Lightning: The Unpredictable Home & Property Threat

Lighting can strike anywhere, anytime. And if there’s one constant about lightning’s remarkable unpredictability, its timing is rarely good.

Unless you’re Marty McFly and Doc Brown trying to find a way to get back to 1985 in “Back To The Future,” lightning strikes rarely deliver good news. And when lightning strikes your home or property, it can produce not just a scary light show, but shockingly expensive damage.

According to Nationwide Insurance, 20 million cloud-to-ground lightning strikes occur every year in the United States. Each lightning strike carries a whopping 100,000 volts or more and can spark serious damage, even miles from the point of impact. Plus, power surges caused by power fluctuations from a utility company or from overloaded electrical panels can exact a stunning cost on your home or business.

In Florida alone, the National Lightning Detection Network estimates the Sunshine State sees 1.5 million lightning flashes a year and more than 26 strikes per square mile.

“Sometimes things happen, and you have no control over them,” legendary college football coach Lou Holtz told reporters after lightning seriously damaged his $1.6 million Orlando home. “This was the case when our home was struck by lightning and completely devastated.”

Beware and be ready for the unpredictable damage of High Cost Lightning.

How Lightning Finds Homes & Businesses

As it descends from storm clouds, a lighting bolt’s main objective is to find the path of least resistance from the cloud to deep into the ground. And houses are a Candyland attracting lightning like mosquitos being called to a beach. Most houses are filled with numerous potential routes for lightning to take: Gas and water pipes, electrical lines, phone lines, cable TV and Internet lines, gutters, downspouts and metal window frames. Anything conductive in a house is life source for lightning to follow.

And lighting often doesn’t stop at one conduit on its journey through the air to the ground. Lightning often jumps through the air from one conductive path to another called a side flash. For example, lightning may first meet up with electric lines in the attic, then jump to better-grounded water pipes on the first or second floor. Lightning can also connect to gutters, then jump to a window frame as a “stepping stone” to the electrical system or water pipes. Bolts can even jump from electrical wall outlets to sink faucets, and even across rooms.

And, most importantly, people can be struck by lightning, even indoors.

Insurance: The Only Financial Safe Ground

According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), standard homeowner insurance and business insurance policies should cover lightning-related damage – and especially fire damage – resulting from a lightning strike. Comprehensive auto insurance policies also provide protection from lightning strikes. The III reports certain business insurance and home policies deliver coverage for power surges set off by lightning strikes.

The disclaimer all home and commercial property owners need to keep in mind: Most lightning policies have limitations. For example, you may not get fully repaid because of equipment deprecation or the cost of your deductible. And if it is determined that a non-lightning source caused the power surge, the damage may not be covered or be subject to significant limitations.

The High Price Of Lightning

Why is a natural phenomenon that only touches ground for a split second so expensive?

Both lightning strikes and power surges pour energy into conductive materials like phone lines, cables, electrical wires, ductwork and plumbing. Spikes and sags in power can annihilate the motherboards of expensive computers, breaking down hard drives and causing fires. Surges can also lead to electrical “arcing,” where energy jumps around and can cause fires.

With electronic circuitry in modern U.S. buildings become denser, more compact and increasingly interconnected, home and businesses are becoming more vulnerable to damage from lightning and power surges, according to State Farm Insurance.

And big equipment, such as photocopiers, can lead to power surges.

According to the III, the average home lightning insurance claim in 2013 was $5,869. The good news: That number was down from 2012, still, the III warns, “lightning is still an extremely costly weather-related event.”

When Lightning Strikes

Direct lightning strikes most commonly present three main hazards to a house:

  • Fire: Lightning’s biggest danger feeds on wood or other flammable building materials when a an exposed lighting channel comes in contact with or passes through them. And when lightning travels through wires, it will usually burn them up – presenting a fire ignition hazard anywhere along the affected circuits.
  • Power Surge Damage: If lightning sets a home’s electrical wiring as its primary or second path, the explosive surge can damage even non-electronic appliances that are connected. Even if most of the current takes another path to the ground, the home’s electrical system will experience enough of a surge to cause major damage to anything connected to it, especially electronics.
  • Shock Wave Damage: Lightning’s signature feature produces its close cousin thunder. At close range, these waves can be destructive. Lightning’s shock waves can fracture concrete, brick, cinderblock and stone, blow out plaster walls, shatter glass, create trenches in soil and crack foundations.

The Lighting Home & Business Protection Plan

There is no weather forecast that will tell homeowners and business owners when and where lightning will strike. But Nationwide Insurance advises homeowners and business owners adopt three pivotal protective measures:

  • Use a service panel suppressor to manage large power surges before they enter your building. Note that a panel suppressor alone may not be enough protection. For instance, a direct lightning strike on your building would bypass the suppressor and cause direct damage to electronic devices unprotected by point-of-device surge protectors.
  • Get equipment breakdown insurance. This coverage can protect your property if power fluctuations cause damage to products or lead to things like spoiled food, lost income or emergency repairs.
  • Use point-of-device surge protectors to protect individual electronic devices, like TVs, computers and printers.

How To Dodge Lightning

Again, lightning can strike people, even indoors. So how can you keep your family and employees out of its path? By avoiding lightning’s common paths into a house: Its wiring and pipes. Avoid contact with electrical wires and pipes during a storm. This includes avoiding taking showers, washing hands and using electrical devices like computers and video games. Wireless devices like cell phones, cordless phones and remotes are safe.

The Worst Case Scenario

If your home or business is struck by lightning, immediately do a full-home inspection for any fires (starting in the attic, the most common spot for home lightning strikes).  Also watch for falling debris from damaged chimneys, shingles or walls.

Take no chances: Call the fire department to be safe if you suspect your home’s been hit by lightning.

Professionally-installed and well-grounded lightning protection systems can reduce or eliminate the fire and injury hazards should your house be struck directly. A financial word of caution: These systems can be pricey.

Lightning gives no fair warning and strikes without remorse, but knowing how and why lightning can target and strike your home or business, and having a home lightning defense plan, can keep your people and property safe from lightning’s destructive might.

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