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Lightning Protection Systems and Their


Damage Prevention

(Getty, 2018)

The National Weather Service


Zachary Gadoury
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Contents

Contents…………………………………………………………………………………... 2

Abstract…………………………………………………………………………………… 3

Lightening………………………………………………………………………………… 3

How it works…………………………………………………………………..... 3

Lightning Causes Structure Damage………………………………………………... 5

Lightning Protection Systems Protect Structures……………………………....... 6

What is a lightning protection system…………………………………… 6

Construction Materials and Cost…………………………………………… 7

Ohm’s Law………………………………………………………………………. 8

Conclusion……………………………………………………………………………… 9

References……………………………………………………………………………… 10

Figures

Figure 1…………………………………………………………………………………… 5

Figure 2…………………………………………………………………………………… 8
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Abstract

A thunderstorm is created when a cloud becomes negatively charged at its bottom and
positively charged at its top. As the cloud increases its separation in charge, it becomes
more likely to release its charge to the ground in the form of lightning. Once the cloud
builds enough charge, it creates a conductive path through the air and releases a bolt of
lightning with enough force to shatter buildings and leave a wake of destruction.
Lightning protection systems offer the best protection for a house against the
destructive force of lightning. Composed of rods and wires, this system absorbs the
force of the lightning by giving it a path of least resistance and grounding it deep in the
earth’s surface.
By taking the force of the lightning, the lightning protection system grounds the
electricity produced by the storm. This allows the electricity to bypass the important
parts of the house along the wires and rods, saving the building from damage and the
occupants from potential danger.

Lightning

How it works

On the surface lightning is an incredible spectacle to behold; however, how lightning is


created can be considered fairly complicated. Most people understand that lightning is
an electric charge that is released from clouds, but how those clouds become charged
is not common knowledge. Before understanding how lightning forms, first one must
have an understanding of the water cycle. Water on the face of the earth evaporates,
once free of the earth’s surface, the water rises into the atmosphere. The vapor formed
by evaporation moves from a higher temperature area, close to the earth surface, to a
lower temperature area, the atmosphere. As the vapor rises higher, the temperature
becomes much lower and eventually the vapor condenses into a liquid state. Once
enough vapor has condensed, gravity pulls the liquid back down to earth in the form of
rain, snow, or hail in some cases, completing the water cycle ( Zavisa, 2000).
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An electrical storm has clouds that are charged like capacitors. The upper part of the
cloud is positively charged, and the lower part of the cloud is negatively charged.
Scientists often disagree on exactly how these clouds get their charge, but one
plausible theory suggests that during the process of the water cycle, when the water
has condensed from a vapor back into a liquid in the form of clouds, the newly formed
liquid and ice collide with one another, when this happens electrons are knocked off the
atoms that make up the water molecules and create a charge separation. The newly
freed electrons gather at the lower portion of the cloud and give it the negative charge;
the moisture that has lost the electron will move to the top of the cloud creating
positively charged area. Freezing also plays an important role in the charging of a cloud.
As the water continues to collide with frozen droplets of water, this can cause an
extreme charge separation, which can ultimately lead to a lightning strike (Zavisa,
2000).
Clouds are only half of the equation that ultimately creates lightning. The second is the
ground where it strikes. When charge separation happens, an electric field is also
created. This field is directly related to the amount of charge that has been built up by
the constant freezing and collision of the condensed water in the cloud. The electric field
becomes so intense that the electrons on the surface of the earth start to repel deeper
into the crust. This causes the surface of the earth to become strongly positively
charged. Once this occurs, the last thing that is needed is a conductive path for the
lightning to connect the cloud’s bottom, negative charge, and the surface’s positive
charge (Zavisa, 2000).
The electric field of the cloud causes its surrounding air to “break down” and become a
plasma, a state of matter somewhere between liquid and gas. This allows a current to
flow from the cloud in an attempt to neutralize the charge separation. This pathway
created by the breakdown acts as a conductive rod that connects the cloud to the earth
(Zavisa, 2000). The initial electrical charge that accomplishes the breakdown is called
the leader. This is accomplished with a concentrated charge that the head of the leader.
This produces an even stronger electrical field than the cloud, then the leader
discharges allowing the leader to move forward. The path of the leader is never straight.
In fact, it follows a series of jumps called steps. This is what causes the forks in a
lightning strike. When lightning strikes the ground, it is possible to see a stream of light,
or plasma, ascending from the object it is about to strike (See Figure 1 Below).
Lightning is often thought to start from the clouds and strike down, but the contrary is
true. It starts from the ground and meets the clouds lightning release somewhere in the
atmosphere (Dwyer, 2005).
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(Figure 1, Robinson)

Lightning Causes structure damage

Lightning is one of nature’s most beautiful sights, but it can also be one of its most
dangerous. With a temperature at 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit and enough force to
create a shock wave that can be heard, and sometimes felt, for miles around, it can be
a deadly force. (Dwyer, 2005) The path of lightning is unpredictable so the likelihood of
lightning striking a house or a building is fairly high. Without proper protection, this can
cause tremendous damage, and sometimes even death. After striking, lightning will
often branch off into multiple paths to find a ground. When lightning jumps from one
ground to another it’s called a side flash. It may strike a nearby power line, and then
jump to the gutters and then branch into other parts of the home such as wall outlets or
water pipes. Lightning has three main hazards when striking a house or building
directly. The first and biggest danger are fire hazards. A house is composed of many
flammable materials and can quickly be ignited by exposure to the charge of a lightning
strike. Often a fire will start in the attic and may not even be noticed at first. The second
hazard is power surge damage. If lightning follows the path of electrical wiring it can
cause a large amount of damage to electronics and even non electronics that are within
range of the charge. The third hazard is shockwave damage. Lightning has been known
to fracture concrete or brick with just its shockwaves. The shockwave can blow out
plaster walls and even produce shrapnel that can embed itself in walls or worse, people.
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Although it is safer to be inside a house or building during a storm, it does not


completely erase the danger of a lightning strike (Dwyer, 2005).
Lightning causes millions of dollars a year in damages. With a rise in insurance claims
from lightning strikes in the U.S., more than 825 million dollars was paid out in 2016
(Insurance Information Institute). From 2007 to 2011 local fire departments in the US
responded to an average of 22,600 fires a year, the cause being tracked back to
lightning. These fires caused an average of 9 deaths a year and an estimated 451
million dollars in property damage. On average lightning causes 120 injuries a year, with
a death count of about 38 (Insurance Information Institute).

Lightning Protection Systems Protect Structures

What is a Lightning Protection System

A lightning protection system is the only way to safe guard a house from the dangers of
lightning. A lightning protection system is a collection of rods, conductor cables, and
grounding rods that help protect a building from lightning strike damage. This works by
giving the lightning a path of least resistance path to a ground, away from important
parts of the house. The lightning strikes a rod, follows a path down heavy conductive
cables, and then grounds with a very thick rod buried into the earth. The most important
part of these systems are the conductor cable and ground rods. These are the key to
accomplishing the systems objective of grounding the lightning’s energy. The lightning
rods themselves don’t play too much of a part in grounding the lightning. It’s important
to remember what lightning protection systems DON’T do: They do not attract lightning,
this means that it will not give your house a greater chance of being struck by the
lightning, but if it does strike it will hit the protection system, they do not and cannot
“drain” a storm of its charge (other than the natural drain that comes from a lightning
strike), they don’t offer surge protection for electronics. They do provide fire protection
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and structural damage protection by preventing explosive lightning from channeling


through building materials. It’s important to remember that not even the most expensive
lightning protection systems can provide a 100% protection against a lightning strike.

Construction Materials and Cost

The construction of a lightning protection system has five main elements. It contains a
strike termination device, which must be conductive and steady enough to be struck
directly by the lightning, and be designed to accept this strike before it reaches the
building materials of the house. It also contains cable conductors, which route the
lightning around and sometimes through construction without damaging it, the
grounding electrode system, which must move the electricity to its final destination
without damaging the structure. The bonding, which must connect the parts of the
protection system, these must eliminate the possibility of a side flash. Finally, surge
protection devices, which are installed to stop lightning from entering through utility
lines. These materials must be very conductive, but also resistant to erosion and
decomposition. Copper and copper alloys and aluminum are the general composition of
these systems; they provide the best combination of function for current carrying and
provide the most resistance to weathering and ware (Lightning Protection Institute). The
cost of these systems varies based on the materials used. The estimate for materials
and labor for instillation is between $2,000 and $4,000. Using copper components will
typically cost more, as aluminum is cheaper than copper (Home Advisor). A system,
with proper maintenance, will typically last upwards of 50 years (Lightning Protection
Institute). With the average cost per claim of $8,000, an average of $3,000 for protection
for 50 years, and the security a system provides, is an ideal trade. Below is an image of
a lightning protection blueprint.
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(Figure 2, National Ag

Ohm’s Law

Ohm’s law states that for a set of resistances connected in parallel, the current will be
distributed across all resistances. This means that the electricity will discharge along
everything in its path to some extent. This includes phone lines, water pipes, etc.
Imagine a lightning strike, typically reaching about 100,000 amperes, hits a house. If a
lightning strike takes the force of 99.9% of the lightning that means only 100 amperes
are loose. That is essentially 0.1% of the possible damage caused by lightning without a
protection system. This collection of wires and rods provides a much safer structure
during a lightning storm by giving the electricity a path of least resistance and grounding
it below the house where it no longer causes a danger to harming the structure or the
occupants.

Conclusion

At 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit and enough shockwave force to tear apart buildings
lighting is one of the most incredible and destructive forces this planet has to offer,
structures need all the help they can get to prevent destruction and possibly lives. A
lightning protection system is the only option to help prevent these outcomes. With the
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average cost of repairs from lightning damage exceeding $8,000, the $2,000 to $4,000
cost of protection for 50 years is the obvious option. Creating a standard of lightning
protection systems could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year in damage and
even prevent death.
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References

Zavisa, J. ( 2000, April 1). How Lightning Works. How Stuff Works. Retrieved from
https://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/lightning.htm

Government of Canada. (2018, June 28). How lightning works. Government of Canada.
Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-
change/services/lightning/science/how-lightning-works.html

Dwyer, J. (2005, October, 1). How lightning works. PBS. Retrieved from
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/earth/how-lightning-works.html

Robinson, Dan. N.d. What happens when lightning strikes a house? Retrieved from
http://stormhighway.com/what_happens_when_lightning_strikes_a_house.php

Insurance Information Institute. (n.d.). Facts + Statistics: Lightning. Insurance


Information Institute. Retrieved from https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-
lightning

Northeast Lightning Protection LLC. (n.d.). What Type of Damage can Lightning Cause?
Northeast Lightning Protection LLC. Retrieved from
http://www.northeastlightning.com/what-type-of-damage-can-lightning-cause-to-a-home-
or-building/

Elsorn, D. M. (2015). Lightning: Nature and Culture (Earth). Sporles, C.A. American
Library Association.

Lightning Protection Institute. (2018). Lightning Protection Overview. Lightning


Protection Institute. Retrieved from https://lightning.org/lightning-protection-overview/
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National Ag. (n.d.) Lightning Protection System for a barn with silo. Picture. Retrieved
from
https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKE
wiW5JO87KvcAhUBMd8KHSZQD_UQjRx6BAgBEAU&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.life
withgracebook.com%2Fhouse-lightning-
protection.html&psig=AOvVaw0RSwnJ8mFOItlO1Ax_4p04&ust=1532113168798356

Getty F. (2018). Lightning Strike. Picture. Retrieved from


https://www.google.com/search?q=lightning+strike&rlz=1C1GCEA_enUS806US806&so
urce=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjViIWo-
KbcAhWSct8KHQbgDGkQ_AUIDCgD&biw=1920&bih=974#imgrc=rOSOXmL11CGVbM

Storm Highway. (2014). West Virginia tower Lightning Strike. Picture. Retrieved from
https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKE
wi484eu9qvcAhUHPN8KHbAgDPAQjRx6BAgBEAU&url=http%3A%2F%2Fstormhighwa
y.com%2Fjune142005.php&psig=AOvVaw2FajpQ54u0-
9ywggFHIAMm&ust=1532115812058879