albums AND Hotmail's Windows Live SkyDrive. I attempted a third copy as well in Yahoo's Flickr, but they allow very little before charging a fee to upgrade. Yahoo Flickr also seems to emphasize the social networking aspect more than simply allowing me to use storage space.

I also regularly copy my other files to Google Docs and Windows Live SkyDrive.

These personal files also reside on my Home computer, a folder on my Work laptop, and a USB Flash Drive. I try not to allow these three to be in the same place at the same time.

September 20, 2011 8:31 AM

This article above interest me.
What about a solar flare,or nuclear emt attack?
How best to protect electronics in the house?

Glenn P.
September 20, 2011 10:03 AM

For Nick:

If you just happen to have a house faced in stucco, you're in luck as far as a nuclear EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) is concerned! Stucco is secured with a chicken-wire mesh that covers the entire house, and is grounded -- it basically converts the entire house into a Faraday cage (look this up on Wikipedia). Congratulations! Instant EMP shielding! (LOL!)

September 30, 2011 8:51 PM

For 8 months I backed up my computer onto the Mozy website. Then my HD died and I lost everything. Got a new HD and went to Mozy for my backups and got ziltch! nada! buckus! Mozy had either lost or deleted everything that was important to me, including irreplaceable family photos. Cust support was no help and couldn't explain where all my files over the prior 8 months had gone to. To say I'm steamed is an understatement. Needless to say, I canceled my account and will never recommend Mozy to anybody.

October 1, 2011 11:37 AM

Voltage regulators, installed between outlets and surge protectors, have worked for me. Location: last house on the power line in a rural, power-surge-prone area - electric and phone companies haven't updated their wiring in years - no cable or FiOS available so it's DSL if you're lucky, satellite or dial-up if you're not. Electronics periodically got fried despite high-end surge protectors on everything. My only recourse was unplugging all equipment after use, which worked only IF I remembered to do so and equipment wasn't hit by an unexpected surge while in use. In the several years since I started using voltage regulators, no electronics have been damaged, though a couple of surge protectors and several voltage regulators have given their all. I use APC VRs and the company's 2-year warranty has meant that so far I've only had to pay for one of the replacements. (And yes, I back up everything!)

Nate McAlmond
October 1, 2011 3:03 PM

My recommendation is get a Dropbox account. It's about $1 per Gig per year or 2GB for free. What I really like about Dropbox is the way it shows up as a folder on your computer. If you save to the Dropbox folder it's backed up and replicated to all your other computers where you have Dropbox installed, it's that simple. Here's a signup link if you're interested:

October 10, 2011 9:38 AM

I personally think that backing up and encrypting one's personal data, then simply putting this on an external drive and storing it off-site (e.g., at a family member's place or locked in the office) is the best and most cost-effective alternative to all the options discussed. I don't trust cloud storage as yet (security, privacy and accountability issues not fully addressed yet, thus unsatisfactory solutions to me). I have company and personal data backed up on 3 laptops AND 4-5 external drives that I keep interchanging. Call me paranoid, but I lost my wife's work folders 3 years ago and haven't heard the end of it since! Lesson learned.

October 13, 2011 12:38 PM

Call me paranoid, too. I backup to a home server, external drives, Carbonite, and use Windows Live Mesh to sync my important folders between laptop and desktop. However, I am concerned about cloud hacking, especially Windows Live. Should I encrypt my folders, and how does that work on 2 computers?

You can't really encrypt the folders in a multi-computer kind of way. You'd have to encrypt the files that you put in those folders with tools like TrueCrypt, AxCrypt, 7-zip, winzip and the like.
Claude Holloway
November 9, 2011 7:59 AM

I, too, agree that storing data on an external hard drive is the best way to backup data. I store the external drive in a safety deposit box at my bank, and my wife and grown son both have access to this box. That way, if something happens to my computer, me and my wife, my heirs have access to my financial records. Also, external drives are cheap. So in order to make the swap at the bank quicker and easier, I have two external drives. Each week, I do a complete backup on the drive I have at home, take it to the bank, and swap it with the one stored there.

November 29, 2011 4:19 PM

Being a Devil's Advocate, let me offer this scenario. Your backup hard drive is safely stored in your bank's safe deposit box. When your death is reported by the county medical examiner, your safe deposit box and all its contents are frozen by the IRS until execution of your estate. So in the meantime, your heirs have only a [possibly] infected hard drive on your computer for the financial information they may need.

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December 23, 2011 12:31 AM

Over the years I have tried many different methods for backing up my computer files. Back in the 90s, I would burn files to CDs whenever I got a β€œhunch” that something might be getting ready to fail me. Then in the early days of this site, I got a Firelite external hard drive and while I could schedule how often I wanted to run backups, more often than not, the program just didn’t work as advertised.
Then last year, after one too many close calls with data loss, I decided there had to be an easier way! After researching a variety of online backup options, I decided to sign up for the free Carbonite trial (which did not even require a credit card – another plus). Within days it was apparent that I had found the solution that worked for me – I didn’t even wait for the 15 day free trial to end – I gladly paid $54.95 for the year.

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December 23, 2011 12:36 AM

Actually, Carbonite passed the test with FLYING colors. About a month ago a nasty computer virus managed to get past my virus protection and did some pretty crazy stuff to my system files. The only solution was to reformat my entire computer. I was a little stressed about possibly losing data, but since I could see every one of my files from my laptop through the Carbonite interface, I was confident all would be fine.

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