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How to Protect Your Computer from Natural Disasters

Question: With the passing of a hurricane 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 many people overlook until it’s too late. I’m not talking about hurricanes specifically (though there is one bearing down on the east coast of the United States as I update this article), but any disaster that could take out all of your computer equipment at home or in your small business.

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

Let’s face it: hardware can be replaced.

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Protecting hardware

I’m not sure there’s anything you can do to ensure your hardware is protected from an extreme disaster.

Be it a hurricane, as you’ve described, an earthquake (the risk where I live), or something as simple yet disastrous as a house fire, unless you keep your hardware in a waterproof bomb shelter, something could potentially destroy it all.

Hurricane KatrinaThat 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 (UPS) are worth considering for those whose homes are prone to power issues or 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, mostly because I hear so often about people losing extremely important things due to common mistakes and failures.

Very common mistakes and failures.

I hope 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 large, typically requiring an external hard drive for storage. The result is they remain on site. That means if something happens to the site — meaning your home or business — both your computer and your backups are at risk.

That’s where off-site backups — backups stored at some different location, well away from any disasters affecting you — play an important role.

Off-site backup

An off-site backup is typically a backup of only your data (not the system, installed programs, configurations, or personalizations). A backup of your entire computer is usually 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: include all data that could not otherwise be reconstructed should your computer and local backups be destroyed.

That includes your important files, financial records, photographs, videos, and so on: anything that would be permanently lost if all if equipment and backups at home were lost.

Off-site backup alternatives

There are two basic alternatives: online services and physical removal.

Online services (like Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive and other cloud storage providers) provide off-site backup almost as a side effect of their intended use: data sharing and access providers. Anything you put there (into, say, Dropbox) so you can share it with someone else, or even just to synchronize it across multiple machines of your own, is automatically backed up off-site by virtue of remaining on Dropbox’s servers.

Some years ago, I moved all my photographs — over a terabyte of data — into Dropbox for exactly this reason. All my computers and backups could be destroyed, but my irreplaceable photographs would be preserved.

In my opinion, an important characteristic of backups — both local and off-site — is that they be automatic. Simply placing your important data into folders managed by a cloud storage service provides a form of backup that requires almost no additional work.

Similarly, there are cloud-based backup programs that focus exclusively on backing up without the additional sharing/storage/online access aspects of more general purpose cloud storage services.

If online services are impractical or you need to protect a lot of data — perhaps even those full image backups — physical removal is perhaps a more practical alternative.

When my wife had a retail business some years ago, this is exactly what we did. We had two external drives: one connected to a computer at home, and one at her store. Each night both computers would back up to its connected external drive. Once a week or so, we’d simply swap the drives. That way, each location — home and shop — acted as the “off-site backup” location for the other.

Other approaches include writing important data to an external drive or sufficiently large flash drive, and then taking or sending that to a physically distant 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.

Data is precious

At the risk of repeating myself too much, it’s important to realize that computers can be replaced, but your data cannot.

If something happens to wipe out all of your computer equipment at home — including all of the backups you’ve so carefully created — you’ve truly lost everything if your data is not stored somewhere else.

Depending on your needs and situation, there are several solutions for implementing an off-site backup, and I strongly recommend you do so.

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29 comments on “How to Protect Your Computer from Natural Disasters”

  1. 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 it…you might like it.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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!)

  8. 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.

  9. 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!)

  10. 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:

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

    • It is best to have more than one signature on a safe deposit box. Check with your bank for the proper wording (such as “person A or person B” or “person A and person B”). You want the first suggestion. If you pass away, the other person can access the safe deposit box. Be sure to ask your bank if that is how it works in your state. Naturally, the second person listed should be someone you trust.

  15. 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 “hunch” 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.

  16. 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.

  17. One idea that just came to me is inspired by an old article on Ask Leo! Leo recommended that when traveling, at the end of each day, copy the contents of your camera’s storage card to your PC and mail the card back home. That tip has become nearly obsolete now that photos can be automatically uploaded to the Cloud or if you have a camera without WIFi capabilities, copy it to your computer and let the computer automatically sync them to the cloud. But one way you can do an offsite backup is to copy your backup files to an SD card and mail them to another location. It would be extremely rare that this would be necessary as most people have a friend, relative, or workplace to hold them but if you live in a city with no relatives or friends you can leave a backup with, you can mail them to a friend or relative in another location. And SD cards are coming out so large now that you can copy an entire backup set of a system image with incremental backups.

  18. An elementary question, I think
    Something has always bothered me about the backup process. I use Macrium Reflect and do image backups on an external HD that I store in a safe deposit box. So, if I get a bad virus or ransomware that my anti-virus/malware programs can’t resolve, I can quickly restore the image and be up and running. But suppose my laptop gets physically destroyed. I buy a new laptop. How do I restore that image to my new different laptop. As an aside, if I buy the exact same model/configuration laptop that I had, could I then do a restore?

    • If you get a new computer, you would use the backup to restore your data and install your programs from their installation media which itself should be backed up. If you install the programs on your new machine, you can use the activation code to activate it. Others have online activation. That would work with most programs. Be sure to keep a backup copy of the activation code.

    • Common guys (Mark and Leo), recovery to a new machine isn’t going to be that easy if you’re not prepared for it – and that doesn’t mean just having an image backup. I know, we’ve had this discussion previous, such as in the article that you referenced:

      Firstly, there are no such things as “installation media” anymore. If you haven’t saved (archived) the downloaded installation packages for your applications, you may have lost them for good. On your new computer you are unlikely to find and download the same app versions that you had previously, at least not from a reliable source. Even if you are able to install your application, it may not update if it’s an older version. If your new computer has Windows 10 and your applications were from Windows XP or 7, you’re likely to run into all sorts of compatibility problems.

      These types of difficulties will especially apply to your image backup/recovery software. If you can’t install the appropriate version of the image backup/recovery software on your new computer, you’re out of luck because you won’t be able to recover your personal files (such as pictures, videos, emails, etc) which are embedded within the image. Under the category of “personal files” will be any activation codes that you’ve got in your image backup. Also, if you used an email client on your old computer, you may have lost access to your emails if you can’t get a compatible version running on your new computer.

      Leo’s article about getting an image backup on a new computer does point out the difficulties, which basically amounts to not being able to install an old image on a new computer (let alone the risk of clobbering the new OS that came with the new computer). In other words, that referenced article is not a response to the question posed by Melvin.

      If you’re forced to go to a new computer, especially one with a new version of OS, then the only backups that will be valuable and irreplaceable will be the backup of your own personal files. The practical solution is to back up your personal files directly on a flash or external drive, so if a complete disaster strikes you still have your files.

      • Well, we disagree on several points — installation media does exist, for example, you can download it for Windows. Agree that you may end up getting the latest versions of the tools you use rather than the specific version you had if you have to run out and download them all again.

        ANd, for the record, an image backup DOES contain all your files. It also includes all the files you didn’t realize you wanted.

      • By installation media, we mean the media which was used to install the program. In most cases, nowadays, that is a downloaded file or files. Usually, only OS installation (or recovery media which is also an OS) is run from physical installation media which is shifting from optical media (CD/DVD) to USB flash drives. The reason Leo recommends a system image backup over simply copying user data is because, you may miss some important files with the data only backup which you can go back and look for if you find you need them.
        You say, “[it] isn’t going to be that easy if you’re not prepared for it”. That’s the beauty of a system image backup. It doesn’t require any special preparation. Everything is included.
        You also say, “If you can’t install the appropriate version of the image backup/recovery software on your new computer, you’re out of luck because you won’t be able to recover your personal files (such as pictures, videos, emails, etc) which are embedded within the image”
        In almost all cases, a version of the backup program which is compatible with the latest OS will be able to open the backup. In the unlikely event this happens, you can boot from the recovery disc which has its own OS and is not dependent on the installed OS.

  19. Not mentioned or suggested, is to put your PC into the dishwasher and lock the door of the dishwasher shut IF you are expecting floodwaters. Since the water used IN a dishwasher (when you wash the dishes) does not leak out, I’ve wondered if this option is feasible to keep your PC dry in a flood… or if the dishwasher might float away. To be safe you should always have your data backed up elsewhere.

    • It might work but if you do, unplug the dishwasher. The flood water or someone might turn the machine on and wet your computer.

    • I would in no way trust a dishwasher to keep water out as well as it keeps it in. (And, to be fair, not all do that great a job of keeping it in.) And someone might push “start”.


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