Whether flood, tornado, fire, or hail, natural disasters can have a devastating effect on houses. Today’s green homes—built to ever higher standards of energy and resource efficiency—need to simultaneously address natural hazards.
Designers, builders, and code officials are typically mindful of practices that provide resistance to well-publicized natural hazards such as hail, severe storms, or wildfires, but what about lightning? The risk of lightning, and especially fire associated with lightning, is often overlooked and underrated as a potential threat. And from an environmental standpoint, the resource savings of not having to rebuild homes destroyed by natural disasters is a key reason to offer lightning protection on your green homes.
Even the most safety-conscious designer, may not have considered this risk, which affects thousands of homeowners each year. Lightning associated with thunderstorms and sometimes hurricanes can pose a variety of fire hazards. The massive power of lightning’s electrical charge and intense heat can induce destructive power surges through home circuitry, burn holes in CSST gas piping, explode brick and roofing materials, and ignite house fires.
The lightning system shown at the peak of this house is unobtrusive but effective.
By the Numbers
An analysis of homeowners insurance data by the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) found there were 185,789 lightning claims in 2009, costing $798 million, with an average claim totaling $4,296. These losses ranged from damage to expensive electronic equipment to structural fires that destroyed entire homes. (See chart below for more statistics.)
“Make no mistake, lightning plays a substantial role in the damage done to homes and businesses every year,” says Jeanne Salvatore, senior vice president, public affairs with I.I.I. “Many losses can be prevented when lightning protection systems and surge arrestors are implemented as mitigation methods.”
According to the I.I.I., damage caused by lightning, including fire, is covered by standard homeowners and business insurance policies. Some home and business insurance policies provide coverage for power surges that are the result of lightning striking a home or business. There is also coverage for lightning damage under the comprehensive portion of an auto insurance policy.
“While it’s true that lightning losses are generally a covered peril in most property insurance policies, there are treasured belongings that homeowners can’t replace or restore,” notes Leslie Chapman-Henderson, President/CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH). “Lightning protection is often one of the least expensive improvements that homeowners can purchase, and it can provide the best type of insurance—peace of mind and protection for family, home and valuables.”
In terms of cost, a typical lightning protection system is usually less expensive than a home security system. The average home can typically be protected for between $1,800–$4,000 (depending upon square footage, roof type, roof levels, etc.).
All Around Us
What’s unique about lightning is that it doesn’t discriminate according to the region of the country; most areas are susceptible to lightning strikes. Since lightning strikes more than 250,000 times per year, and the vast majority of homes in the United States do not have lightning protection systems, thepotential for danger and destruction persists.
The upside is that typically, only minimal design modifications are needed to address hazard resistance against this frequently destructive force of nature. For homeowners who don’t want to take a chance with lightning, a professionally installed lightning protection system is a viable idea.
A lightning protection system provides a network of low-resistance paths to safely intercept lightning’s dangerous electricity and direct it to ground without impact to the structure or its occupants. When lightning’s electricity is confined to a properly designed conductive path via a lightning protection system (e.g. roof network, grounding, bonding and surge protection) damage can be minimized or eliminated.
Destruction results when electricity encounters resistance, which can be similar to what occurs during arc welding. As electrical current runs through an arc welder, the resistance it encounters when arcing through the air generates the heat necessary to melt steel.
The highly conductive copper and aluminum materials used in a lightning protection system provide a low resistance path through which lightning can travel. Providing this low resistance path means the lightning does not try to fight its way through non-conductive building materials like wood, brick, rubber membranes, glass, and plastic en route to the ground.
Since the resistance encountered in these materials is what produces heat, fires and even explosions, adding a lightning protection system can safeguard a home from the resultant effects of lightning.
Don’t Go It Alone
When considering lightning protection, the Lightning Protection Institute (LPI) emphasizes the importance of builders and consumers contracting with qualified and experienced UL-listed and LPI-certified specialists who are trained to install systems in accordance with the nationally recognized safety standards of LPI, NFPA, and UL.
Lightning protection technology is a specialty discipline and expertise is required for system design and installation. LPI offers these safeguards for property owners seeking a qualified lightning protection specialist:
• Make sure materials and methods comply with nationally-recognized safety standards of LPI, NFPA, and UL.
• Only an experienced and reputable UL-listed, LPI certified lightning protection contractor is qualified to install lightning protection systems.
• Check references. A qualified specialist should provide a list of references and be affiliated with industry groups such as LPI, LSA, NFPA, and ULPA.
• Ask about surge protection. Lightning-induced surges can damage electronics and appliances. A qualified lightning protection contractor or your power company can provide options for service entrance arresters and surge protection devices.
• Experience counts. Be wary of start-up companies or contractors offering a “price deal” to install, fix or repair your lightning protection.
• When in doubt, contact www.bbb.org to locate your local Better Business Bureau to obtain reliability report information on a contractor before you hire.
“Installation of a lightning system is not a do-it-yourself project,” says Bud VanSickle, executive director for LPI. “An experienced professional should install the lightning protection system, since improper installation can lead to serious consequences—and could be worse than having no protection at all.”
Kim Loehr is an advisory board member with the Lightning Safety Alliance (LSA) and a registered course provider for the LSA’s national Continuing Education Service (CES). She is a member of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA’s) Building Fire Safety Systems Section and serves as communications consultant for the not-for-profit Lightning Protection Institute (LPI).
For More Information
Not only is lightning protection effective and affordable, but it also provides another measure to improve building resiliency. Since quality control issues frequently arise in building planning and the field, technical support is often necessary to ensure systems comply with national installation safety standards.
Of the national authorities who write and revise the lightning protection safety standards, LPI is the only one founded specifically to study lightning protection. The Lightning Protection Institute–Inspection Program (LPI-IP) provides on-site lightning protection system inspection services, follow-up inspection reports and issues certification for systems that comply with national safety standards of LPI-175, NFPA-780 and/or UL-96A.
The LPI-IP program was designed to serve a growing industry need for a comprehensive third party inspection approach for commercial and residential projects in the U.S. Visit LPI-IP for more information.
LPI provides a certification program to qualify competence in lightning protection installation, design and inspection. Visit the LPI web site for a list of certified contractors and other information about national safety standards for lightning protection installation.
Click here to download a pdf on the nuts and bolts of lightning protection.