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 ~ National Lightning Safety Institute ~

Section 5.4.1

Fundamentals of Lightning Protection

By Richard Kithil, President & CEO, NLSI



Lightning is a capricious, random and unpredictable event. Its' physical characteristics include current levels sometimes in excess of 400 kA, temperatures to 50,000 degrees F., and speeds approaching one third the speed of light. Globally, some 2000 on-going thunderstorms cause about 100 lightning strikes to earth each second. USA insurance company information shows one homeowner's damage claim for every 57 lightning strikes. Data about commercial, government, and industrial lightning-caused losses is not available. Annually in the USA lightning causes more than 26,000 fires with damage to property (NLSI estimates) in excess of $5-6 billion.

The phenomenology of lightning strikes to earth, as presently understood, follows an approximate behavior:

1. The downward Leaders from a thundercloud pulse towards earth seeking out active electrical ground targets.

2. Ground-based objects (fences, trees, blades of grass, corners of buildings, people, lightning rods, etc., etc.) emit varying degrees of electric activity during this event. Upward Streamers are launched from some of these objects. A few tens of meters off the ground, a "collection zone" is established according to the intensified local electrical field.

3. Some Leader(s) likely will connect with some Streamer(s). Then, the "switch" is closed and the current flows. We see lightning.

Lightning effects can be direct and/or indirect. Direct effects are from resistive (ohmic) heating, arcing and burning. Indirect effects are more probable. They include capacitive, inductive and magnetic behavior. Lightning "prevention" or "protection" (in an absolute sense) is impossible. A diminution of its consequences, together with incremental safety improvements, can be obtained by the use of a holistic or systematic hazard mitigation approach, described below in generic terms.

Lightning Rods

In Franklin's day, lightning rods conducted current away from buildings to earth. Lightning rods, now known as air terminals, are believed to send Streamers upward at varying distances and times according to shape, height and other factors. Different designs of air terminals may be employed according to different protection requirements. For example, the utility industry prefers overhead shielding wires for electrical substations. In some cases, no use whatsoever of air terminals is appropriate (example: munitions bunkers). Air terminals do not provide for safety to modern electronics within structures.

Air terminal design may alter Streamer behavior. In equivalent e-fields, a blunt pointed rod is seen to behave differently than a sharp pointed rod. Faraday Cage and overhead shield designs produce yet other effects. Air terminal design and performance is a controversial and unresolved issue. Commercial claims of the "elimination" of lightning deserve a skeptical reception. Further research and testing is on-going in order to understand more fully the behavior of various air terminals.

Downconductors, Bonding and Shielding

Downconductors should be installed in a safe manner through a known route, outside of the structure. They should not be painted, since this will increase impedance. Gradual bends (min. eight inch radius) should be adopted to avoid flashover problems. Building steel may be used in place of downconductors where practical as a beneficial part of the earth electrode subsystem.

Bonding assures that all metal masses are at the same electrical potential. All metallic conductors entering structures (AC power, gas and water pipes, signal lines, HVAC ducting, conduits, railroad tracks, overhead bridge cranes, etc.) should be integrated electrically to the earth electrode subsystem. Connector bonding should be thermal, not mechanical. Mechanical bonds are subject to corrosion and physical damage. Frequent inspection and ohmic resistance measuring of compression and mechanical connectors is recommended.

Shielding is an additional line of defense against induced effects. It prevents the higher frequency electromagnetic noise from interfering with the desired signal. It is accomplished by isolation of the signal wires from the source of noise.


The grounding system must address low earth impedance as well as low resistance. A spectral study of lightning's typical impulse reveals both a high and a low frequency content. The high frequency is associated with an extremely fast rising "front" on the order of 10 microseconds to peak current. The lower frequency component resides in the long, high energy "tail" or follow-on current in the impulse. The grounding system appears to the lightning impulse as a transmission line where wave propagation theory applies.

A single point grounding system is achieved when all equipment within the structure(s) are connected to a master bus bar which in turn is bonded to the external grounding system at one point only. Earth loops and differential rise times must be avoided. The grounding system should be designed to reduce ac impedance and dc resistance. The shape and dimension of the earth termination system is more important a specific value of the earth electrode. The use of counterpoise or "crow's foot" radial techniques can lower impedance as they allow lightning energy to diverge as each buried conductor shares voltage gradients. Ground rings around structures are useful. They should be connected to the facility ground. Exothermic (welded) connectors are recommended in all circumstances.

Cathodic reactance should be considered during the site analysis phase. Man-made earth additives and backfills are useful in difficult soils circumstances: they should be considered on a case-by-case basis where lowering grounding impedances are difficult an/or expensive by traditional means. Regular physical inspections and testing should be a part of an established preventive maintenance program.

Transients and Surges

Ordinary fuses and circuit breakers are not capable of dealing with lightning-induced transients. Lightning protection equipment may shunt current, block energy from traveling down the wire, filter certain frequencies, clamp voltage levels, or perform a combination of these tasks. Voltage clamping devices capable of handling extremely high amperages of the surge, as well as reducing the extremely fast rising edge (dv/dt and di/dt) of the transient are recommended. Adopting a fortress defense against surges is prudent: protect the main panel (AC power) entry; protect all relevant secondary distribution panels; protect all valuable plug-in devices such as process control instrumentation, computers, printers, fire alarms, data recording & SCADA equipment, etc. Further, protect incoming and outgoing data and signal lines. Protect electric devices which serve the primary asset such as well heads, remote security alarms, CCTV cameras, high mast lighting, etc. HVAC vents which penetrate one structure from another should not be ignored as possible troublesome electrical pathways.

Surge suppressors should be installed with minimum lead lengths to their respective panels. Under fast rise time conditions, cable inductance becomes important and high transient voltages can be developed across long leads.

In all instances, use high quality, high speed, self-diagnosing protective components. Transient limiting devices may use a combination of arc gap diverters-metal oxide varistor-silicon avalanche diode technologies. Hybrid devices, using a combination of these technologies, are preferred. Know your clamping voltage requirements. Confirm that your vendor's products have been tested to rigid ANSI/IEEE/ISO9000 test standards. Avoid low-priced, bargain products which proliferate the market (caveat emptor).


Lightning detectors, available at differing costs and technologies, sometimes are useful to provide early warning. An interesting application is when they are used to disconnect from AC line power and to engage standby power, before the arrival of lightning. Users should beware of over-confidence in such equipment which is not perfect and does not always acquire all lightning data.


Lightning safety should be practiced by all people during thunderstorms. Preparedness includes: get indoors or in a car; avoid water and all metal objects; get off the high ground; avoid solitary trees; stay off the telephone. If caught outdoors during nearby lightning, adopt the Lightning Safety Position (LSP). LSP means staying away from other people, taking off all metal objects, crouching with feet together, head bowed, and placing hands on ears to reduce acoustic shock.

Measuring lightning's distance is easy. Use the "Flash/Bang" (F/B) technique. For every count of five from the time of seeing the lightning stroke to hearing the associated thunder, lightning is one mile away. A F/B of 10 = 2 miles; a F/B of 20 = 4 miles, etc. Since the distance from Strike A to Strike B to Strike C can be as much as 5-8 miles. Be conservative and suspend activities when you first hear thunder, if possible. Do not resume outdoor activities until 20 minutes has past from the last observable thunder or lightning.

Organizations should adopt a Lightning Safety Policy and integrate it into their overall safety plan.


Modern diagnostic testing is available to mimic the performance of lightning conducting devices as well as to indicate the general route of lightning through structures. This testing typically is low power, 50 watt or less. It is traceable, but will not trip MOVs, gas tube arrestors, or other transient protection devices. Knowing the behavior of an event prior to occurrence is every businessman's earnest hope. With such techniques, lightning paths can be forecast reliably.

Codes & Standards

The marketplace abounds with exaggerated claims of product perfection. Frequently referenced codes and installation standards are incomplete, out dated and promulgated by commercial interests. On the other hand IEC, IEEE, MIL-STD, FAA, NASA and similar documents are supported by background engineering, the peer-review process, and are technical in nature.


It is important that all of the above subjects be considered in a lightning safety analysis. There is no Utopia in lightning protection. Lightning may ignore every defense man can conceive. A systematic hazard mitigation approach to lightning safety is a prudent course of action.


  1. API 2003, Protection Against Ignitions Arising out of Static, Lightning, and Stray Currents, American Petroleum Institute, Washington DC, December 1991.
  2. Golde, G.H., Lightning, Academic Press, NY, 1977.
  3. Hasse, P., Overvoltage Protection of Low Voltage Systems, Peter Peregrinus Press, London, 1992.
  4. Hovath, Tibor, Computation of Lightning Protection, John Wiley, NY, 1991.
  5. IEEE Std 1100, Powering and Grounding of Sensitive Electronic Equipment, IEEE, NY, NY. 1992.
  6. KSC-STD-E-0012B, Standard for Bonding and Grounding, Engineering Development Directorate, John F. Kennedy Space Center, NASA, 1991.
  7. Morris, M.E.,, Rocket-Triggered Lightning Studies for the Protection of Critical Assets, IEEE Transactions on Industry Applications, Vol. 30, No. 3, May/June 1994.
  8. Sunde, E.D. Earth Conduction Effects in Transmission Systems, D. Van Nostrand Co., NY, 1949.
  9. Towne, D., Wave Phenomena, Dover Publications, NY.
  10. Uman, Martin, Lightning, Dover Publications, NY, 1984.
  11. Viemeister, Peter, The Lightning Book, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1972.

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