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Avoid financial shocks with lightning protection gear

Lightning. Throughout the ages, it's been portrayed as the manifestation of gods, recounted in thousands of literary allusions and, perhaps most famously, inspired inventor and icon Benjamin Franklin. Even Santa is connected to this natural phenomenon thanks to reindeer Blitzen.

Beyond its romantic and legendary trappings, though, lightning is a powerful, sometimes deadly and potentially costly force. According to government data, lightning strikes trigger tens of thousands of fires in the United States each year. These conflagrations cause damages of almost $9,300 apiece, more than twice that of other fires. And almost half of the annual lightning-ignited fires are to structures.

The scientific reality of lightning is that it's a random act of nature. And even if it doesn't start a fire, a bolt still can cause serious damage unless you take advantage of the various lightning safeguards designed to protect your property, possessions and pocketbook.

Tempering lightning targets
"All of the earth is a target for lightning," says Richard Roux, an electrical engineer with the National Fire Protection Association. "During a lightning storm, there's competition for the lightning strike. Those things that appear attractive to the bolt is where the bolt will go."

Some regions do seem to be more attractive to lightning. But there is no way to predict whether the ground, a tree or a house will win (or, from the property owner's point of view, lose) when a bolt finally makes its choice.

If you're particularly worried that your house might be a target, you might want to investigate exterior-defense options. The most common one is an elaboration on Franklin's centuries-old lightning rod. But as the times have changed, so has the notion of simply putting a metal receptor on your roof. Now they're called strike-termination devices and the original pointed, or Franklin tip, style is being phased out in favor of a blunt, rounded design found to be more effective. (The pointed rods still work. The spherical ones just work better.)

Some homeowners, though, shy away from lightning rods. For a few, it's a cosmetic concern about how the devices will look. That issue is assuaged somewhat by installation techniques that hide necessary wiring along roof lines, downspouts and eaves and embellish the finished product with decorative finials and weather vanes.

For others, the concept itself is a concern. Won't that metal pole simply pull any lightning straight down on my home? No, say experts. A lightning rod isn't a lightning magnet.

"Lightning seeks the least restrictive path to the ground," says Eddie Schoenthal of the Austin, Texas, office of Bonded Lightning Protection. "What lightning protection does is give you structural protection for your home. It doesn't attract, nor does it retard, lightning.

"If lightning is going to hit your house, it's going to hit your house. We're giving it the least restrictive path to the ground."

Directing the strike
Ground, in its many definitions, is the operational word. In any home, various systems are grounded as the house is built. This includes electrical wiring, water pipes, telephone connections, natural gas lines and any kind of television connection, either cable or satellite.

Next: ... an external system is just half the job ...
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