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

Sometimes it's easy to feel almost cursed if computer after computer you deal with has problems. It's often not you at all, but rather the environment.

Being absolutely serious here, do you know if certain people have something (possibly just static) in or around them that can cause computers to crash? I used to joke that I was so "electromagnetic" that I caused computers to crash. Not so funny actually, because I have had several new computers each crash in turn. This happened as early as two days new, to 6 months new. I've had a motherboard die, a monitor die, a notebook that had a fatal crash and never turned on again and another notebook that had critical errors causing running problems 36 days in use. Most recently, my beloved HP pavilion's hard drive went bad after only 4 months!

As I wait for a new hard drive to be shipped, I am very discouraged. I do not believe it's computer error causing these problems. I keep everything up to date, virus protection, anti spyware, firewall running, router has a WEP, and I planned to change it to WPA as I heard that was safer. Have you ever heard of anyone else with such bad luck? All of this happened within the last 1-2 years. I can't afford to have another one die.

Wow. You certainly have had a string of bad luck, to be sure.

I know there are days I feel positively cursed; days when it feels like everything I touch turns to garbage. But, thankfully, those tend to pass.

While I'm not aware of anything biological related to you, there are some things I would look into...

My gut reaction when reading your tale of woe was to wonder about the condition of the electricity, and the electrical wiring in your home.

We all tend to take electricity somewhat for granted - we assume that it's either on or off. The fact is it often not that simple.

The two most common issues with electricity are:

  • Low or High voltage - either can cause your computer's power supply to work overtime attempting to regulate the power that it needs to provide to your computer's components. Eventually the power supply itself my fail, but that can sometimes be a slow decline, rather than a sudden failure. Along the way, other components within your computer can be damaged.

  • Power spikes or dips - ever notice the lights dim when your air conditioner or refrigerator turns on? That's a power dip, and your computer might notice as well. More dangerous is a power spike or surge, which can send spikes of suddenly high voltage through the wires. Depending on the quality of your power supply, your computer's circuitry or the power supply itself can become damaged.

"We all tend to take electricity somewhat for granted - we assume that it's either on or off. The fact is it often not that simple."

In most cases people recommend a surge protector, which protects against those power spikes. In fact you may already have one, as many power strips that we've all come to use to turn a single outlet into 5 already double as surge protectors. (Though many do not, so be sure to check.)

The problem is that if your location power regularly suffers from spikes and dips and other anomalies - often called "dirty power" - a surge protector isn't going to help. You'll need to upgrade to a more expensive line conditioner, or, as I've done in at least one place, install an uninterruptible power supply or UPS. Both product clean power, regardless of what comes in - and in the UPS's case, that includes nothing coming in at all, for as long as the batteries last.

The problem with this solution is that neither is particularly cheap.

Another common issue, particularly in older homes, is a lack of a good ground. That third prong in North American electrical plugs is intended to be connected to ground - quite literally an electrical connection to the ground. It wasn't always required, and many older homes don't have the wiring for it - as a result it's often connected to nothing - either at the plug, by an adapter, or by people literally chopping off that third prong. That can lead to, or amplify, some of the power problems we've discussed already.

If you live in a lightning-prone area, fuses on your phone line, and power conditioners or UPSs become even more important. Nearby lightning strikes can frequently cause power spikes and temporary outages.

All this is compounded with the fact that I'm simply guessing - problems that tend to cluster around a single location sound like they might be a power related issue, but I could easily be wrong. The only way to be sure, of course, is to have a qualified electrician check it out. Sadly, also not inexpensive.

The fact that you've had problems with your laptops could even be taken as a counter example. By its very nature, laptops are always running on a type of UPS - their internal battery. However, depending on what else your laptop is physically connected to, issues with power, particularly ground, can also manifest through those other connections as well.

As I look at other things that could be common to all your computers - besides you, that is - the environment comes to mind. If you're in a particularly dusty, dirty or smoky environment your computer's components could suffer premature problems. If you suspect this as an issue, you might pop the cover on one of the desktop machines and see just how dirty it is inside. Excessive, or quickly accumulating dirt (or in my case, pet hair :-), could lead you to simply cleaning the machines periodically, or moving them to a cleaner environment.

Heat is another factor that could lead to issues. If your machines are in a consistently warm environment, say over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, then they could be overheating. Air conditioning, or at least more air movement, could be called for.

Another item that comes to mind is static electricity. If you live in a dry climate, static can often be a problem. If you "spark" when touch metal objects in your home, that could be an issue. If that happens with your computer, it's like a mini power-spike, depending on when, where and how strong it is. Again, this is where household ground is important: your computer must be well grounded, and you should discharge any built up static by touching something also grounded before you touch your computer.

And it probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway - physical abuse could also cause all of these problems. I've known people with a short fuse who regularly slap, hit or otherwise physically abuse their computers when something's not working perfectly. Needless to say, those computers didn't last long.

But all in all, those are the directions I'd be looking into. I'm certain that there are "electric" personalities out there, but the real issue is probably much more mundane.

Article C2803 - October 6, 2006 « »

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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.

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13 Comments
Andrew
October 7, 2006 12:30 AM

Are you wearing any jewlery as it could be magnetic?

Luigi
October 7, 2006 2:26 AM

Hello,

I have the same problem...well, my girlfriend does
everytime she is on my computer the machine keeps crashing sometimes even refuse to switch on on a cold start, then if i'm sitting at it, the machine reacts normally.
My pc is working with me very well, is a dual core machine with all the update but with my girfriend is acting strange....

Ciao.

cloudchaser
October 7, 2006 3:03 AM

Try an experiment - buy a cheap copper bracelet, wear it when you use the laptop on battery only, make sure you leave mains lead to laptop unplugged. If after six months you have no repetition of failures, switch to leaving it off. If copper bracelet makes no difference, my bet would be on environment as per Leo. If it does make a difference AND the problems recur when you stop using the bracelet, decide whether it is cheaper to keep wearing it or pay out for more investigations. But you will have something to talk about either way!
Good luck

Chris Buechler
October 7, 2006 1:10 PM

UPS's aren't really that pricey anymore. A decent one sufficient to protect a typical desktop PC (sans monitor, especially if it's a CRT) run under $100 USD.

No matter how reliable or unreliable your power is, it just doesn't make sense to not use a UPS on all your computer equipment.

Zac
October 8, 2006 2:17 AM

I once had a friend who had similar problems, with tv's however. She ended up buying 4 or 5 tv's just because some days she couldnt turn them on, when her daughter tried they worked fine. kind of makes you think, eh?

Simon
October 9, 2006 8:44 AM

>Are you wearing any jewlery as it could be magnetic?

Extremely unlikely to be the problem. Magnetism falls off with the inverse cube of distance; a small piece of magnetic jewelery isn't going to do anything unless you take apart the hard drive and rub it all over the platters.

Think about it: the degauss coil in a CRT monitor is way more powerful than any magnetic jewelery (mostly cos it's alternating rather than static), and it doesn't have any significant effect on a computer either. (Although it could cause problems with floppy disks left on top of it; floppies have a much lower coercivity than hard discs).

Michael Everett
October 9, 2006 12:32 PM

I'd hate to see anyone spend money on an electrician just to check their power when you can do it yourself.

Go to the hardware store and buy one of those little yellow plug devices with three lights on the end. Plug it into any outlet and it will show you if the outlet is properly grounded and properly wired.

If you have the old ungrounded two-hole outlets, get some "ground-lifters" -- those little grey plugs that adapt a two-pronged outlet so a three-pronged plug can connect to it. Then take the little wire attached to the ground-lifter, back off one of the receptacle's screws and attach the wire so it makes a good connection with the screw. The screw attaches directly to the metal casing of the receptacle, which in turn is grounded to your electrical system. Finally, test your power coming out of the ground-lifter with your yellow plug-tester and make sure you have a good ground.

It's not rocket science.

Leo Notenboom
October 9, 2006 1:35 PM

That's all good advice. What *is* (sort of) rocket science is making sure your power is "clean" (right voltage, steady, etc.) - and what to do if the box you just connected the green wire to is, itself, not grounded.

tripmix
October 12, 2006 3:54 AM

I would have blamed microsoft for everything, cursed bill gates to hell and installed a nix. But thats just me :)

Beth
October 13, 2006 2:21 PM

My thanks to Leo and everyone who posted a comment in reference to my computers crashing dilema. I am getting a UPS for all of my computers ASAP!

On a final note, after writing to Leo, one of my computer monitors just stopped displaying! It is new, and the higher end video/graphics card I installed is approx. 6 months new! Hopefully the UPS will prevent further issues...unless I throw the computers out the window first. :) Thanks again Leo, I appreciate the advice very much.

Beth

Maureen Teachman
September 19, 2007 10:23 AM

I had a similar problem with my business computers. I thought I was the 'kiss of death' to electronic equipment. However, we were to learn that because the buildings in which we worked were close to roads which had intermittent but frequent very heavy trucks passing by, the building often had some vibration. The vibration was subtle to us and we had gotten used to it. But apparently our computers did not. The vibration had caused hard drive skips as well as electrical connections in the building to become loose which made the electricity inconsistent. Both caused electronic component damages. That was prior to my using UPS. We also moved the location of the electronics that seemed to be having premature failure to a different part of the office/room.

Despite finally figuring out that the vibration had caused some of the damage, I also learned that another reason for the premature and always inconvenient death of other computer parts, can be inherent in the device.

If you do a search for complaints or reviews for the particular item that has failed, such as a specific hard drive or other device, you may find that the particular device or part has a history of similar reported premature failures. Then I have gone back to the company that made or sold the item and asked for a replacement part. If they refuse to replace the part, you have some choices. The first is to post the specific item and its known failures and the company's unwillingness to replace it or you can report it to a consumer protection government agency. Another option is to contact a newspaper or TV station that has a consumer help section. The power of the press can be very helpful.

Peter Smith
April 1, 2008 2:20 PM

I have had the problems listed above since i was a child, i would go as far to say 80% of electrical items i purchase fail, whether the are purchased new or second hand, in the last 2 months alone i have had a pc that had to go back 3 times for exchange, a dvr that failed and also has to be returned, a broken iphone, and only tonight a brand new projector that was working fine, turned it off, went back an hour later to turn it back on and now it wont turn on, it has happened to tv's video's dvd's anything electrical really, also cannot be due to some of the above explenations as it has happened in many different homes i have lived in since a child, all my family and wife are aware of my bad luck around these items?

I can tell you it drives me absolutely mad.

Regards

Peter

Tarson
March 28, 2010 11:14 AM

If you have problems with almost every electrical item you have, you need to ground yourself before you touch any of them or, yes, you can blow an electrical appliance or phone or computer or anything. Just touch something metal (excluding aluminum or titanium) to de-electrify yourself before you touch your computer. If it is just the computer you have trouble with, try plugging it into a different location. The outlet you may be using may have a short in it which in turn frys your electrical appliance. Even with a surge protector, if the outlet is faulty it will compromise whatever is plugged into it.

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