Consumer Watch: When Bad Things Happen to Good PCs
Karen Hertzog and her husband had just finished dinner. "As we paid the bill, we got a call at the restaurant saying there had been an accident at our house," says Hertzog, a dog trainer. "The ten-minute drive home took us about two minutes."
A fire had started in the toaster of Hertzog's Emmaus, Pennsylvania, home.
The couple's newly renovated farmhouse had to be gutted and completely restored, and most of their furniture and appliances were ruined. But damage to Hertzog's PC, where she stored her client data and other records, was less apparent.
The fire was confined to the first floor and Hertzog's office is upstairs. "Most of [the office equipment] looked fine," she says. "So we sent it off to a company that cleans things after a fire." Over the next months, though, Hertzog noticed the performance of her system deteriorating.
"It was a gradual process," Hertzog says. "First my external floppy drive went, then my CD-ROM. Next was the Zip drive. Meanwhile, my copier, printer, and fax machine were also breaking down and rusting--even though they were never directly exposed to fire or water."
Computer calamity takes many forms: theft, an accidental drop, a hard-drive crash, even a Kool-Aid spill. It can happen any time, so it makes sense to prepare.
Fortunately, Hertzog was able to save all the data on her computer and eventually persuaded her insurance company to replace the damaged PC and other office equipment, but it wasn't easy. The company wanted her to provide, among other things, evidence describing how a PC could be damaged from exposure to smoke and high temperatures. "I spent hours doing research," Hertzog says, "and it seemed that nobody knew much about what happens to PCs after a fire."
Michael Beary, General Manager of ESS Data Recovery in Carbondale, Illinois, explains it simply: "Heat causes the metal oxide coating on the hard drive platters to expand. This affects track alignment and weakens the magnetic strength of each bit over time, eventually leading to hard disk failure." In fact, Beary says, heat is the number one cause of hard drive failure. And it doesn't take a catastrophic house fire to toast a PC's hard drive or other component--even a heavy session of multitasking could do it. "As hard drive technology packs more and more bits into each square inch of platter space," Beary says, "hard disks become more and more sensitive to heat. Since most PCs don't come with hard drive cooling units, the best way to preserve the life of your hard drive is to install a fan." (The fan in your PC may be cooling the CPU only.)
Beary also advises customers to stop using their PCs at the first signs of instability. "A partially failed device is the most dangerous," he says, "because users will keep trying to use it. The longer it's used, the more damaged the drive gets, and the less likely it is to be recovered."
The cost of restoring data isn't small. It can range from $300 to $4000, Beary says.
You may never have an experience like Hertzog's. But eventually, as Beary warns, "every hard drive will fail." And whether that failure is due to fire, flood, or mysterious ghosts in the machine, you'll want to be sure you have a safety net. Your first step? Back up your data. Then call your insurance agent and find out exactly how--or whether--your PC is covered. The answer may surprise you. Some standard homeowners' and renters' insurance policies don't cover PCs at all. Those that extend any coverage limit it to events such as theft, fires, storms, and power surges; they almost never cover accidents such as spills, drops, and general hardware failure. Some put a cap on the amount they'll pay to cover a damaged or lost computer, and many don't cover data recovery.
And since PCs depreciate faster than used Yugos, even reassuring promises to pay for replacing your system aren't so reassuring when you're talking about a computer. Let's say you bought a PC with a 15-inch monitor and a 500-MHz processor two years ago. If your system is destroyed, many policies would pay only for replacing that now-antiquated system. With the cost of the deductible, filing a claim might not even be worthwhile.
Also, many homeowners' policies don't cover business PCs at all, so if you have a home office, don't assume your PC is included like your television and fridge. You might need to buy additional coverage--known as an endorsement--for it.
Many insurance companies offer policies specifically for PCs. These policies have fewer restrictions than standard plans. For example, they'll cover accidents such as drops or spills both at home and away, and they carry little or no deductible. PC-specific policies are worth considering if you have an expensive system or if you travel frequently and want to be sure your notebook is protected. These policies often cover the full replacement value and the cost of data recovery should your PC fail for nearly any reason.
Finally, here are some additional ways to protect against data disaster:
Karen Hertzog says, "I never thought something like this would happen to me." Fortunately, serious fires are rare, but computer crises hit hundreds of people every day. Sooner or later, one may happen to you. Be ready.