The Shocking Facts on Lightning, and How to Strike Back

The Shocking Facts on Lightning, and How to Strike Back

Rayos cayendo en un vecindario residencial

Lightning strikes cost $790 million in insured losses in 2015, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Many times, these strikes can land on or near residences, wreaking havoc on the home's electrical system, appliances, or electronics. "There's so much more valuable electronic equipment in homes today," says Bud VanSickle, executive director of the Lightning Protection Institute (LPI). "The loss from lightning can be tremendous."

Fortunately, by following these pointers, you may help safeguard your property — and yourself — from the damage inflicted by lightning.

Know the numbers

Lightning is not always taken seriously — but it should be. "It's an occasional danger, but a tremendous hazard," says VanSickle. The stats prove it:

  • During a thunderstorm, don't let dry conditions fool you. Lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from an area of rainfall.
  • Lightning causes an average of 55-60 fatalities yearly.
  • The air surrounded by a lightning strike can heat as much as 50,000 degrees Farenheit. That's about five times hotter than the sun.
  • Each year, the United States experiences 25 million flashes of lightning. Florida and other Gulf Coast states see the most lightning; Pacific Coast states see the least.
  • A single strike of lightning can pack up to 100 million volts of electricity.

Invest in lightning protection

"A direct lightning strike with no path to follow will use any available path, such as electrical wiring not designed to handle lightning, metal plumbing pipes, or metal gas system lines," says VanSickle. Your best bet for stopping lightning damage in its tracks? A lightning protection system tailored specifically to your home's architecture. Such a system creates a pathway for lightning bolts, guiding them safely into the ground. 

Install surge protection devices

Lightning strikes on or near a power line or utility service are a frequent cause of power surges. Point-of-use surge protection devices (SPDs), combined with a good grounding system, should protect your electronic and electrical appliances from most electrical surges. An SPD does not suppress or arrest a surge; it actually diverts the surge to the ground.

Service entrance SPDs provide protection for your entire electrical system and are usually installed at the electrical panel(s) or at the base of the service meter. These devices help prevent the entrance of overvoltages which can cause a fire. Surge protection devices are typically installed in conjunction with a lightning protection system.

Hire a professional

Installing a lightning protection system is not a do-it-yourself task due to all of the intricacies involved in completing the job accurately. Fortunately, you can find a reliable certified installer by visiting databases from the LPI and UL. "LPI certifies members in accordance with national safety standards," says VanSickle.

Seek certification

Make sure your professional installer uses only products that bear proof of UL certification. This ensures the equipment complies with national industry standards.

Get a second opinion

If you move into a home with a lightning protection system in place, or you have structural repairs done to your home's exterior that could compromise your current system, it's wise to have your system checked out by a third-party independent follow-up inspector to ensure it still properly stands up to strikes.

Safeguard yourself

During a lightning storm, the inside of your home or office is the safest place to be — but you still need to practice precaution, says VanSickle. Don't touch anything that can conduct electricity, such as:

  • Electrical appliances
  • Metal surfaces, such as a sliding door
  • Anything connected to your plumbing system
  • Anything served by gas lines, such as water heaters, ovens, furnaces and fireplaces

Take action in an emergency

"Lightning travels at 90,000 miles per second in air," says VanSickle. "The time it spends on or in your home is measured in micro-seconds, so when you know you've been struck — it's gone." Following a damaging strike, VanSickle recommends inspecting the roof and attic areas to ensure there isn't a fire above your smoke detectors. Then check utility rooms to see that there isn't a problem with water, gas, or electrical system components. "Just be aware that the lightning could have followed metal systems concealed in walls, the attic, under floors, etc., and there is a potential for a leak or a smoldering fire concealed from view," he says.

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