3 ways to help protect your home from electrical surges during thunderstorms

When you think of summer, many things immediately come to mind: warm days filled with outdoor activities, delicious barbecues, and evenings spent with family and friends or at your favorite baseball team's game. But what many people are not thinking about this time of year is whether their home's electrical system is adequately protected against the effects of something else that summer brings…thunderstorms. Depending upon where you live (and it seems like they're popping up all across the country these days), thunderstorms are more often than not a regular or semi-regular occurrence. Many people don't realize that the real enemy of our electrical system is not the thunder, but the lightning that precedes it; dozens of fires that happen around the country every year are attributed to lightning.

The power of lightning strikes

Lightning that strikes directly and in the vicinity of power lines or a structure can introduce high voltage impulses, known as transients, into the electrical system of a building or home and can cause equipment damage or failures. These damages cost property owners millions of dollars every year. The damage may be the cumulative result of transients on the electrical system that have occurred over an extended period of time, or in the case of a severe lightning strike during a rain storm or other surge causing event, it can be immediate. And while lightning is the most common cause of these voltage surges in homes, other events such as trees blown down on power lines or an automobile accident that takes out a utility pole, can result in an equipment damaging surge, too.

Investing in electrical safety

While the effects of transients due to lightning strikes do not make the headlines like a major hurricane, tornado, wildfire or flood, the impact can be significant. As a homeowner you know how much your family relies on electronic equipment in your home and the investment you've made in such equipment, which is often worth thousands of dollars. But while computers, printers, televisions and other home entertainment devices, as well as many appliances, are all built with electronic circuitry that is powered by the home electrical system, they are often sensitive to a sudden increase or spike in the voltage on the supply line. 

Other home safety devices such as smoke alarms, ground-fault circuit-interrupters and arc-fault circuit interrupters also have sensitive electronics that can be damaged by transients. It's true that electrical systems of homes have devices such as circuit breakers and fuses that protect against overcurrent conditions, but there are no mandatory requirements in the current NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code® - the code that helps keep homes and buildings safe from electrical hazards - that mandate overvoltage protection in homes. That means that while electronic circuitry has been around for decades, the amount of electronic equipment in today's home has necessitated that the electrical industry become more proactive about protecting a family's valuable property. 

So how does a homeowner in today's electronics-filled world reduce the risk for electrical equipment fires, damage or failures? From whole-house type equipment to localized protection such as receptacles (commonly referred to as outlets or plugs), there are many different forms of surge protection available. Some options include:

  • Relocatable power taps (plug strips) that have a surge protective component built into them 
  • Surge protective devices (SPDs) to protect large-scale electrical equipment (large HD flat screen televisions, high-end appliances, etc.) in the home
  • Surge protective devices located at the service panel that protect life safety devices such as smoke alarms, ground-fault circuit-interrupters, and arc-fault circuit interrupters 

Best practices dictate that before embarking on any electrical project you should first consult a qualified electrical contractor who can help you determine what you need and the best course of action. And always make sure that any device used to provide surge protection has been evaluated and carries the mark of a recognized third-party electrical testing organization. Lastly, you may want to consider checking with your insurer to see if you are covered for lightning-induced overvoltage damage to electronic equipment in your home since not all policies are the same. 

So what are you waiting for? Protect your home and electronic equipment against the impact of surges and the damage they can cause. By preparing ahead you'll feel better knowing you're keeping you, your family and your home, safer from fire and other electrical hazards.   

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Jeffrey Sargent
Principal Specialist

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