Sheila Skolnick thought she had plenty of protection. Surge protection, that is. The owner and CEO of Elite Cos., a $5-million hotel-supplies company in Port Jefferson, N.Y., had always used computers to track sales and inventory, and, she says, "we thought we had taken all the precautions," including using a standard-strength uninterrupted power supply (UPS) and surge-protection strips.

None of that saved her from the lightning bolt that zapped all the companies in her building at 3 a.m. one Sunday last year. The lightning hit her server, traveled through the network, and fried the network cards in 7 of her 11 computers. "It was devastating," Skolnick recalls. "Our system was out for two days." She survived the episode owing to good backup planning, and she hopes to prevent a similar disaster in the future with an improved protection plan. Here are her tips:

· Always keep hard copy. While the system was down, Skolnick's salespeople sorted through hard copies of invoices to get customers' phone numbers and addresses. Looking up paper records meant that customers who were used to receiving quotes in seconds were told, "I'll call you back in 10 minutes with that price," but that was better than "I'm sorry, we can't help you. Our system is down."

· Make smart backups. "When you have everything on the computer and you sell thousands of products, like we do, you get really dependent on it," Skolnick warns. She'd been backing up all her data weekly, sending the tape to a bank vault for safekeeping in the event of fire, flood, or theft. The data were ready to be reinstalled when the system came back up.

· Buy the protection that's right for you. Once the system was up and running, Skolnick was tempted to buy network-card surge protectors at about $100 per computer but decided that was overkill. After all, it's hard to protect against a direct lightning strike. Instead, she invested $25 per computer in a Newpoint Surge Protector (from Newpoint, 800-639-7646), which comes with a $10,000 insurance policy in case it fails to stop lightning damage.

· Reexamine your setup. Since Skolnick's network was wired together in series with the server at one end, even the 4 unharmed computers (like a string of Christmas-tree lights when one is burned out) wouldn't work. Now the server is flanked by 6 computers on one side and 5 on the other. That way if lightning strikes twice, it will have a shorter distance to travel before going to the ground, and, at worst, it will wipe out only half of Skolnick's computers.

The free booklet Protecting Your Business Lifeline explains how to safeguard your network against surges, spikes, blackouts, and brownouts. It can be obtained from Liebert Corp. by calling 800-877-9222.