How to Protect Your Home Against Lightning Strikes

Learn to protect your home from lightning strikesMany homeowners never consider that their home could be struck by lightning, but a lightning strike can cause nightmarish problems. Not only can it cause extensive damage to your home, but it can also be dangerous to you and your family. In this blog post, we'll discuss how to protect your home against lightning strikes with modifications that can also increase home value. Stay safe, homeowners!

What Damage Can a Lightning Strike Cause?

A lightning bolt is a massive electrical discharge that can reach temperatures of up to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. When this powerful force strikes a house, it can understandably cause serious damage. 

A lightning strike can cause a house fire in several ways. A direct strike to the structure can ignite flammable materials such as wood or gasoline. In addition, a strike to power lines can cause an electrical surge that may start a fire. Even a nearby strike can produce enough heat to start a fire if there is enough combustible material present.

In addition, lightning can shatter windows, whether through the shock wave that causes thunder or the sudden overheating of a metal frame. Nonflammable materials such as concrete aren't necessarily safe, either—despite its strength as a structural material, the force of a lightning strike can cause concrete to fragment. Lightning strikes and their accompanying shockwaves have been known to damage foundations, crack brick and stone, destroy plaster walls, blow holes through roofs, and more.

Even if the lightning doesn't start a fire, you're still dealing with a massive amount of electricity being introduced to your home's electrical systems. It can overload and damage the home's electrical wiring, leading to a power outage and a need to re-wire extensive areas of the house. Additionally, it can damage any electronics or appliances that are plugged into the system, such as TVs, desktop computers, landline phones, electrical ovens, and anything on a charger.

Lightning can cause damage both directly and indirectly. Even if the main bolt doesn't hit your house, the electrical surge can still travel through the ground, groundwater, underground pipes and wiring, and other channels. Thus, the surge may threaten your home even if the strike occurs several miles away.

Installing a Lightning Protection System

Installing a Lightning Protection System (LPS) is a wise investment for any business or home. LPSs are designed to protect structures from the potentially devastating effects of a lightning strike. While the odds of being struck by lightning are relatively low, the consequences can be severe, making an LPS a wise precaution. An LPS typically consists of four main components: air terminals (also called lightning rods), down conductors, grounding electrodes, and surge protection devices. Sometimes, an LPS can even reduce your homeowners insurance. 

Air terminals are mounted on the highest point of a structure and intercept incoming lightning strikes. Conductors then carry the electrical current from the air terminals to the grounding electrodes, which are buried in the ground. Finally, surge protection devices help to protect sensitive electronic equipment from damage by redirecting any surplus current away. By installing an LPS, businesses and homeowners can help to protect their property from the damaging effects of lightning strikes.

It may come as a surprise to homeowners that LPSs aren't required by most national building codes, and most residential properties don't have them. An LPS is recommended for structures at particular risk, such as homes with tall chimneys or metal roofs and homes in lightning-prone areas. While metal roofs have many advantages, homeowners investing in a metal roof should put some thought into whether or not to install a lightning protection system.

Unplugging Devices During the Storm

Any device that is connected to an electrical outlet should be unplugged during a lightning storm. This includes televisions, computers, microwaves, and lamps. Although surge protectors can help minimize damage, they will not completely protect your electronics from a lightning strike. The sheer amount of electricity in a lightning strike ensures that no surge protection system can offer 100% protection for your devices.

If possible, you should also avoid using corded phones during a lightning storm. Lightning can travel through telephone wires and cause damage to your phone or the phone line. If you must use the phone, opt for a cordless or cell phone instead—but don't put them on a charger until at least 30 minutes after the storm has passed. Lighting can strike more than 10 miles away from its storm system, sometimes even up to 25 miles.

Does Turning Off a Device Protect It From A Lightning Strike?

The short answer is no. Turning a device off works by causing a small gap in the electrical circuit, and there's so much electricity in a lightning strike that it easily jumps the gap. From the lighting's perspective, there's essentially no difference between a device that's on and a device that's off.

Installing Transient Surge Protectors

Surge protectors work by taking the surge first, protecting the devices plugged into them at the expense of themselves. These come in two forms: transient surge protectors, often called power strips, and whole-house surge protection systems.

Power strips are relatively inexpensive and easy to use, and using them has multiple benefits. If all your devices are plugged into the strip, you only have one plug to pull when a storm is approaching. In the event of an unpredictable surge, your devices have a layer of initial defense.

However, power strips may not be effective in high-voltage situations, as these can cause them to fail before they successfully redirect all of the energy. Whole-house surge protectors are rated for much more intense power surges. These are typically wired directly into the home's service panel by a professional electrician.

The best method for using surge protectors is to use both transient and whole-house systems. While whole-house protectors are much tougher, some voltage may still leak through, and these smaller surges will be taken care of by the transient protectors. The best defense is still to unplug as much as possible completely, but in the event of unexpected strikes, downed power lines, or other large surges, a homeowner with an effective surge protection system won't be spending thousands of dollars to replace fried or damaged electronics.

What to Do For Devices You Can't Unplug During a Storm

Some devices just aren't practical to unplug during every thunderstorm. Dryers, washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators—the list goes on. Power strips aren't rated to protect these devices, either—even smaller appliances such as microwaves, toasters, and coffee machines are generally considered unsafe to plug into a power strip due to potential fire hazards of overloading the strip.

The best option to protect both your appliances and yourself during a thunderstorm is to install a whole-home surge protection system and avoid using devices you can't unplug for as long as the storm is ongoing.

How to Stay Safe Indoors During a Thunderstorm

Indoors is undoubtedly much safer than outdoors when lightning is a possibility, but you should take some safety precautions indoors, too. One of the most important things to remember is to not touch anything that readily conducts electricity. This includes electronic devices, cords, and bare metal but also includes less obvious materials such as:

  • Concrete: concrete floors and walls, such as in basements, garages, and foundations, often contain metal bars or wire skeletons for structural reinforcement, which lightning can easily travel through.
  • Plumbing: not only should you not take a shower or wash dishes, but touching any pipes puts you at risk of electricity being conducted through the metal and water. Plastic pipes are less of a risk, but the water still presents a potential danger.
  • Windows and doors: not only should you stay away from windows because of the risk of shattering glass, any metal in the frames, such as latches, will conduct electricity. Steel front doors are a popular home upgrade and present the same danger as the rebar in concrete.

What to Do About Lightning Damage to Your Home

Don't count on all the damage from a lightning strike being visible—take precautions. If your home has suffered a direct strike, it's generally a good idea to call emergency services. Fires can occur within the walls or attic and smolder for a long time. The fire department should have sensors to detect unusual heat sources so they can find and extinguish them.

If you suspect your roof or other structural elements of your home have been damaged, have them inspected as soon as possible.

As you check for damage, be alert for signs of smoke, charring, the smell of melting plastic, visible sparks, and unusual humming or buzzing. Test appliances with caution, as partially-damaged electronics can present a danger even more than wholly nonfunctional electronics.

Does Homeowners Insurance Cover Lightning Damage?

Homeowners insurance generally covers lightning damage, though of course homeowners should carefully read their individual policies. Insurers generally classify lightning damage as. 

  • Lightning strike: the strike directly hit the home. This type is typically the most severe and evident, so is generally easiest to prove.
  • Near miss: The strike didn't directly hit the home but struck near it. It may be more difficult to prove that the damage was caused by lightning and not an artificial source, like a power line, which might not be covered.
  • Ground surge: the strike caused an electrical spike in the area. This is the most common claim but can be difficult to prove.

Don’t Be Scared, Be Prepared

Lightning is a powerful force that can cause significant damage to your home. While any individual home's chances of being struck are small, taking proactive steps to prevent damage is worthwhile. You can protect your home from lightning damage by installing a lightning protection system to direct the strike safely away, and you can deal with electrical surges by using surge protectors. Make sure to unplug all the devices you can during the storm, stay safe indoors, and know what to do if your home is struck by lightning.

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