SMBs

Review: PowerUSB energy-saving power strips

PowerUSB's power strips are designed to help users better control the energy consumption of their PCs and peripherals. Find out if Donovan Colbert thinks these products are good options for SMBs.

The folks at PowerUSB recently offered me four of their unique energy-saving power strips to keep in return for a review. The PowerUSB models, each with an increasing set of features, are: the Standard Basic, the Computer Watchdog, the Smart LCD standalone strip, and the engineering-oriented Digital IO PLC Controller. The devices are not really surge suppressors or UPS solutions, but instead power strips designed to allow the user to better control the energy consumption of their PCs and peripherals.

Feature overviews of the PowerUSB power strips

The Standard Basic model ($69.99) (Figure A) comes with a MicroUSB port that connects the power strip to your PC via the included USB cable. You connect the power strip and install the PowerUSB software (available for Windows, Mac, and Linux), and you have access to a system tray app that allows you to customize the behavior of the power strip. Figure A

PowerUSB Basic power strip (Photo credit: Donovan Colbert for TechRepublic)
The menu buttons on the software change depending on which power strip you're using. On the main screen (Figure B) you can: control the power state of three of the four outlets on the strip (the fourth outlet is always on and intended for your PC), calibrate the consumption meter to a zero state, and access the Advanced and Scheduled menus. The Outlet Details area allows you to set the outlets on or off by clicking the box or by a Ctrl-Shift-Key combination. These key combinations will enable and disable the corresponding outlets even when the app is minimized. You can also select an option here to automatically power-on Outlet 3 when you send a print job, leaving your printer powered off until it is needed. The Output window on this page displays the current consumption and cost of electricity consumed by the attached devices. Figure B

On the Advanced Options page (Figure C) you can configure the individual Default PowerUp State of the three controlled outlets, configure variables (including the price-per-unit of your electricity), and configure outlets to reset if a ping to an external site fails. The last feature is intended to reset a broadband modem if a ping to a WWW address fails three times in a row. Figure C

In the Timed On-Off menu (Figure D) you'll find advanced timer and schedule features that can be customized for each of the three controlled outlets. The options available cover more situations than typical programmable power timers. Figure D

The Computer Watchdog model ($89.99) (Figure E) offers all of the features of the basic model, plus the ability to detect a hung computer by heartbeat and power-cycle it as well as a graceful scheduled shutdown cycle (Figure F). This is probably the most interesting model from an IT pro's perspective. Figure E
PowerUSB Computer Watchdog power strip (Photo credit: Donovan Colbert for TechRepublic)
Figure F

In the Watchdog Options dialog (Figure G), you can set the heartbeat interval and the criteria triggering a hard reset of the PC. If the system hangs or crashes and the heartbeat becomes unresponsive, the Watchdog will hard cycle the outlet that your PC is plugged in to. You can even select how long the power is disabled to the outlet, allowing the PC to "rest" before restarting. Your system must support "automatic start on power failure" and be enabled in BIOS.

The Watchdog series also features a Shutdown And Computer Off Options menu section that allows you to schedule a daily shutdown and start time for the connected PC. This doesn't just hard-cycle power, but it initiates a graceful OS shutdown. While there are lots of ways to initiate a nightly reboot of systems, the ability to shut down a system and let it sleep until a specified time when it will automatically restart is something beyond the scope of a GPO rule, script, or batch file.

Figure G

The Smart LCD model ($89.99) (Figure H) is designed to be a stand-alone power strip that can be connected to and programmed on a PC, and then used to remotely control access availability and power consumption on devices like TVs and home entertainment systems. The built-in LCD display allows you to perform simple administrative tasks without hooking up to a PC and displays information about energy consumed and scheduling programs configured on the device. Figure H
PowerUSB Smart power strip (Photo credit: Donovan Colbert for TechRepublic)
The PowerUSB Digital IO ($109.99) (Figure I) is probably the most powerful and complicated of the four devices. This power strip has a connector terminal block that will take lead-ins for 5 and 12Vdc signals as well as a lead out for 5Vdc. Figure I
PowerUSB Digital IO (Photo credit: Donovan Colbert for TechRepublic)
The Digital IO strip unlocks a new page of settings in the PowerUSB software, allowing you to set various trigger states and responses depending on the voltages being monitored on the terminal block (Figure J). The features here go beyond the typical system administration role and begin to cross over into more advanced electronics engineering projects. Figure J

Conclusion

At first I was a bit dubious about these power strips. These are not inexpensive devices considering they lack surge or UPS capabilities. The construction of the devices seems moderate in quality for the price, but the labels on some of the demo units seemed like they might have been printed on a P-Touch labeling printer. There was an inconsistency here, with the labels seeming very professional on one device, and peeling and somewhat unprofessional on the next device.

Overall, I think these devices are an excellent option for a SMB looking to implement advanced solutions on a small business budget. From automating a waiting room television's schedule to a consultant setting up a RDP server that is available only at certain times of the day or for certain durations, there are numerous  examples where the PowerUSB strips could be useful. Despite the upfront expense, I believe that the power savings by turning off vampire devices can pay back for the strips in a short time. From the perspective of a systems engineer, I can see this as an inexpensive solution that provides decent security and accessibility benefits for smaller shops or those with specialized needs.

About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

25 comments
rahuulbp
rahuulbp

I have few doubts regarding this power USB. first one is can't we control the outlets of the power strip through the C program in the computer, if it is possible how can we do it??? In how many days delivery of the product would take place.. I am staying in UK. Do i need to purchase the adapter for the UK main supply??

JohnOfStony
JohnOfStony

Does the company make UK versions with UK standard sockets and the entire product aimed at 230 volt mains?

Who Am I Really
Who Am I Really

basically a short extension cord with multiple outlets (with no surge protection) then it can be added to one of the outlets of a UPS and thus get UPS & surge protection for connected devices it's combining / daisy chaining surge protectors and connecting surge protectors to UPS devices that causes problems if these are just straight though then no problem to connect to another device with protection

Ray Baker
Ray Baker

Years ago, probably in the 80's I recall a power strip that was made specifically for computers. The strip would monitor the "computer" outlet and when it was turned on the other outlets also came on to bring up the monitor, modem, printer, external drives, etc. It was a short lived product and I never got one.

dcolbert
dcolbert

The manufacturer has contacted me and these are not just strips, they have surge suppression capabilities. I've asked for details specs of the surge ratings and I'll get those added to the article as soon as they've been provided.

techrepublic
techrepublic

A typical desktop uses about 200-300 watts. This strip would have a logic board and either electro-mechanical relays or solid state components to control the switched outlets. How can that consume anything close to 200 watts? This is a far less expensive option than a switched PDU such as what is commonly used in data centers. They can easily cost more than $1000. If you don't have a lot of devices to control I believe this would be a good inexpensive option. I do agree, however, that some power-saving stats would have been helpful.

RickPeter
RickPeter

PowerUSB Digital IO is a good idea for small PLC projects. I have used NI 24 IO card when I just wanted 2 inputs to my PC. This product should provide me digital inputs with power control .

Ron_007
Ron_007

(snip) I believe that the power savings by turning off vampire devices can pay back for the strips in a short time. (/snip) Rather than relying on belief, your article would have been much stronger if you had included some concrete numbers on power savings. A table with some simple assumptions: - some typical electricity prices across the country - Power use metrics for some new and old devices (both powered on and sleep mode) - assume some time regimes, ie on for 9 hrs per day at work, on for 5-6 hours at home (ie 6pm to midnight) - calculate the costs and payback period. The manufacture should include an online version of the savings calculator so people can plug in their local numbers.

dcolbert
dcolbert

If you have any questions or want more details - I'll try to help with anything I can. I'll say this much about this product, I'm using them on one of my machines now to control peripherals that I used to just leave on 24x7 and I've already seen a cost savings on energy consumption - and I've got plans to use them in an expanded role to synchronize starting and shutting down systems for remote backup to my NAS while I sleep - something I've always wanted to do but I didn't want to have systems just running unattended at home when I didn't need them to be. I can envision the same kind of application for these devices in a SMB or as a consultant engineered solution.

dcolbert
dcolbert

I've reached out to my contact to ask. I've *seen* images of one with a European style plug (not sure if it was a mainland or UK style plug) - but I can't seem to find any information on if they are actually available.

dcolbert
dcolbert

The manufacturer claims that there are surge suppression features in this device. I'm getting the information from them and will update the article as soon as I receive it.

Slayer_
Slayer_

It uses roughly the same power that a watch battery can produce.

dcolbert
dcolbert

My regional rate is $.5, but we play a flat rate which means we pay more when our consumption is less, and less when our consumption is more - so I really couldn't develop true *HARD* numbers in the short period of time when I tested the devices. At those kind of numbers, when using relatively low-power devices, the savings are gradual - you'll see the benefits over a year, not a month. But it would be interesting to run a long term test in an environment where the cost savings could be substantial - and an online calculator on the manufacturer's site would be a good idea. I'll suggest it to my contact there. Also, covering 4 devices and explaining the features as a high-level over-view was the goal of this article. I had a lot of ground to cover and the format of Tech Republic calls for relatively brief articles. Let me just say, there are extensive logs written to your PC and fairly robust metrics gathered by the device. You can download the documentation for all 4 products at the manufacturer's website in PDF format prior to purchasing. If you're interested in understanding the logging and report generating capabilities of these devices, I'd recommend downloading the docs.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Though I miss the day when all printers turned on and off on their own. I suspect this bar burns more power than the small power your PC uses when always plugged in and the phantom power of the printer and other devices. You could probably save more power by unplugging your microwave and coffee maker when they are not in use.

sammahmood789
sammahmood789

You mention that you can control TV. So can I turn off my TV while not at home so my kids dont watch too much while I am away. Same will go with the Wii, is it possible?

ssmith13215
ssmith13215

This is great, I have some computers which hang and needs reboot. The Watchdog model can solve the issue.

Slayer_
Slayer_

What kind of surge do they protect from? I have seen power flick on and off in a house and never trip a surge protector. I have seen lightning and a faulty voltage regulator on a gas generator explode the surge protector and still pass on the surge. So what do they do that a simple GFI outlet wouldn't do?

dcolbert
dcolbert

Vampire drains are usually external peripheral devices like high end printers, hard drives, and other devices that may still consume a significant amount of power even when idle (and even when they go into their own "power-saving" mode. Additionally, as Sammahmood describes above - you can go a lot further with these devices. As an example I have a Windows Home server NAS. It has an atom CPU and 3 2TB hard drives and runs 24x7. Most of that time I'm asleep and it is doing nothing but burning through energy. This is the kind of setup you might expect in a typical small business if you were working as a consultant. With these strips, you could easily schedule times to shut down the NAS on weekends and outside of regular working hours. I mean, the cost savings is going to be be dependent on your situation in a case-by-case basis, but I can think of a lot of examples where significant power-savings could be achieved. If you're running a 110v server class device in a small data-closet and you're not using pro-class PDUs or racks - shutting down a server on a timed schedule is going to save you a lot of energy compared to having that device running 24x7x365. If you don't have remote access needs and you're operating on an 8 to 5 schedule, why have those kind of machines burning dinosaur bones when they're not needed?

dcolbert
dcolbert

Are a well documented phenomenon and claim to be a significant impact on electricity costs in the average American household. If you can reduce 3 consistent drains per strip, and you put several of these in your business our household, on typical devices that suck a lot of energy even when they're not off - I'm sure that the power savings would exceed any extra draw from the device itself. The sole exception might be the LCD on the Smart device - but even then, it is a non-backlit LCD display... use it to power-down your Wii and BlueRay DVD's glowing display when not in use, and you're probably going to come out ahead.

dcolbert
dcolbert

So, yes, one of the goals of the Watchdog is the ability to schedule times when a device can be turned on or off, and this can be extended to all of the controlled outlets on the strip. With the right programming, you could easily set a schedule time when a device would or wouldn't power up. Now, a smart kid will just unplug the devices from the strip and plug them right into the wall... but if you make it difficult enough to get to the power-strip, that might not be practical. At any rate, this will achieve what you want to do. Pick up the Watchdog, configure it properly, and you can schedule the amount of time the device is available and when the schedule applies.

dcolbert
dcolbert

It depends on the quality of the surge suppressor. The important details on a quality device are covered here: http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/everyday-tech/surge-protector7.htm Most people don't take the time to understand the ratings for clamping voltage, joules suppression, and response time... and the $9.99 surge suppressor generally isn't much better than a power-strip but people can't understand paying $70 for the quality one. The best ones usually have some sort of insurance policy-like guarantee against equipment damage, as well. *AND* they need to be replaced periodically because they're taking the hit so your devices won't.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Right - it actually monitors a heartbeat between the device and the PC and if the heartbeat fails, it will recycle the power to the device. I did cover that in the article, but it might have been confusing. This is how most clustering/failover solutions work. If you're not familiar with high-availability, the thing about heartbeat monitoring is that you *can* get false positives. Frequently the heartbeat is an RPC monitoring service - and if the RPC service gets overwhelmed or becomes unresponsive, it can trigger a false fail-over which can cause lots of problems like "split-brain" where two machines are both active and accessible and they each think they're in control. In this case, a false positive could result in a power-cycle when the intended services or applications being hosted by the server are still available, disrupting users. I'm not sure how the heartbeat for the Watchdog is implemented at the API, but regardless of what method they're using, there is still vulnerability to a false-positive where the strip loses communication with the PC and initiates a restart. That shouldn't stop you from implementing a solution like this if you have a critical server you need to automate hang recovery on. In fact, this is probably one of the most accessible methods to achieve rudimentary high-availability for a server I've ever seen. But you're going to want to do some testing and tweaking of the configuration before you implement in production, or be prepared for angry users if they do lose data when the system spontaneously reboots on them while they're working.

sammahmood789
sammahmood789

I checked the manufacturer's website for documentation. (Not sure if I can mention their site here or not but it is listed on the picture from your article). Watchdog model can actually monitor the computer when it is hung and can automatically reboot it. No need to make the schedule. And smart can monitor the TV watch time as it has a built in power meter. It can measure the consumption and if you dont want your kid to watch more than 30 minutes of TV. it will automatically shut off after 30 minutes in one go or 5 minutes each 6 times. Pretty cool. I think this device is good for power automation as it comes with API, power saving is just added benefit.

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