Do we need lightning rods?
3 June 2006
A. Lightning is a lethal phenomenon not to be taken lightly that you can count on to frequently act in strange and unpredictable ways. I've seen lightning protection on all sorts of buildings-- houses, barns, churches, schools-- even our new court house downtown sports lightning rods along the roof edge but around here it's rare to see them on dwellings. I regularly see old TV antennas up on roofs and chimneys of houses with no grounding wires whatsoever and those that do have grounding wires usually e mploy what looks to me like a very flimsy and thin strand of aluminum leading to a small metal stake in the ground. I highly doubt such a rig could ever stand up to a multi-million volt jolt from above. I point them out as being hazards in my opinion an d move on. As for the home's electrical system's grounding providing any protection, I've seen the entire wiring system of a house completely fried by a lightning bolt. Iíll bet the original owner of your house had a lightning story to tell that explain s the rods.
Lightning protection (rods and bases) can stress a roof system so I understand why the roofer may not like them. Roofers worry about leaks--not lightning.
Your question made me wonder to what degree are we at risk of life and limb from an electrical storm while hunkered down in our homes so I called the Center for Disease Control down in Atlanta to see what they knew. I know lightning isn't disease as most know it but those folks keep tabs on every sort of premature demise from illness to accident so I thought I'd ask. They patched me through to a fellow who answered " death statistics" as he picked up the phone and I asked him if he, or anyone else, cou ld tell me how many people perish inside of dwellings directly due to a lightning strike in a given year. He replied that they didn't keep such finely defined sets of data as that. We chatted for a few minutes and I told him that his not having that info rmation spoke volumes.
We all know that if you are caught out in the open the most dangerous thing you can do is get under a tree. One's greatest degree of survival is achieved by getting inside of a structure like a dwelling. I've heard of the dangers of using the phone or t he plumbing during an electrical storm. Iíve met people who have lost livestock and beloved pets to lightning strikes out in a pasture.
I asked an active duty firefighter who works in this area to guess how many emergency calls he responds to for lightning strikes on homes in the summer around here and all he could say was "a lot". I can recount about a half dozen close brushes with ligh tning in my lifetime.
I spoke with my insurance guy about the lightning question and he just threw up his hands. He wished he could require all of his policy holders to install lightning protection but any suggestion of that he's made over the years only got rolled eyes and deaf ears at the extra cost. After all, he says, people reason that that's what they pay insurance for. During the season-- which around here can run from April to October-- they get 3 to 5 lightning damage claims a week. Compare that with automobile cr ashes for both property damage and injury and lightning comes in the back of the statistics.
He mentioned that there are those who will claim lightning strikes to upgrade their electronics, microwaves and computers. Insurance companies now subscribe to a weather service that pin-points all lightning strikes in a given area during an "event" whic h will verify legitimate damage claims-- so be forewarned should temptation strike you.
Lightning rods-- whose technical name is "air-terminals"-- were invented by Ben Franklin and millions have been sold and installed since he proved their worth. The glass balls that you see on the older models reached a peak of popularity during the 1920' s but were decoration only-- they had no function. Fraudulent itinerants used to wander the countryside offering to "recharge" those balls for a fee. Many bought the service. Who said those guys who offered to Y2K-proof your home a few years ago were o riginal?
Out west in the mountains and on the high plains they take lightning protection much more seriously than they do around here.
If you're thinking about lightning protection consult a copy of Installation Requirements for Lightning Protection Systems by Underwriter's Laboratories (http://www.ipclp.com/downloads/LPSpecification_Steel.doc), 333 Pfingsten Rd., Northbrook IL 60062. Or Google lightning protection.
My own negative encounters with electricity inside houses have had more to do with wiring than weather. Not having lightning protection on homes locally seems to be a gamble that most people make and from time to time we read about the losers and silentl y thank our stars itís not us.