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Take Precautions During Lighting Season

Spring in Lighting Season in Texas.

No matter how many times I see a lightning-damaged computer, I can’t help but marvel at how naive North Texans can be when it comes to lightning and surge protection. You would think (or at least I would think) that living in ‘Lightning Central’, people would understand the importance of having a good surge protector connected to any electronic devices they cherish. FYI: The only location in the United States that receives more lightning than we do here in North Texas is Orlando, Florida.

A little case history lesson:

Lightning Strikes Your Computer

Lightning Strikes Your Computer

My favorite example is the case of a local attorney who brought in his computer D.O.A. The motherboard was dead, the modem was dead and the video card was dead. In fact, the only functioning component was his hard drive. We told him it looked suspiciously like lightning damage. The attorney assured us it could not possibly be, as the computer had been connected to a ‘very expensive’ surge protector. In fact, it had cost him around sixty dollars (or so he said).

We built him new computer, transferred his data and gave him his new system. He called later that day, saying he could not get the new computer configured on his network, and could we come out and resolve the network issues. When I got to his office and sorted out the network problem, I took a close look at his ‘sixty dollar surge protector’. Do you know what I found? A $2.99 Home Depot-variety outlet strip! This item did not even pretend to offer surge protection! No wonder his computer had been snuffed in the last electrical storm.

In point of fact, many products that pretend to offer surge protection do very little to protect you against lightning damage. Additionally, if your surge protector doesn’t filter your phone line connection – and you have a phone line connected to your broadband modem – you’re ‘working without a net’. Lightning produces a very high-voltage, short-duration spike that is incredibly destructive to electronics. You shouldn’t be concerned about the lightning strike that hits your house – because that one will most likely destroy every bit of electronics and low-voltage wiring in your home – and you should simply be glad you got out alive. The lightning strike you should be worried about is the one that strikes your neighbor’s house across the street and down three houses. That’s the one that will send a lovely high-voltage spike right across the earth, up your phone line, into your broadband modem and that just could be ‘all she wrote’ for your computer.

I have had computers destroyed in a lightning strike where the Cat5 (network) cable was literally welded into the computer and the cable had burned a path into the carpet.  The was from a direct hit to the building.

Realistically, if you spent less than twenty dollars on a surge protector, it is probably inadequate. Surge Protectors that work in places like California (where they have little or no lightning) simply don’t protect you here in the Lone Star State. True electrical ‘surges’ where the voltage rarely exceeds 25,000 volts, are much simpler to protect against than lightning, where the voltage can reach 50,000,000 (that’s right – fifty million) volts. The best Surge Protectors are made by companies who specialize in this technology, such as Panamax, APC and Tripp Lite. They are typically a bit more expensive than other brands, but isn’t your computer worth it?

What should you do to protect yourself?

What about a Battery Backup or UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) for your system?

Since prices have dropped significantly, it is generally a good idea to have a battery backup on any system where the loss of your data would be a major inconvenience. Does having a UPS eliminate the need for a Surge Protector? Not in my office — and home. I prefer to have a good Surge Protector plugged into the wall with the UPS plugged into the Surge Protector. Components that do not require battery backup can be plugged into the Surge Protector and still be protected from lightning damage. This affords maximum protection for your valuable hardware. When you invest in a UPS – again – invest in one produced by a company that specializes in this technology like APC.

With the exception of laptops and tablets (which are battery powered) even a momentary power loss of a few milliseconds can power off your computer and corrupt whatever documents are open at the time. Accordingly, the only components you need to connect to the UPS are your computer and monitor. Everything else can be plugged into the Surge Protector, as you only need to keep the computer and monitor running long enough to shut down the computer properly in the event of a power failure. How big a UPS should you buy? That depends on two things: How long you want the system to run in the absence of power – and your budget. The larger your computer is, (the more current your computer and monitor together draws) the bigger your UPS needs to be. More hard drives, more memory and high resolution gaming display adaptors all pull additional current.  Choose a UPS that fits your requirements accordingly.

Even laptops should be plugged into a surge protector!

A side note for broadband subscribers: For one reason or another, some broadband modems do not like to be plugged into Surge Protectors and will lose your signal periodically as a result. There is no elegant solution to this, as to not have your modem protected is to risk damage to your computer. When your broadband connection fails, simply turn off the Surge Protector, wait about a minute and turn it back on. This may be inconvenient, but it is considerably less expensive than replacing your modem and computer.

So you don’t want to invest in a surge protector? You can always do what many Texans do during electrical storms and simply unplug everything from the wall when a storm is imminent.  That means Every.Single.Cord.  Period.  This is absolutely the best solution.  100% guaranteed to work every single time.

But what if you’re not home…

Some fascinating (I think) lightning statistics:

  • Lightning strikes the Earth 1,800 times at any moment.
  • Lightning puts 10 million tons of nitrogen into the Earth each year.
  • The Earth has 100 lightning strikes per second – 3.6 trillion per year!
  • The Earth has 2,000 thunderstorms at any one time!
  • Without thunderstorms, the earth would lose its electric charge in less than 1 hour.
  • Rwanda, Africa is the lightning capitol of the world, receiving nearly 2.5 times the amount of lightning as Florida
    (Source: Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission Satellite, 2002)
  • Florida is the Lightning Capital of the U.S.
  • Central Florida, from Tampa to Titusville is “Lightning Alley” in the U.S.!
  • The central California coast has the least lightning activity in the U.S.
  • Lightning is the #2 weather killer in the U.S.
  • Lightning is the #1 weather killer in Florida – more than all other weather deaths combined!
  • Florida leads the U.S. in lightning deaths, injuries, and casualties
  • Texas is #2.
  • Pennsylvania leads the U.S. in lightning damage.
  • The U.S. has 20 Million cloud-to-ground lightning flashes each year – up to 70 Million lightning flashes aloft are also counted!
  • The U.S. has 100,000 thunderstorms per year.
  • The Odds Of An Individual Being Struck By Lightning Each Year In The U.S. Is About 300,000 To 1
  • Lightning injures many more than it kills.
  • Lightning often causes life-long severe debilitating injuries.
  • Lightning kills about 100 people in the U.S. each year.
  • Lightning injures about 1000 people in the U.S. each year.
  • In the U.S., lightning kills more than Hurricanes and Tornadoes, combined. Only floods kill more!
  • Lightning causes $5 Billion of economic impact in the U.S. each year.
  • Most lightning strikes occur either at the beginning or end of a storm.
  • Lightning is 50,000° F – three times as hot as the Sun.
  • Lightning is only 1 inch in diameter.
  • Lightning has been observed over 100 miles long.
  • An average lightning flash has the energy of a 1-kiloton explosion.
  • Lightning voltage can be up to 300 million volts.
  • Lightning current averages 30,000 amps, but ranges from 10,000 to 200,000 amps – 100 To 1,000 times as strong as a steel welder.
  • Corded telephones are not safe and should not be used during thunderstorms. The usual way that current enters a telephone is through the wire. Cloud-to-ground flashes tend to hit tall objects such as utility poles. When a pole is struck, its current enters a building through the wiring, then to the phone, and then straight to your head. Cell phones and cordless phones are safer, but be sure to stand away from the cordless phone’s base as a strong current can possibly arc a few feet from the base to the handset. There is still a risk of ear damage from loud static and “pops” associated with cell phone and cordless phone use during thunderstorms.
    (from lightningstorm.com)
  • Lightning damage to home electronics usually occurs when lightning strikes to nearby utility poles or wires, then enters the building through power, phone, and TV wires. For direct or indirect hits, the only sure way is to pull the power, phone, and cable plugs on sensitive electronics before thunderstorms threaten. Never touch wires during a thunderstorm, even to unplug your equipment. People have been electrocuted while unplugging their electronics during thunderstorms. Better your computer than you!
    (from lightningstorm.com)
  • Jul 10, 1926: Lightning Exploded A Navy Ammunition Depot, Mount Hope NJ. 19 People Died, 38 Wounded, And Cost $81 Million To Rebuild.
  • May 6, 1937: Hindenberg Airship Destroyed By An Electrostatic Discharge 36 People Died.
  • June 1998: Lightning Struck An Outdoor Rock Concert With 35,000 People In Baltimore, MD. 13 People Were Injured, Despite The Installed Lightning Rods.
  • July 1998: 5 Firefighters Were Injured When Lightning Struck Their Firetruck In Las Vegas, NV.
  • October 1998: Lightning Killed 11 Soccer Players In Congo, Africa (All On The Same Team)
  • Dec. 8, 1963: A Pan Am 707 crashed in flames in a Maryland field in 1963 after lightning hit the Boeing jet and ignited a wing fuel tank. All 81 people aboard were killed.
  • The NTSB believes lightning caused the in-flight explosion of an Iranian Air Force 747 in May 1976 near Madrid, Spain.
  • May 9, 2001: HONG KONG –According to media reports a Cathay Pacific Boeing 747-400 was struck three times by lightning close to Chek Lap Kok airport today. The airline confirmed the event and said a cockpit window was damaged. Nobody was hurt in this incident. Cathay Pacific Flight 250 from London Heathrow with 245 passengers on board was still approaching the Hong Kong airport when suddenly the series of lightning strikes hit the Jumbo Jet. One of the lightning strikes cracked the right side cockpit window, said the airline. The crew informed the control tower at Chek Lap Kok and then safely landed the aircraft.
  • Florida meteorologist Mike Lyons tells WPBFChannel.com in West Palm Beach a man has reported seeing what only about 1 percent of the population will ever see — the rarest form of lightning called ball lightning. “It was a bright, glowing orange ball about the size of a basketball,” the man said in the report. “It entered my house through the glass in the front door. It went right past me or possibly even through me into the living room. Then, it left the house through a large window where it hit a tree in the backyard.” Lyons says ball lightning has “scared the pants off folks” as the bright spheres seem to appear out of nowhere. They’ve been seen in buildings, coming through solid walls and in airplanes. Lyons says science may never be able to explain ball lightning — all researchers know is that it’s real.
  • LONDON – Two women were killed by a bolt of lightning in Hyde Park when their underwired bras acted as conductors, a coroner said Wednesday. “I think this was a tragic case, a pure act of God,” coroner Paul Knapman told an inquest into the deaths. He recorded a verdict of death by misadventure. The two women, Anuban Bell, 24, and Sunee Whitworth, 39, had been sheltering under a tree in the park during a thunderstorm. Pathologist Dr Iain West said both women were wearing underwired bras and had been left with burn marks on their chests from the electrical current that passed through their bodies. Death would have been instant, he said. The bodies were not discovered until the following day because passers-by thought they were vagrants.

Pictures of actual lighting damage from our archives:

Lightning-NIC-jack

Lightning Damaged NIC jack

Don't do this to your computer

Wire burned into the carpet pad

Lightning-Cable-Socket

Lightning Damaged Cable Modem Jack

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The surge protector we recommend:

The Battery Backup (UPS) we recommend.

This is more than adequate for most computer / monitor combinations.

Name of author

Name: Wizard

Short Bio: The Computer Wizard (TCW). TCW was founded by Warren P. Harris in 1994 to service and repair computers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Relocating the business to Plano, Texas in 1999, TCW continued to flourish when an unfortunate loss of data for a wedding Mr. Harris photographed, caused him to research data recovery options. Realizing he would have to either pay someone to recover the photos or find out how to do it himself, the rest, as they say "is history". Approached by a friend who was a Private Investigator in 2006, Mr. Harris studied for his Investigator's license and began honing his skills in Computer Forensics. The company was renamed DFW Computer Integration in 2015.

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