Spring is Perfect Time to Ready Your Property for Weather Hazards like Lightning

Each spring, millions of properties are damaged or destroyed by lightning.  A single bolt of lightning can generate heat in excess of 50,000 degrees F which can spark fires or cause surging through electrical circuitry. Lightning losses often include damage to expensive home electronics, as well. Homeowner insurance claims from lightning strikes continue to rise, with the average claim costing over $4,000.  Fires caused by lightning represent a serious threat to life and property, but the risk is often overlooked by home and business owners.  A lightning strike to an unprotected structure can cause catastrophic damage. Fortunately, there are relatively simple and inexpensive measurers that can be taken to substantially reduce the chances of lightning-related damage and disruptions.

A professionally-installed lightning protection system which meets U.S. Safety Standards will prevent lightning damage by providing a safe electrical path into the earth for lightning’s destructive energy. The system provides a network of low resistance paths which provide grounding without impact to the structure or its occupants.

According to the National Weather Service, there are three main ways that lightning enters buildings: 1) a direct strike, 2) through wire or pipes that extend outside the structure, and 3) through the ground. Regardless of the method of entrance, once inside the structure, the lightning can travel through the electrical, communication, or data wiring, along with plumbing, gas or process piping systems. Lightning can also travel through structural steel framing and reinforcing rods in concrete walls or flooring.

On the outside of the structure, lightning can travel along the outer shell and may follow conductive metal vents, roof drainage elements and external supports as it seeks a path to ground.

While the concept behind lightning protection is relatively simple, the requirements for proper installation are specific and often complex. Specifications, technical information and installation methods should comply with LPI-175, NFPA-780 and UL-96 A, which are the three nationally recognized safety standards for lightning protection installation:

Dispelling Myths

LPI stresses that understanding lightning is a good first step for homeowners to take when considering protection. Considering lightning inspires awe and wonder, and also fear, it is important to separate fact and fiction when it comes to lightning safety.

Lightning is not deterred by surge arresters, suppressors and “whole-house protectors.”  Contrary to popular belief, surge protection devices cannot protect a structure against direct lightning strikes. While these devices are important components of a complete system to protect incoming utility lines against infiltration, on their own they do little to protect a home from lightning. However, when combined with a structural lightning rod system, (air terminals, bonding and grounding) they can prove a valuable and effective means of protection.

Lightning rods do not attract lightning.  Another myth commonly associated with lightning is that lightning rods attract lightning. In fact, a lightning protection system acts more as an interceptor of lightning, rerouting a strike and providing a safe path to ground for discharging the dangerous electricity.

Tall trees do not protect homes from lightning strikes.  The problem with a home nestled under a group of trees is where the best ground path for the lightning might be. Common metallic grounded systems within a home (electric, phone, gas, water) may provide a preferable grounding medium for the lightning. Therefore, lightning can actually “side-flash” from a tree and enter a home as it seeks a more conductive path to ground.

Lightning likes technology.  As the world becomes more and more tech-savvy, the losses from lightning strikes are increasing. Today’s homes and businesses have more electronic equipment than ever before, and metal building components are on the rise as well. Internal systems lead lightning toward more valuable, often irreplaceable items and people in close proximity.

A lightning rod on a chimney will not provide adequate protection.  A single rod or single air terminal is not adequate to protect a structure against lightning. A complete system which complies with safety standards is needed to provide safe and effective lightning protection performance. Improper installation can lead to serious and dangerous consequences for the homeowner.

Lightning rods are not unsightly on chimneys and roofs.  An experienced lightning protection contractor will ensure the lightning protection system will not detract from the structure and will blend aesthetically with the roof and chimney composition.

A professionally installed lightning protection system can provide security and peace of mind. In many cases, homeowners can expect to pay less for lightning protection than a typical security system. For homeowners at risk, lightning protection is an important amenity that can provide a big return on a small investment.

###

Kim Loehr, a communications consultant for LPI, partners with the NOAA Lightning Safety Awareness Team and is a member of NFPA’s Building Fire Safety Systems Section. She is also a registered course provider with the Lightning Safety Alliance (LSA) and its national Continuing Education Service (CES). She can be contacted at kiml@lightning.org.

Homeowners Can Prevent Lightning Losses

Hurricanes and tornadoes receive the most news coverage, but lightning accounts for more than one billion dollars annually in structural damage to buildings in the U.S.  The good news is that lightning losses can be prevented.

“Home and business owners needn’t take their chances with lightning,” says Bud VanSickle, executive director of the Lightning Protection Institute (LPI),” A professionally-installed lightning protection system which meets U.S. Safety Standards will prevent  lightning damage by providing a safe electrical path into the earth for lightning’s destructive energy.”

The Role of a Lightning Protection System

Lightning is electricity.  When electricity is confined to a properly designed conductive path, damage can be minimized.  Destruction results when electricity encounters resistance, similar to the resistance used in arc welding.  When electrical current runs through an arc welder, the resistance it encounters when arcing through air, generates the heat necessary to melt steel.  The highly conductive copper and aluminum materials used in a lightning protection system provide a low resistance path for lightning to travel without resistance.

When the lightning protection network is in place, a lightning strike is intercepted and directed to ground without impact to a structure or its contents.  Without the presence of the low resistance path provided by a lightning protection system, the lightning will fight its way through non-conductive building materials like wood, brick, rubber membranes, glass plastic, etc., on its way to earth ground.  The resistance lightning encounters can produce heat, fires and even explosions.

Standards Govern Installation

While the concept behind lightning protection is relatively simple, the requirements for proper installation are specific and often complex. Specifications, technical information and installation methods should comply with these three nationally recognized authorities that publish safety standards for lightning protection installation:

  • Lightning Protection Institute (LPI); Standard of Practice, LPI-175
  • National Fire Protection Association (NFPA); Standard for the Installation of Lightning Protection Systems, NFPA 780
  • Underwriters Laboratories (UL); Installation Requirements for Lightning Protection Systems, UL 96A, and UL 96, Standard for Lightning Protection Components.

Of the above, LPI is the only organization founded specifically to study lightning protection.  The LPI was established in 1955 to promote lightning safety, awareness and protection education.  The organization provides certification and education programming for lightning protection installation, design and inspection through a “Master Installer” testing program to qualify competence.  LPI recently introduced the LPI-IP third-party inspection program for installation quality assurance, as improper design and installation can lead to serious and dangerous consequences for the homeowner.

Importance of System Quality Control

Lightning protection technology is a specialty discipline and expertise is required for system design and installation.  Systems for homes and businesses should be installed by trained and experienced LPI-certified and UL-listed specialists.  LPI offers these tips for property owners seeking a qualified lightning protection specialist:

  • Make sure materials and methods comply with nationally-recognized safety standards of the LPI, NFPA and UL.
  • Contract with experienced and reputable LPI-certified and UL-listed lightning protection contractors for lightning protection system installations.
  • Check references.  A qualified specialist should provide a list of references and affiliation with industry groups such as NFPA, ULPA, LSA and LPI.
  • Ask about surge protection.  Lightning-induced surges can damage electronics and appliances.  A qualified lightning protection contractor can provide

Options for service entrance arresters and surge protection devices.

  • Experience counts. Be wary of start-up companies or contractors offering a “price deal” to install, fix or repair your lightning protection.
  • Contact www.lpi-ip.com for affordable inspection options, as a third party inspection of your system can ensure proper installation.
  • When in doubt, contact www.bbb.org to locate your local Better Business Bureau to obtain a reliability report for the contractor before you hire.

The decision to purchase a lightning protection system is a lot like buying an insurance policy.  Homeowners may purchase a system knowing that they will not use it every day, but it will be there to protect them when needed.   Often the cost of installing lightning protection is considered minimal as compared to the potential for loss.

For more information on lightning protection or to obtain a list of certified contractors, visit the LPI web-site at www.lightning.org.   Visit www.lpi-ip for information on lightning protection inspection services.

###

Contact: Kim Loehr, LPI communications director @ kiml@lightning.org

Note: The LPI has joined with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service to promote public awareness about lightning safety through the National Lightning Safety Awareness Week campaign (June 24-30, 2012).  Visit www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov  for more information.