Despite Fierce Lightning Strikes, Few Homes Have Lightning Rods

This Chaparral Pines home was consumed by a lightning-caused fire July 22.

This Chaparral Pines home was consumed by a lightning-caused fire July 22. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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This Chaparral Pines home was consumed by a lightning-caused fire July 22.

Lightning strikes destroy several Rim Country homes every year, and although Rim Country remains one of the most lightning-prone places in the world — few homeowners have lightning rods and no towns require the protective devices, a Payson Roundup investigation has revealed.

The toll this year has proved especially frightening.

On July 22 in Chaparral Pines, lightning struck a towering pine, jumped to an adjoining house and caused a fire that utterly consumed the structure.

On July 31, a bolt of lightning struck a home near the airpark, leaving a charred hole in the roof’s gable.

On the same day, lightning struck another Payson home, leaving no visible scar. However, the strike traveled through the home’s wiring and plumbing, damaged a handful of electronics and ruptured a small hole in a gas line. The resulting leak could have destroyed the home, but an NPG Cable technician smelled gas and called for help.

Despite the routine destruction of homes in Rim Country, no jurisdictions require lightning rods in new construction when it’s relatively inexpensive to install — and few homeowners have made the investment in retrofitting, which can cost $1 a square foot, depending on the home’s layout.

Kevin Morris, owner of Classic Lightning Protection, Inc., said a lightning rods system can sharply reduce the damage from a lightning strike.

Payson Fire Marshal Bob Lockhart said while he cannot endorse the use of lightning rods, if the Chaparral Pines home had a lighting protection system installed according to code, “there is a good likelihood it would have been a whole different story.”

Every year, fire departments across the country respond to an estimated 7,850 lightning caused fires, according to the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA).

From 2002 to 2005, lightning fires caused an estimated 12 civilian deaths, 57 civilian injuries and $213 million in direct property damage per year.

Protection

Lightning rods have been around for hundreds of years. Benjamin Franklin first invented lightning rods in 1749. Franklin discovered that if he grounded an iron rod sharpened to a point with a wire, this gave lightning a path to follow, often away from a structure.

Today, Franklin’s invention has developed into a specialized field of lightning protection.

Using Franklin’s basic finding that lightning looks for the least path of resistance to ground, a lightning protection system provides lightning a path to travel that avoids damage, Morris explained. A lightning protection system is not designated to attract or repel lightning, but simply guide it safely to ground.

Morris, who is licensed and follows the NFPA 780 code for installation, said installing lightning rods is not as simple as it sounds.

“It is well established that properly in­stalled and maintained conventional structural lightning protection systems (LPS) based on Franklin’s methods significantly decrease lightning damage. However, the installation of such a system in conformance with NFPA 780 is not a simple matter. Proper procedures must be followed for the protection to be effective,” according to the American Meteorological Society.

Based on a roof’s pitch, number of chimneys and air ducts, each system is different. The basic parts of an LPS involve lightning rods or air terminals connected together with specialized lightning cable or conductors that dissipates the lightning’s charge into ground terminations or metal rods driven into the ground. In addition, to protect electronics and wiring, surge arrestors and suppressors are installed within a home.

“You cannot just throw up one rod and some cables,” he said.

Morris admitted there are skeptics who question whether an LPS works. Morris said he has worked on hundreds of commercial and residential properties including for Raytheon, one of the largest defense contractors. Recently, Morris went to Raytheon’s Tucson plant and worked for weeks on certifying their LPS.

“Do you think they would spend all that money if they didn’t work?” he said. “So they do work.”

Morris said he sees most of his clients after their homes have been struck.

One woman who lives near the Chaparral Pines home that recently burned to the ground, said after witnessing that, she is going to get a system.

Every year, Lockhart estimates lightning starts at least two home fires in the Rim Country. Dozens more homes are struck, but never reported because a fire does not start. One woman said she lost a handful of telephones and her TV was blown out after the July 31 monsoonal storm.

While some strikes are hot enough to start a fire, others travel through a homes plumbing and wiring, destroying expensive electronics and appliances, Morris said.

While a homeowner may buy an LPS to protect their investments, Morris said it is also an investment in personal safety.

“My main goal is to educate people and protect them,” he said. “The system hasn’t changed a lot from Franklin. The industry is growing because people are finally getting educated.”

Myths

A number of myths plague the lightning protection business, Morris said.

The first myth is that having tall trees around a home will protect it from lightning strikes. Morris said while lightning is often attracted to tall objects, this is not a guarantee for protection. Lightning strikes everywhere and is unpredictable.

The second myth is that lightning does not strike the same object twice.

Morris said he knows of homes that have been hit two or three times in the same location and every year, tall buildings like the Empire State Building are hit multiple times.

Another myth is that a surge protection strip will protect a home’s electronics. Morris said most strips are “fairly inadequate” but are better than nothing.

When lightning hits a pole or a home, a surge can travel long distances and enter a home through phone, electric or coaxial wiring, and a surge protector does nothing to stop this.

“Surge protectors do not protect against direct lightning strikes,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admini­stration.

Finally, some homeowners think since their home has a ground wire, the home is safe from surges. Morris said a ground wire has nothing to do with lightning protection and is installed by a contractor to prevent electrical shocks.

The cost for an LPS varies, but Morris estimates for a 2,000-square-foot home, it starts at $1 a square foot, with some insurance companies offering a 1 percent discount.

Morris holds a license with the state of Arizona, is a certified master installer and designer with the Lightning Protection Insti­tute and is a UL-listed installer.

Protect yourself

Follow the guidelines below to protect yourself from lightning.

• Unplug appliances and other electrical items, such as computers. If you unable to unplug them, turn them off.

• If thunder follows lightning by less than 30 seconds, the storm is within six miles, then take cover and wait for 30 minutes after the last lightning flash before leaving.

• If you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance of lightning.

• Stop outdoor activities at the first clap of thunder and get inside a house, large building or a hard-topped vehicle.

• When inside, stay off corded phones, computers, and other electronic equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity or plumbing. Avoid washing your hands, showering, bathing, doing laundry or washing dishes.

• If you are in open water, go to land and seek shelter immediately.

• If you feel your hair stand on end, indicating that lightning is about to strike, squat low to the ground on the balls of your feet. Place your hands over your ears and your head between your knees. Make yourself the smallest target possible.

• If a person is struck by lightning, call 911 and get medical care immediately.

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