What You Need to Know About Lightning
By Diane Tait
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Living in Florida means dealing with thunderstorms on an almost daily basis in the summer. It also means there’s the potential for an electrical storm in the Sunshine State year-round. While the odds of being struck by lightning are low since most people seek shelter when thunder begins to rumble, the same can’t be said for our homes. In the US, Florida leads the nation in the number of lightning strikes and damage caused. A typical year sees $4-5 billion in lightning damage claims in Florida. That also makes it the highest amount for any State in the Union.
It’s little wonder why lightning can do so much damage so quickly. The average bolt is five times hotter than the surface of the sun, packing up to 1 billion volts delivered at a speed of 200,000 miles per hour. It can also strike from as far as 10 miles away from the cloud that spawned it. That kind of power has been known to cut towering trees in half or cause tree limbs to explode.
The way lightning strikes is different than most people believe. A cloud-to-ground bolt typically starts at the base of a storm cloud. While it may look to an observer as though lightning goes straight from the cloud to the earth, its true path is a little more complicated. Before a bolt can strike, it needs to work its way step by step down a series of 150-foot negatively charged stepped leaders. When these step leaders work their way to within 150 feet of the ground, it seeks a positively charged streamer emanating from the ground. Once the two connect, the negative charge streaks down to the ground, creating the lightning bolt and unleashing the force of a bomb.
Anything that takes a direct hit from a lightning bolt has to endure the heat and electrical charge produced. Such high voltage is applied that anyone or anything in the vicinity of a strike can be subject to electrocution. That’s why it isn’t safe to seek shelter under a tree in an electrical storm. If the tree gets hit, even if you don’t take a direct hit, the charge traveling down the tree into the ground is still powerful enough to harm or kill anyone up to 50-feet away.
Another myth is that cars won’t get hit because the rubber in their tires insulates them from a ground strike. While most cars (with the exception of convertibles) are adequate shelter from an electrical storm, it has nothing to do with the tires. The electricity will simply go around the passengers to the ground through the vehicle’s metal body. The only way you can get electrocuted if your car is hit by lightning is if you happen to have your foot hanging out the door touching the ground.
Can Lightning Hit You Inside Your Home?
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Since a car protects you from being struck by lightning, doesn’t the same fact hold true if you’re inside your home? That depends. While the bolt won’t strike you directly, you could still get electrocuted if you touch anything conductive, such as pipes or wiring. Just like a tree, your home can and will conduct the electrical charge that lightning carries into the ground. This holds true as well for the wires leading to the power pole, your cable TV box, telephone pole and/or satellite dish. In short, anything conductive that leads from outside to the interior of your home is a potential electrocution hazard.
If your home should take a direct hit, the bolt can do everything from set fire to your roof to melting the wiring in your walls. Thermal shock like this occurs because to go to ground, lightning bolts will sometimes pass through non-conductive material (such as roof shingles) to reach conductive material such as electrical wiring or metal pipes. While brief, the heat produced by a direct hit is more than enough to burn up wiring or torch anything combustible that comes in contact with the affected circuit.
The second hazard to your home comes in the form of an electrical surge. Whether a direct hit or not, should lightning course through your house’s electrical system, the power surge can damage or destroy anything plugged into it. Even if the bulk of the electricity takes another path to ground other than your home’s wiring, the electrical system in your home can still take enough of a jolt to damage any appliance plugged into it. While your homeowner’s policy will cover most of the damage, a better solution is to mitigate the damage a power surge can cause.
Better Safe Than Sorry
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1. Protect yourself by avoiding contact with anything that can carry a charge during an electrical storm. This includes avoiding bathing or doing the dishes. (This isn’t an old wives’ tale since 10-20 people in the US are injured in this way every year.) You also should avoid touching electronics or leaning against anything made of metal that’s attached to your home until the storm has passed.
2. When you hear a storm approaching, unplug all your electronics, including computers, televisions, sound systems, and kitchen appliances. (I once had an expensive pasta maker get fried because I left it plugged in during a storm.)
3. Better still, install surge suppressors designed to take a lightning strike. While individual surge protectors that plug directly into such things as computers are better than nothing, a far better approach is to invest in a whole house surge suppressor. These units are not only designed to protect your home’s entire electrical grid; the better ones even come with an added warranty that pays you should any of your appliances succumb to a surge.
4. If you have any tall trees in your yard, it might pay to have them protected from a lightning strike as well. Not only can it save you from having to cut a tree down should it get struck, it can also protect you from what is known as side-flash, which is a phenomenon that can happen both indoors and out when a direct hit occurs. Side flash happens when part of the charge arcs through the air. Anything or anyone in its path can wind up getting electrocuted even though they weren’t in the direct path of the lightning strike.
If you’re really serious about protecting you and yours from lightning, the best advice I can give you is to talk to a local electrical contractor. An electrician can show you how to best protect your property and your family from a bolt from the blue.
Diane Tait owns and operates A&B Insurance. To find out more about how you can save money on your homeowner's insurance policy, go to or fill out the form at right.