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back to article Heroic Register reader battles EXPLODING COMPUTER

A heroic Reg reader who battled an exploding computer to save his son's homework (and possibly his life) has written in to share the harrowing tale of a power supply unit gone MAD. Keith, who lives in Germany, wrote in to tell us how he dealt with a flaming desktop PC, and how his quick instincts to throw it out the balcony door …

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Trollface

Nice to see a non-apple product exploding for a change

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Joke

Patent violation.

Just saying.

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Anonymous Coward

And this is why...

... I keep a smoke alarm on top of my computer.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Smoke Alarm

The place you're meant to install them is on the ceiling. That's because smoke usually rises quite readily and it might well just sail past your alarm sitting on top of the case without setting it off.

Fire Protection Consultant

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Smoke Alarm

"The place you're meant to install them is on the ceiling."

Indeed - I also have one on the ceiling.

However the last time I had a PSU start smoking it was the one on the case that noticed first.

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Flame

No-brand power supply

Ugh, why I stay away from them nowadays. I've actually had a similar experience with two no-brand PSUs. Thankfully, unlike this case, the PSU never did spew flames. But I do only buy PSUs of brands deemed trustworthy with reasonably high wattage ratings now.

Protip: The thing about these no-brand PSUs are that their wattage ratings are often very much overrated and their actual maximum output is actually much lower than advertised. For example 250w PSU would often be labelled as 500w one. Net result is that the consumer will buy it and fit it into a PC that needs 500w, and thus stress the PSU and cause it to go out with a bang, fire optional.

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Re: No-brand power supply

A PC that actually actually needs a 500W power supply is a rare thing indeed. Even those requiring in excess of 250W continuous load are few and far between, falling very squarely into the enthusiast category. Any enthusiast installing a no-brand PSU in such a situation* is either broke or not thinking straight. It's not so much that the continuous rating of cheapo supplies is insufficient, more that they are ill-equipped to deal with anything more than the smallest of transient peaks. And that's before you even consider the cheap components and shoddy manufacturing processes that contribute towards non-overload-related random catastrophic failures like the one in this article.

FWIW, having read up on a few PSU manufacturers' processes, the one that most thoroughly torture tests as part of production line QC is Seasonic. I believe they are the OEM manufacturers for a number of high quality PSU brands.

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Thumb Down

Re: No-brand power supply

No-Brand PSU's use cheap parts that last nowhere near as long and often have very poor power efficency. If its generating more heat than DC power then it'll not only cost more on the leccy bill but often fail taking out anything its powering.

Don't spend £30 on something which will provide power to parts worth at least £200.

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Flame

Re: No-brand power supply

Further Protip.

The weight of a PSU is a huge giveaway as to its quality.

ANY 600watt PSU that weighs less than a kilogram is a cheap piece of tat and takes the term "switch mode" into areas of dubious accuracy.

A decent quality PSU will have some weight to it...

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Re: No-brand power supply

cornz1,

Thanks for the tip. I shall upgrade my production line immediately, by the introduction of small water tanks to my PSUs to add weight and fool expert PC builders. What could possibly go wrong...

El Cheapo PSUs: Power To You (possibly directly if the guy doing earthing was hung over that day).

[small print: We absolutely guarantee that our PSUs won't kill you. We will pay £1million to any person who has been killed by any of our shoddyfine products. The victim simply needs to apply in person to our head office, to receive their pay-out]

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Re: No-brand power supply

+1 for SeaSonic; Fortron (FSP) tends to hold up well too. And -1*several for Antec; I've had several fail despite being sufficiently overspec'ed for the systems they were in.

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Re: No-brand power supply

My no brand laptop PSU actually fell apart exposing the innards. Not safe!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No-brand power supply

"The weight" is no indication. As the dodgy companies put lead weights in them to make them seem more quality (ahem, Sony Walkman ;) ).

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Anonymous Coward

Re: -1*several for Antec

My one is, doubtless, several less than your several, but, just for the record, my 850w way-over-spec'ed and way over-sized Antec unit has been peacefully and silently supplying less-than-150w (that's what it draws from the UPS), 16 hours a day, for over two years now.

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Flame

Re: No-brand power supply

My old deskside computer used to idle at around 700-800 watts and peaked at 1.3kw under load....

used to heat the room nicely!

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TRT
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Re: No-brand power supply

Hear hear.

My daughter bought a replacement laptop PSU from Leeds market for £5. She complained the laptop's charging socket must be broken (I bought her a new HP business laptop to go to uni with) as the thing would charge for 10 minutes then shut out and she had to wiggle it about to get it to start charging again. Annoyingly, none of the official HP PSUs I had shipped to her fitted the laptop physically. For some reason the listed part number was wrong, as was the part number stencilled onto the side of the original PSU.

When she eventually brought it home with her, I put it on my test bench and, sure enough, it charged for 10 minutes then cut out. I went to unplug the cord and burnt my fingers quite badly on the plug. After letting it cool and dissecting the wire, I found the actual copper core was so thin I wouldn't even use it for a doorbell, and the soldering in the plug was so bad that it was heating up the plug and tripping a thermal cutout HP had thoughtfully provided next to the charging port.

Needless to say she got an extra lecture or two once I'd found out exactly where she'd bought the PSU from and how much she'd paid.

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Re: Stoneshop

What about the Antec branded PSUs manufactured by Seasonic or Fortron?

Meanwhile I've been running Antec PSUs almost exclusively for more than a decade. No problems so far.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No-brand power supply

Last PSU I bought was a fanless Seasonic for around a hundred quid- over kill at 400W, as it's supplying a system with no dedicated graphics, SSDs and a low-power 'S' variant of a i7 3770 CPU- but blissfully silent. The computer death that prompted this upgrade was an old Dell Optiplex with blown capacitors on the motherboard- leading me to learn about an episode of industrial espionage: http://www.badcaps.net/pages.php?vid=4

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No-brand power supply

" I found the actual copper core was so thin I wouldn't even use it for a doorbell, [...]"

Reminds me of a B&B bedroom once. The 13amp socket on the wall was connected by twisted-pair bell wire to another socket on the opposite side of the room..

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Re: No-brand power supply

Shocking.

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Re: No-brand power supply / Bad caps.

I have seen SO MANY mobos fail because of this over the last 15 years. It's horrible.

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Re: No-brand power supply

If I remember rightly when custom PC torture tested a load of PSUs even most of the named ones couldn't handle the load they claimed and one exploded, Seasonic got mentioned because 2 companies withdrew their brands from testing, but Seasonic went back and asked Custom PC what was wrong and then went and redesigned their PSUs.

I have to agree btw my Seasonic PSU was a little more pricey but is damn good.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No-brand power supply / Bad caps.

reminds me of the death of my treasured Epox 8RDA+ based PC ....... http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/leaking-capacitors-muck-up-motherboards

A spot of failed espionage leading to a few million hopeless and doomed capacitors hitting the market..... Failure mode was usually along the lines of capacitors swelling and then failing, but occasionally along the lines of a loud bang, accompanied by a flash and tiny tatters of wax paper and aluminium, foil drifting around...... Very occasionally fire...... I wonder if any of those caps are still in the supply chain....

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No-brand power supply

@ Captain Scarlet: "it'll ... often fail"

In my experience electronic components usually fail just the once.

@ cornz 1: It's *SWITCHED-MODE

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FAIL

Re: Stoneshop

These were Antec TruePower 480W units, don't know who OEMed them, but I had one fail, replaced under RMA (which took an inordinate amount of time too), then the other failed just out of warranty, and then shortly after the replacement unit went too, all with low-ish and wildly unstable 5V rails.

No more Antec for me.

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Re: No-brand power supply

A bit clunky, a water tank on top, could really mess up the innards as well.

Better might be a little cylinder of Halon, poof and the fire is out.

Mind you, Halon doesn't cool, so you'll need a second or third shot of Halon available, means money.

More elegant, possibly least weight, might be a small air pump attached somewhere. The air pump suction should be at an opening in the casing. Start the airpump and voila!, the resultant vacuum starves the flame. The little airpump can run and run. make sure the airpump suction is the only opening in the casing.

Perhaps you could have a reversible cooling fan!

Or cast iron computer innards, don't care about a little excess heat.

Just speculating....

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Anonymous Coward

Kill it with fire

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Disappointed

I thought it was the PC that caught fire - not just another iffy PSU.

I think I'd have just rescued the hard drive and not have poured water everywhere.

Wouldn't have bothered to try and save the rest of it - data is more valuable than a few chips.

(my last PSU began smelling of fish and then popped with a lovely spike that took out the RAM and Mboard)

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Re: Disappointed

That smell of fish is plastic baking in the case. Can't remember which type (ABS?) but light fittings often do the same thing.

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Flame

Re: Disappointed

Getting a harddisk out of some generic case usually takes a couple of minutes, and that's not counting the time finding a screwdriver. Letting the fire do its thing during those minutes may leave you with a harddisk not worth salvaging anymore.

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says:

Ten months?

Go on, box the PSU up and send it back under warranty.

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For a refund, natch.

No legitimately CE marked PSU could fail like this unless there is a manufacturing defect, so either it's a bad one and you get your money back, or report the supplier to Trading Standards (or local equivalent) for selling dangerous goods with an improper CE mark.

You'll know which when you ask for your money back, and request incidental damage payments as well although I'm not certain of the law in this case.

- Note that it is the importer, not the manufacturer that's responsible for the CE mark.

Even "reputable" PC PSUs are so variable it's crazy - I've seen some dangerously shoddy soldering inside some well-known brands.

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Coffee/keyboard

Re: For a refund, natch.

> I've seen some dangerously shoddy soldering inside some well-known brands.

Oh yes indeed.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: For a refund, natch.

It's worth checking the approvals on the case. If it is UL listed and you can read the logos of some of the approving agencies in Europe, it is worth contacting them and seeing if they want the PSU back for investigation. Test agencies really love having exhibits for their black museums, as it helps justify their existence.

Kick up a bit of stink because you should get a new computer at least out of the PSU supplier. Remember that even if a PSU is overloaded it is required to degrade gracefully - unless you actually stuck a screwdriver inside and waggled it around, there is simply no excuse for catching fire like this.

And yes, I have worked with approvals bodies in the past, and been involved in electrical safety testing. You probably have at least one product I have been involved with in your house.

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Meh

Re: says:

I wish I could. Usually I save all my PC purchase receipts, but I can't seen to find that one.

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Re: For a refund, natch.

"legitimately CE marked..."

This story worried me at the time. Now I know why...

http://www.labnol.org/gadgets/ce-marking-on-electronics/13845/

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Mushroom

"legitimately CE marked..."

Call me a sceptic, but in my mind, the probablility that a no-name PSU has legitimate CE and/or UL markings is so small as not to be worth mentioning.

//"China Export", my Aunt Sally...

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Holmes

Lies, Bloody Lies and Power Supply Ratings

Dissecting a generic PSU"

Five years old, but still valid.

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Well...

I don't buy no-names but still budget. LC-Power in my case. I guess it helps that my kit at most uses 60W anyway.

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Facepalm

Smoke and electronics

Hmmm, I recall an associate attempting to convince our boss that since the smoked had escaped from said boss's computer that the electronics would no longer function. We assured him that electronics ran on smoke and that once the smoke had escaped, it was nearly impossible to to put back. In this case it was a harddrive whose onctroller board suddenly emitted a "snap" and a puff of smoke. From what we could tell, the only unbacked-up data was his stash of scanned pr0n. Everything else was backed up daily, weekly and monthly. He was in deeo denial for a bit, then acquired his own personal scanner.

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Re: Smoke and electronics

I think that was an old BOFH episode.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Smoke and electronics

With PSU failures it's often difficult to know if it was faulty - or just an extreme reaction to another component failing.

My worst was a friend's PC which had been switched off for a few weeks in a move. He flipped the mains switch a few times in frustration when it didn't power-up - and then reported a bright blue flash.

On inspection - the Enermax PSU fuse internals had vaporised. Component testing showed that the motherboard was also dead - including the ram and video card. Unexpectedly both hard disks, DVD-writer, and floppy were also Norwegian parrots. The only electrical bit that had survived was the cpu fan and case leds.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Smoke and electronics

There should be NO extreme reaction to another failure. Power supplies are a part of the system that are REQUIRED (sorry about the caps but I don't think I can do html here) to withstand electrical abuse. They are the guardians of the downstream equipment.

That said, repeated switch flipping can have unexpected effects. Sometimes rcbos trip because the suppressor capacitors draw too much asymmetric current at switch on. Because they hold their charge for a second or two, two flips in a short interval can sometimes get a shutdown ring main up without having to disconnect everything. But with many cheap PSUs, charging the live side capacitor can result in a large surge current. Even in the days of 286 and 386 computers, early computer PSUs could easily spike 40-50A during the first half cycle. Each time you switched the thing on, failure came a bit nearer. Since repeated surges through time delay fuses gradually weaken the fuse, it isn't that hard to design a circuit so that the fuse should blow before another component is likely to fail due to repeated thermal or magnetic field shock. And the capacitor should fail open or short; in the first case the thing simply doesn't work, in the second the fuse blows. Even if the capacitor blows up, the shrapnel should be retained by the case and if anything gets shorted the fuse should blow. Glass fuses can blow with a flash. So can some other overcurrent protectors.

So, answering your point, PSUs can indeed fail due to external component failure but usually fail due to their own highly stressed components going wrong. But they should never fail dangerously.

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Holmes

Re: Smoke and electronics

'Should' ain't 'Is'

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Smoke and electronics

>(sorry about the caps but I don't think I can do html here)

No worries, < i > HTML is relatively new addition to The Reg Forums < /i >

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Smoke and electronics

Thank you for the information

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Re: Smoke and electronics

It's the "smoke theory" of car electrics as applied by Lucas ("Prince of Darkness") Industries to British cars , as old as the hills (or Hillman?)

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Happy

> Keith regrets buying a no-name Power Supply Unit

No he doesn't, he's gleeful at the excuse to get a new one.

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Re: > Keith regrets buying a no-name Power Supply Unit

Actually my son is the happy one, cause' now he has a new PC. His brother though, is eye balling it jealously. Just so he doesn't get any ideas, I need to hide all the fire making accessories in the house.

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Devil

Re: > Keith regrets buying a no-name Power Supply Unit

So your son has learned the valuable lesson that setting something on fire results in shiny new replacements? An IT career beckons!

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