Lightning Protection Spring Cleaning. Don’t let the clutter of myths and misinformation obscure the facts.

Lightning protection is an engineering system that is misunderstood by many, and often a value engineering target for those who are not educated in the science of how a system works. In reality, lightning protection is often one of the least expensive building improvements that offers the best type of insurance against a leading weather threat. 

March 14, 2016 — The late, larger-than-life comedian, Robin Williams was known for having said, “Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!'”

If the unseasonably warm temperatures are evidence, it seems the “party” has sprung to life in many parts of the country. While March typically means longer daylight hours and warmer weather for most, it also means an increasing potential for severe weather which can put a dangerous damper on your spring party.  The risk of thunderstorms ramps up too, with warm and humid air pushing north and stronger jet stream disturbances creating prime conditions for hazardous lightning. With March thunderstorms already threatening many areas of the country, home and business owners from all parts and parties can benefit from accurate information about lightning protection. As new and old myths abound about lightning and lightning protection, it’s not always easy to know the facts–especially when misinformation is repeatedly circulated on the internet and through social media. To help keep you grounded in reality and separate fact from fiction about lightning protection systems, LPI is providing a little spring cleaning to shine the light on four fallacies:

Fallacy: Lightning rods are outdated and a thing of the past.

Fact: Lightning protection systems are installed more today than ever before. According to Underwriters Laboratories, lightning accounts for more than one billion dollars annually in structural damage to buildings in the U.S.  This statistic does not include costs due to loss of business, downtime and repairs.  Protecting occupants, structures and critical systems is an increasingly important part of the building design phase, which is why construction planners are specifying lightning protection more now, than ever before.

Fallacy: Today’s smart homes and eco-friendly structures are built to be grounded for lightning.  

Fact:  The growth of sustainable energy technology and eco-friendly building has prompted upgrades and improvements to the electrical infrastructure of today’s homes and buildings; making them more susceptible to lightning.  These “smart structures” are characterized by a high degree of automation and various interconnected systems which typically rely on sophisticated energy collection methods. While building designs have included upgrades to increase resiliency from disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding, lightning is often overlooked as a significant weather threat–despite the fact that lightning hits the earth over 100 times a second! Even though these automated systems are grounded, they are still highly vulnerable, since a direct strike can spark a fire and an indirect surge of current can pass through the wiring of a structure in any direction. Lightning can initiate a domino effect path of transient overvoltage which can disrupt, degrade and damage multiple electronic systems and connected equipment, making lightning protection systems significantly important for smart structures.

Fallacy: A whole-house surge arrester can provide adequate protection against lightning.

Fact: Surge protection is only one element of a complete lightning protection system. Since a typical bolt of lightning can generate up to 200 kA of electrical energy, a direct strike or an indirect electrical surge to an unprotected structure can be disastrous. A single incident can cost thousands of dollars, with losses ranging from damage to expensive electronics to fires that destroy entire buildings. Unfortunately, no surge protection device or “whole-house” arrester alone can protect a structure from a direct strike packing lightning’s mega electricity. A grounding network for lightning (lightning protection system) must be implemented to provide a safe, conductive path to discharge lightning’s electricity. Surge protection + the grounding network = a complete lightning protection system.

 Fallacy: Lightning protection is simple and easy to install yourself. 

Fact: This is not an experiment you want to attempt! Lightning protection is a highly specialized trade that is governed by industry safety Standards. Design and installation is typically not within the scope of expertise held by general contractors, roofers or even electricians, which is why the work is typically subcontracted out to specialists. Trained experts like LPI-certified contractors that specialize in lightning protection and utilize UL-listed components and equipment should be hired to design and install these systems. The highly conductive copper and aluminum materials used are not readily available in hardware stores and design and installation for systems is complex and not a do-it-yourself project.

Lightning is a phenomenon of nature that is spectacular and awe-inspiring; thus its power is often misunderstood. Thinking back to Robin Williams and his lightning quick wit, I’m reminded of an analogy offered by James Lipton during an episode of Inside the Actors Studio: “Trying to categorize [Williams] is like trying to catch lightning in a butterfly net.”

Even though the duration of a lightning strike lasts only microseconds, a professionally installed, code-compliant lightning protection system can safeguard a structure against a lifetime of thunderstorms.  What better way to keep the party-goers safe and the party places sustainable to weather the storms for season after season?

Learn more about lightning protection system installation by viewing LPI’s short video at: https://lightning.org/learn-more/watch-learn/#video-9