Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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3/28/2008
02:43 PM
David Berlind
David Berlind
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Photo: Why To Check Power Supplies Before Use Abroad

To everyone in the hotel that I was staying in while in the U.K. for Startup Camp London (including my co-workers), I apologize for almost burning the joint down. Twice. Thankfully, I'm the only one who paid a price for my stupidity: a bit of damaged finish to my brand new MacBook, a blown-up power supply for an Ethernet hub, and one destroyed power strip.

To everyone in the hotel that I was staying in while in the U.K. for Startup Camp London (including my co-workers), I apologize for almost burning the joint down. Twice. Thankfully, I'm the only one who paid a price for my stupidity: a bit of damaged finish to my brand new MacBook, a blown-up power supply for an Ethernet hub, and one destroyed power strip.deaddlinksupplyIn case you're wondering how a small team of three people managed to publish over 50 videos from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year (check out our TechWebTV channel on YouTube), part of the formula was the makeshift editing suite in my hotel room that we retired to each day after the show floor closed. Pumping video to the Web can overwhelm an entire hotel's connection. So the first thing you need is a hotel with (1) great Internet connectivity and (2) an option to connect via hard-wired Ethernet.

Wireless is great. But it's so unreliable in hotels that you can hardly count on it if you're going to be pumping video to the Web like we were. Fortunately, The Palms Hotel in Las Vegas where I was staying has both. Had you stumbled upon my room at The Palms, you would have found a Best Buy-bought D-Link Ethernet Hub that we used to split my room's single in-bound broadband connection among three computers: Our multimedia engineer Matt Conner's MacBook Pro (used for all video post-production and publishing to the Internet), my IBM ThinkPad (for writing all the blogs that went with those videos), and Fritz Nelson's ThinkPad (for writing blogs and publishing video).

Wires were stretched every which way but loose. It required four long Ethernet cables, one to the hub, which required a female-to-female RJ45 adapter to get us some extra distance from the broadband modem in the room, and three for each of the computers. Then, several power strips to keep all our gear (video cameras, external hard drives, notebooks, cell phones, etc.) running (those pesky hotel rooms are still too Spartan when it comes to power outlets).

We were strewn across the room. I worked at the desk. Matt had the room's only lounge chair and hunched over the coffee table on which his MacBook was perched. Fritz kicked his shoes off and worked on the bed with his notebook on his lap. Room service kept us well-fueled into the wee hours of the morning as we took all the content we gathered each day and converted it into a multimedia package of CES coverage on TechWeb and InformationWeek.com. By all accounts, the formula worked. We launched our TechWebTV channel on YouTube the day before CES started. Within four days, we had published 50 nicely produced videos and today, we're north of 200,000 "video-views" across the entire TechWebTV channel.

So, when it looked like the three amigos were going to be together again in London for Startup Camp, I grabbed my "data-center-infrastructure-in-a-backpack" and packed it between my socks and toiletries.

When we arrived in the U.K., I realized the additional genius of bringing my power strip along. Turns out it was stupidity. I only had two U.S.-to-U.K. plug-adapters for plugging U.S.-designed gear into U.K. outlets. The power strip had six outlets on it, which meant I could split one U.K. outlet into six U.S. outlets. Or so I thought. Like with most notebook power supplies, I'll bet there are power strips designed for this very purpose; ones that have auto-switching internals to accommodate the difference in electrical systems between the U.S. and the U.K. (look here, there's one with two outlets). But not the one I had. The minute I plugged it in, there was a loud KABOOM!, sparks flew, smoke rose from the power strip, and the room had that lovely bouquet of electrical fire and burnt plastic floating about. D'oh.

OK. So, it wasn't such a genius move after all. All was not lost, however. The power strip may have been fried (its underside was a nice smoky black) but I still had two U.S.-to-U.K. adapters. I could use one for the hub and one for my notebook and hopefully, the other guys (who hadn't arrived yet) would have their own adapters. Not that they would have done much good. The Hotel St. Georges in London is an old place and outlets in the hotel rooms were scarce. Oh well, improvisation got us this far. Why not a little further? I figured that if power was really a problem, we could share an outlet -- running our various devices off of battery power as much as we could and trading once our batteries were depleted.

The hub, however, would need dedicated power. After plugging one U..S-to-U.K. adapter into the wall (just behind my MacBook), I found the D-Link hub's power supply and plugged it into the adapter. Thankfully, it wasn't yet plugged into the hub. Sparks few out of the outlet (hitting the back of the MacBook's lid and damaging its finish very slightly). Then, to the tune of another loud KABOOM!, the plastic shell around the D-Link's power supply blew apart (one part went flying across the room) and then, as if the bouquet from the power strip wasn't already enough, some additional smoke and electrical fire-esque smell filled the room. The now-exposed guts of the power supply were a burnt-plastic blackish and yellowish color (see photo, above left) and two co-workers who were in the room with me were giving me the "What are you, some kind of nerd-idiot?" look.

Answer: Apparently so.

Moral of the story? Check the fine print on those power supplies before plugging them in just anywhere.

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