TECHNICAL BULLETIN: Lightning Damage Assessments and Consulting Reports

Lightning Damage Facts

  • A bolt of lightning can produce 35,000 to 40,000 amperes of current (this is the flow rate of electricity similar to GPH = gallons per hour with water flow)
  • Generates temperatures as high as 50,000°C or 90,032°F
  • Travels as far as 64 kilometers or 40 miles
  • Strikes earth somewhere each second
  • Kills nearly a  100 people in the U.S. per year
  • Causes billions of dollars of property damage yearly and results in fire and destruction of property.

Source: Lightning Protection Institute

What can lighting do?

Each year lightning damage causes billions of dollars in property damage which results often times in a fire event with total devastation. The damage to buildings, equipment, buildings systems, electronics and vehicles can be extensive. Buildings struck by lightning have construction materials which can easily catch fire, smolder or explode. Residential contents such as AV equipment, appliances, electronics, home computers and stereo equipment can be compromised.

 In a business setting- all business machines and various equipment types can be electrically shorted and mechanical components become fused resulting in premature failure if not instant total loss. Water pumps blower motors, alarm systems and machinery can be compromised.  Building plumbing, HVAC air handlers, heaters and wiring can have extensive damage affecting the operation and control.

Lightning can start a direct fire because the temperature is 90,032°F which is 9 times hotter than the surface of the sun.  It is fast too, at 186,000 miles per second- the speed of light, it can reach distances of over 40 land miles in fractions of a second. Lightning strikes somewhere on earth every second translating to over 31,536,000 occurrences per year.

In the U.S. alone, lighting kills more than a hundred persons and injures many more per year.  The force of lightning occurs in the sky and is explained as a discharge of atmospheric electricity which is triggered by a buildup of differing charges within a cloud. The result is a sudden release of electricity which causes a distinctive bright flare, followed by a thunderclap and to ground lightning strikes. The theories of how the charges react and are created are numerous. Either way the light show in the sky with all the potential for death and damage is a beautiful phenomenon to watch.

When lightning strikes….

When the event occurs, damage to machinery, equipment, electronics and building systems may not be evident to a property or business owner. Risk managers, insurance companies, adjusters as well as facility and property managers are often tasked with investigating the reported damage to these valuable assets. The signs of lighting damage may not be evident to the naked eye.  Many lighting occurrences result in the ensuing damage being a fire event.  When the physical damage is visible then it is easy to discern meaning the evaluation may be minimal requiring confirmation and documentation of the damage to each item. 

This type of consulting report is simple because it is “clear and convincing”. It may be easily verified if visual damage is clearly evident by non-technical inventory personnel by documenting the description, model number, serial number and manufacturer of the product all verified by a photo. In more technical instances such as laboratory equipment, file servers, and other expensive machinery, electrical distribution gear or higher asset value items often require a more skilled consultant familiar with the myriad of equipment types to produce the consulting report.

 A complete evaluation and lightning damage report includes full assessment and documentation of the damaged item. A good example would be evaluating damage to bio-medical equipment patient interactive piece or CNC controlled machine; first it should be properly inventoried and then a thorough examination performed by a competent technician or engineer familiar with equipment types and damages that is qualified to make such assessments. Also a power company incident report and/or a lighting satellite strike report as part of the verification process. Our lighting damage reports are premier.

A more difficult assessment scenario is when a suspect item shows little or no physical damages but still not functioning properly, the damage is not immediate apparent. These scenarios often come to light as soon as power or functionality problems are first noticed and after being used next time after the event occurred. Problem being that low voltage components including capacitors, chips and diodes are either weakened and compromised or fatally failed. This evidenced by digital or solid state controls not working properly and can completely fail over time. This is a sign that a lighting or surge event  may have occurred and the items may need to be evaluated to make a determination to exclude or include the cause of loss I.E. Tampering, vandalism, preventative maintenance issues, power surge, lightning, power event, power condition or related event. A lighting verification report by satellite should be included with a report. We subscribe to Vaisala’s STRIKEnet® to verify or exclude lighting.

It is a common indicator that a power event has occurred (lighting or power surge) when equipment and machinery doesn’t start or will not perform normal functions. Inexplicitly motors burn up or loose a phase, breakers trip and starters short-out. Surge protectors and in-line fuses are “blown” and UPS/ back up batteries are in alarm and will not charge up.

Most Commonly Asked Questions about Lighting Damage

What about surge protection on the power side?  Often self-insured’s and policy insured’s ask why the surge protector didn’t work and protect a computers or TV.  A surge suppressor is an electrical device inserted in to a power line usually at the receptacle and it is designed to protect equipment from sudden fluctuations in current. Sometimes power strips that do not provide surge protection are erroneously referred to as surge protectors.

Surge protectors have specific ratings and the MOV’s or visitors handle different amounts of current for different applications. Choose the surge protector based on the risk you are trying to guard against.  Lighting is quick and at high voltages. Only buy a surge protector that is rated for lighting protection and maybe even a device that has a monetary guarantee. The main components is called a varistor (or Metal Oxide Varistor or MOV) is slower tripping device; so the MOV’s don’t always catch the high current quick enough so the high current by-passes the device and causes damage.

Besides power the other side is data- ethernet cables, cable TV, T-1 line, satellite or telephone line can also carry the high currents from lighting right through their cable conductors in to various electronics devices from the data, signal or input side- not the power side of the device. If you purchase a proper surge protector you may avoid the loss of data and potentially save high end equipment by feeding all data and power through a proper surge protector. Still the best way to guard absent lightening is to totally isolate the device entirely by disconnecting it from both the power and data signal side during a lightning storm.

Is this claim covered by insurance? That is a question between the insured and adjuster. If in doubt report the claim, based on our experience reporting the claim allows for the complete evaluation process and notification of loss to occur this allowing the insurance company to determine if items are covered. They may or not be covered depending upon insurance policy language. The policy is the contract between insured and carrier and it is interpreted after a loss event by the insurance adjuster. If questions about coverage occur ask the insurance company for clarification of the policy.

Should insured’s turn in the damage as a claim? As a general rule of thumb yes to document the occurrence and incase fatal failures occur later that could be costly. However turning in a claim is your choice. The decision to do so is a personal or business financial matter. If coverage exists you may have a deductible that applies to the lighting portion of the policy. Turning in insurance claims is your prerogative but you might want to reconsider especially if only a few items as it may not be cost effective to pay a deductible and you may want to just replace these items on their own as a “self-pay”.

However major damage to a building or home should be properly evaluated professionally by an independent expert able to document the items and system affected and who knows the effects of lighting damage and what to look for during the assessment. Contents should be assessed as well to determine if the event has damaged electronics, equipment, electrical and mechanical systems items which are suspect based on function issues or located in the same circuits that have received damage.

Can I fix the damaged appliances and electronics items? Certain low voltage items are sensitive such as thermocouples, regulators and power supplies. Often these items take the first in-rush of high current thus taking the brunt of the voltage and might in some cases be replaced with new devices. Other times capacitors, circuit boards, diodes and traces down line of the fuse or power supply will be damaged beyond the initial component and need replaced if available,  and cost effective then this repair option may be valid, in other cases where many circuit boards are part of the componentry the damage may not be diagnosable.

The problem with lighting is that simple controls can be replaced and more complex control boards and circuit boards may have down line damage that is not easily detected and a thorough assessment should be made before replacing multiple boards with caution. Potential future failure is always a risk of any electronic that has been hit with voltage but not properly assessed.

I want everything replaced just in case it fails later. Again replacing item when no visible or functionality issues exist is a financial and insurance decision. Though in some cases this may be warranted due to extenuating conditions most of the damages to low voltage components by lighting are immediate and should be evidenced quickly. However items left powered up and in use that have received high voltage damage may experience intermittent problems and eventually fail.

What about whole house surge protection or lighting rods? Great question. These types of protection are often the best against damage however they must be engineered and deigned properly along with professional and certified installations is requried to ensure they are in proper working order.

Some of the most effective power surge protection devices are sold by specialty companies or your power company. The power company’s surge devices are often installed in the service line or after the main disconnect. They are designed to work with the power condition coming in and the risk of voltage to the to building circuits. Some will have a UPS battery. Some power companies even offer an insurance or certain garnet on their devices. Lightning rods are also a specialty- many companies are licensed clerical firms that carry special credentials and/or licensing for these systems.

Again nothing is fail safe but in surge protection and lighting protection you typically get what you pay for and the protection level is often relative to the price.  Certainly using good judgment, commons sense and investigate claims as well as check the BBB for all contractors you higher to ensure a quality product, contract and service. Some of these systems have warranties, guarantees and cash payouts for damage to equipment. Evaluate all types of protection equipment purchases thoroughly.

What about the wire and electrical components in my home or business? The wire and breakers as well as all devices should be checked to determine if the system was hit and where the damage may have occurred. If breakers were tripped or burned then he wiring is suspect as having damaged. You can’t see in the wall and the wire should be Megger tested to confirm it meet acceptable standards. Breakers, switches and receptacles showing evidence of any damaged should be replaced.

The Bottom Line

Lighting can damage many things and people. Make sure you take steps to protect yourself and your property.  Be sure to have a professional properly evaluate any electrical appliances and devices you suspect may have been affected and make a determination of the condition of the buildings electrical systems. The damage caused by lighting strike is a high voltage event and it can look like a surge from a power line condition so make sure if a policy excludes one and insures the other that an independent technical or engineering expert can verify which event caused the damage. Other policies may cover both and the actual course of the over current event may not matter for insurance purpose. However you may want to know so you can employ a device to guard against future events of the same kind.

This article has been written by Electro-Mechanical Recertifiers, Inc. (ER Inc.)We are equipment, machinery, computer and electronics specialists and experts who provide thorough analysis of lighting damage, power surge and other power related losses resulting in potential insurance claims. Our quality reports are technically based and written by established electrical experts or P.E. electrical engineers. We also provide complete insulation resistance testing, circuit testing, thermal imaging and motor testing as well as restoration of fire, smoke and water damaged equipment of all types.

For all power generation, distribution, and power surge related and lighting damage reports…

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