Are churches attracting more lightning than sinners? How lightning protection systems can prevent losses!

Steeple only grounding does not typically protect a structure from lightning, and single point or partial LPS do not comply with lightning protection safety Standards.There’s an old saying many lightning protection professionals are familiar with, that you may have heard it before, “Churches attract more lightning than sinners.”  While the saying is meant in jest, there is quite a bit of evidence that lightning causes a lot of headaches for churches–especially when we consider the fact that churches are spending millions of dollars each year on property damage due to lightning fires.

Fire is just part of the cost equation and doesn’t include damages caused by electrical surges that can disrupt and destroy wiring, computers, sound systems, alarm systems and electronics. Just last week, video from a security camera captured a massive lightning strike to a church in Ellijay, GA. The strike blew a hole in the church’s roof and sent an explosion of brick, wood and building debris into the early morning sky. A church spokesperson estimated that repairs to replace the damaged roof, and electrical equipment will cost at least $30,000 to restore. The video of the Ellijay church also helps illustrate three important concepts about lightning and lightning protection systems (LPS):

1) Lightning protection doesn’t attract lightning (the church steeple was equipped with a single lightning rod), but the lightning strike hit the roof at the opposite side of the structure.

2) Steeple only grounding doesn’t equate as a lightning protection system when it comes to protecting an entire structure.

3) Since lightning can and does (as shown in this video) strike objects outside of a “zone of protection,” steeple only grounding is not based on sound engineering principles or science. Engineers and building designers frequently refer to the rolling sphere method to determine where lightning protection components are required on a structure. (Zone of protection is explained in the NFPA 780 Standard for the Installation of Lightning Protection Systems and the rolling sphere method has been illustrated as a graphic.)

The above points help emphasize that steeple only grounding does not typically protect an entire structure, which is why partial LPS methods do not comply with NFPA 780. In fact, many experts warn that installation of partial lightning protection, designed to ground a steeple, cupola or weathervane, could be more dangerous than providing no protection at all. A single path to ground is not adequate to conduct the current involved with a lightning discharge. When lightning strikes a partial “system” (such as a grounded cupola, steeple or single point mast), side-flash to other conductive components on or in a structure can also occur. This side-flashing can damage building wiring, computer systems and electronics and even ignite fires. There’s no safe way to provide proper grounding from a punch that can pack up to 300 million volts of electricity and 30,000 amps–which is why all elements (strike termination devices, down conductors, bonding, grounding and surge protection) are essential for complete and effective LPS.

Reasons why churches are specifying lightning protection now more than ever before include:

• Insurers now require higher levels of safety for public venues such as churches, which often includes the installation of a LPS.

• Studies from the American Geophysical Union confirm that conventional lightning protection systems, in accordance with NFPA 780 Safety Standard, are highly effective in reducing lightning-caused fires and electrical surge damage to churches.

• Lightning protection systems do not attract lightning, but simply provide a preferred path of low resistance to dissipate lightning’s electricity.

• Lightning is a leading cause of church fires; estimated as responsible for 30% of such fires in the U.S.

• Lightning protection systems direct lightning’s harmful current to ground, instead of traveling through the building’s plumbing or electrical systems.

So when in doubt about LPS, a trained, LPI-certified lightning specialist is your best point of reference to ensure that your installation includes all components necessary to protect your facility.

The Lightning Protection Institute (LPI) conducts numerous educational, promotional and quality oriented programs on lightning protection and lightning safety and is the leading resource for lightning protection information and system requirements. Visit the LPI website or download a copy of LPI’s brochure to learn more about LPS for churches and houses of worship.