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Detailed Information About Lightning Rod Systems

   Some experts state that lightning strikes the earth fifty times every second, others say one hundred strikes per second. Some U.S. insurance industry representatives say one billion dollars in damage is caused by lightning each year, while others claim several billions of dollars in damage annually from lightning. A typical lightning bolt contains 25,000 amps of current, but some have been measured to contain 400,000 amps of explosive energy. While "facts" and figures vary from source to source, they all support the truth that lightning is an awesome force that is more widespread than most people realize, but is the only natural destructive force that we can protect ourselves from at reasonable cost.

   As for who needs lightning protection, there is no simple answer. Tall structures, buildings with a large footprint, and buildings located on hills, near water, or in open fields are well known to be at high risk for a direct lightning strike. On the other hand, many buildings in low-lying areas get struck, and nearly every building will receive damage from surges produced by nearby strikes. Many buildings have survived decades of thunderstorms, only to burn to the ground after being struck the first time. A properly installed lightning rod system will provide many years of peace-of-mind and prevention of damage to electronic equipment, while being always ready for a potentially devastating direct strike.

   Only about one third of lightning is from cloud to ground, with two thirds being from cloud to cloud. Cloud to cloud lightning is a hazard for planes, which is why planes have lightning rods. Since heavy storm clouds hang relatively low, buildings located at high altitudes can have lightning from all directions. Lightning begins in the clouds when winds churn ice crystals, producing static electricity. The electricity in the clouds attracts an opposite charge from the earth. This charge in the ground sends "leaders" toward the cloud charge. These leaders are what cause your hair to stand up (the last warning you'll get) and are the reason that lightning is considered to go from earth to sky. The lightning bolt you see is the "return stroke". A lightning rod system provides a safe path for the upward leaders, and then the return strokes.

One of several conductive concrete grounding electrodes for a communication tower.
  The grounding system provides a low resistance connection to the earth. Northeastern U.S. soils are some of the most difficult to work with. Granite bedrock, shale, gravel backfill (where most electrical system ground rods are driven), and most sand is of very high resistance. High current lightning on a ground rod in sand can cause the rod to be coated with glass, creating even more resistance. Wet clay is ideal for grounding, but is not a material you want near the foundation of your building. Soils can be tested for the design of a grounding system and the completed system can be tested to assure that it will be effective. Foundations in holes blasted from rock can be grounded with a cable that encircles the foundation (counterpoise), providing a cost-effective solution if planned before construction, or added later with narrow trenching machines and hand trenching. Copper plates, deep sectional rods, chemical grounds, conductive concrete, and other methods can also be used for various conditions. Keep in mind that surge suppressors connected to a poor grounding system are of little, if any, value.

Counterpoise grounding cables encircle this foundation built in hole blasted from ledge.
  Cables can be neatly attached to less noticeable exterior areas of finished buildings, in attics, under shingles, or completely concealed during construction. Chimney cables can be concealed in the exterior portions of chimneys during construction. Flat strip or solid rod conductors are sometimes used. Copper cables can be tinned or lead coated for certain applications, and other circumstances require aluminum materials. Codes and installation standards dictate how conductors must be installed, allowable bends, and other restrictions. Acid rain can exacerbate galvanic reactions between dissimilar metals and must be considered to prevent corrosion.

  Bonding of metal building components, water and gas piping systems, and other grounding systems within and near a protected building prevents "sideflash" and allows control of the lightning energy until it is safely dissipated in the earth.

Here, replicas of the Lake Sunapee lighthouse are used as lightning rods on the 2nd-floor deck of a Lake Sunapee home.
  Lightning rods (also called air terminals) must be mounted in locations determined by codes and architectural considerations. A typical rod is only ten inches high, but decorative finials, and the older style tripods and glass balls are also available. Protection for lower areas can often be accomplished by placing rods at higher, less noticeable locations. Rods needed in areas with traffic can be disguised as architectural elements, such as the lighthouse lightning rods shown here. Weathervanes can be adapted for use as lightning rods, and Priestley has made many custom lightning rods and weathervanes for customers from copper, brass, bronze, and stainless steel. Some are shown below.
Church weathervane apx. 5' x 9' high.

  Surge suppressors are a critical component of lightning protection systems, but are ignored by many installers. Now, even the organizations that inspect and certify lightning rod systems will provide certification of the system while ignoring the need for surge protection. All wires that enter a building can provide paths for lightning. Wires between buildings can create additional problems by creating "ground loops". Some examples of cables that require protection include those which connect to power, telephone, cable TV, satellite dishes, antennas, irrigation controls, electric gates, wells, fire pumps, surveilance cameras, landscape lighting, remote outdoor receptacles, swimming pools, and generators. Automatic transfer switches for generators often require additional protection as they won't be protected by a suppressor on the main panel. The need for plug-in suppressors and uninterruptible power supplies should also be considered.

   Trees are considered by some as offering protection from lightning, but this theory is poorly thought out. Softwood trees often explode into piles of splinters, while hardwoods often split. If the tree is near a building, the lightning often "sideflashes" to the building, the tree could fall on the building, or at the very least, a beautiful tree that required many years to grow will die, requiring expensive removal. Valuable trees can be protected, and in fact, the NFPA-780 Lightning Protection Standard recommends protecting any tree within ten feet of a protected building. Valuable trees located anywhere on the property should be considered as candidates for protection. Also consider that trees make dangerous supports for metal clothesline cables and dog runs that connect to the house. A direct strike to the tree will follow the cable to the house, and even nearby strikes will induce a charge into the cable that will be immediately felt by any dog unfortunate enough to be connected to the run.

  When considering protection of trees, consumers should be aware of recent maneuvers by a member of the tree industry that resulted in changes to NFPA-780 (2014 edition). Protection of trees is in the Annex of the Standard, and therefore subject to less scrutiny. To make a long story short: Tree service companies are now offering to install a single tiny wire (one-quarter to one-half the size of typical main conductor cable) way up into the canopy of trees, calling it lightning protection, and some are even claiming it will protect nearby buildings. Buyer beware.

  Certification by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) of all systems installed by Priestley Lightning Protection was included in pricing for the first 22 years in business, then the steadily increasing cost suddenly quadrupled and a certification expiration feature was added. Certification is now offered as an option and the decision to purchase the certification can be made after installation, so you will know the system is certifiable. Some insurance companies offer a small discount on homeowner’s insurance for having lightning rods, but then usually require certification.

  When UL quadrupled their fees, the Lightning Protection Institute decided to get into the game and offer "better" certifications, which expire in three years instead of UL’s five years. (Updating your lightning rods is very important when changes are made to the protected structure, but recertifying every 3 or 5 years is a very expensive way to pay attention to building maintenance needs.) Unfortunately, both UL and LPI offer certifications that "exempt" (ignore) the required and essential surge protection part of the installation standards, and most certifications issued are with surge exemptions. A few years back, UL decided weathervanes could not be used as lightning rods, but will happily issue a certification that exempts the weathervane. In addition to the absurdities described above, most systems installed by Priestley are concealed within the structure, so "inspecting" every 3-5 years would involve little work on the part of the inspector, but still cost the same. America’s obsession with (often meaningless) guarantees and certifications has created a lucrative industry to which no product or service is immune.

  At this time, inspection/certification of systems by UL is offered, if desired. Certification by LPI is not offered. Priestley first entered the lightning protection industry through the LPI more than thirty years ago, became a Journeyman Installer, then Master Installer, ended membership during management upheaval, rejoined after new management and became a Master Installer/Designer, but is currently not a member of the LPI.

  Costs for lightning protection systems can vary widely depending on building size and complexity, soil around the building, volatile metal prices, and other factors. A rough cost can be obtained by multiplying the finished square foot area of a building by $2-$3. Firm quotes can be supplied if you send drawings and/or photos, or with a site visit.

  Consulting services are available to assess vulnerability to lightning damage for a particular building, solve existing lightning related problems, and propose options to prevent future problems. Cost would be determined by size of building/campus, electrical/electronic systems within the building(s), location, etc. Please contact Priestley by using the information available on the Contact page.

Custom copper light fixture made by Priestley - Apx. 24" diameter.

All pages copyright 2001-2016
except lightning image courtesy of NOAA