Country Home Lightning Safety: How to Prepare Yourself and Your Electrical Systems

Reduce the chance of electrical damage to the people, animals, and buildings on your country property during a lightning storm by following these guidelines.

| April/May 1992

A good many years ago, when I was new to country living, I was talking on the phone—handset tucked between ear, chin, and shoulder—while replacing a washer on the kitchen faucet. It was drizzling outside, and I could hear occasional distant thunder but saw no lightning. Suddenly I felt a snap! in my ear and fell back, stunned. I never heard the thunderclap or saw the lightning bolt that must have hit the phone line miles away before seeking the best route to ground—my open phone line, literally an arm's length away from a wet iron sink.

My outer ear was singed, but not severely. Had the bolt been nearer or stronger, I could have been injured or even killed. There was no damage to the old-style Bell telephone, either, but a modern electronic telephone could have had its delicate chip-innards fried.

In 1990 (a typical year), 72 people were killed and 252 injured by lightning in the United States. The number of livestock and buildings lost nationwide isn't tabulated, but is substantially higher. And the solid-state electronic devices damaged by transients, spikes, and surges from lightning and other sources in the power and telephone lines are more numerous still.

Most of these losses could have been avoided. Here's how you can reduce the chance of electrical damage to the people, animals, and buildings on your property.

Electricity Basics

As we all learned in school—then promptly forgot—electrical current is a stream of free electrons: negatively charged (-) atomic particles moving at light speed toward a positively charged (+) ground. The volume of a current is measured in amperes (amps), the energy behind it in volts. (Yes, fellow electronics buffs, we could get into AC/DC, potential, load, and more technology, but it isn't relevant here.) What is important is that damage can be caused by a few amps of 110-volt house current—to say nothing of a lightning bolt that can develop up to 200,000 amps at 100 million or more volts.

Lightning occurs when violent winds inside clouds separate (-) and (+) charged air particles into layers (the (+)s on top of the cloud and the (-)s at bottom), with a corresponding (+) layer along the ground. When enough (-) charges accumulate, they will arc through as much as a mile of (nonconducting) air. Ka-pow! You have lightning, which will ground out on the highest conductor: a tree, building, or a horse or person standing in the open. And yes, you may have seen lightning streak upward. Often a lofty object such as a church steeple or tree will act as a "ladder," sending the (+) ground charge up to meet the (-) charge coming down from the clouds.

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