Predicting the Unpredictable? Lightning Safety

lightning strike

Do you see that fire in the sky? Yes, that quick bright flash followed by the low rumbling growl or the GIANT earth shaking BOOM. You may have found yourself in the middle of a thunderstorm!

Did you know that lightning is one of the leading causes of weather related death or injury in the U.S.? Or that you can be struck by lightning when there are blue skies overhead and the storm is up to ten miles away! Those fancy rubber soled shoes won’t protect you if lightning decides to ruin your day and don’t even think about calling your friends during a storm! If you have the unlucky chance of being stuck outside during one of Mother Nature’s magnificent events please stay away from tall trees and bodies of water.

Here are some lightning flash facts:

  • The earth is, on average, struck by lightning 100 times per second
  • Lightning is not confined to thunderstorms. It's been seen in volcanic eruptions, extreme forest fires, heavy snowstorms, and in large hurricanes
  • Talking on the telephone is the leading cause of lightning related injuries inside the home. In fact, all electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, metal doors and windows can conduct electricity and should be avoided during a storm
  • One lightning bolt can reach temperatures up to 50,000 degrees F. and be as fast as 1/3 the speed of light
  • Taking shelter under a tree during a storm is the second leading cause of lightning casualties (tree=20% moisture, human=65% moisture-- path of least resistance=tag you’re it!)

Lightning is a random and unpredictable event but even you can stay safe during a storm. Let’s be clear that NO PLACE outside during a storm is safe! Once you hear that familiar boom or catch a flash from the corner of your eye, move to a safe shelter as quickly as possible. Use the flash/bang technique (yes that is really what they call it) where when you see a flash of lightning start counting one-two-three until you hear the boom. For every count of five seconds from seeing the flash and hearing the associated thunder it is one mile away. With this technique you are able to tell how far the storm is from you. Remember if you can count to 30 seconds or less you are still in the danger zone and should stay inside.

lightning strike

Lightning safety tips:

  • Your house or any substantial building offers the best protection from lighting
  • Your car is the next best option due to the metal roof not the tires, but don’t touch the doors which can conduct electricity
  • Always avoid being the highest object anywhere!
  • Avoid any appliances or equipment that runs off of electricity or the plumbing in your house which can carry an electrical current
  • Concrete floors and walls are unsafe because of the metal mesh used to form them
  • A shelter that does not contain plumbing or wiring throughout or some other mechanism for grounding from the roof to ground is not safe
  • If a person is struck by lightning medical care may be needed immediately. People will not continue to be electrified after they have been struck

So how do we protect our homes?

There are three main ways lightning enters homes and buildings: a direct strike, through wires or pipes that extend outside the structure and into the ground. Regardless of the method of entrance, once in a structure, the lightning can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing, and radio or television reception systems. Lightning can also travel through any metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring.

Lightning rods are a great way to protect your home or tall structures. Originally developed by Ben Franklin, it is a pointed metal rod that is attached to the roof of the building. The rod has a copper or aluminum wire that runs down from the building and is connected to a grid buried in the ground. It is a common misconception that lightning rods “attract” lightning. They are a low resistance path to the ground, that when struck, attempts to bring the current safely to the ground and away from the structure.

Surge protectors are another way to help save your electronic devices but are not designed as a full proof method by itself. A surge protector (or surge suppressor) is an appliance or device designed to protect electrical devices from voltage spikes. A surge protector attempts to limit the voltage supplied to an electric device by either blocking or shorting to ground any unwanted voltages above a safe threshold. While full-fledged lightning protection systems with rods, cables and solid grounding often provide a good degree of defense against a direct strike, they cannot absolutely guarantee against damage to electronics and computers. For any system to provide true 100% protection, it must divert close to 100% of the lightning current from a direct strike every time - no easy task. Even if plumbing & electrical devices are unplugged lightning can flash across air gaps and connect them.

Just remember, when the thunder roars, go indoors.

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