How can I keep lightning from destroying my stuff?
July 26, 2005 8:27 AM   Subscribe

I'm losing a lot of electronic gadgets to lightning strikes. What are the best ways to prevent further damage?

I rent the upstairs duplex of an old house (circa 1910) in a densely populated urban neighborhood. Only the kitchen and the bathroom have been wired with 3-prong outlets. The rest of the house has the ancient 2-prong with no grounding.

Most of our electronics are in the living room. One outlet has computer/monitor/router/modem plugged into El Cheapo surge protector, plugged into a 3 prong adapter, plugged into Ye Olde 2-Prong Outlet. A different outlet has television, vcr, Playstation plugged into surge protector, plugged into adaptor, plugged into outlet.

Over the last 5 years, we have lost to various storms: 1 dial-up modem inside my Mac; a cable modem, a router, & the ethernet port on my Mac; an XBox (I hear they have faulty power cords); a set of computer speakers, with damage to the PC's sound card; and last night, the PC's ethernet port (modem may be dead too). I might have forgotten something; it happens a lot.

Obviously, this is not just a matter of typical power surges. Electricity from lightning storms is running into our house, often traveling along ethernet cords or other wires and causing damage to equipment.

So here are my questions:
- Is the jerry-rigged adaptor-surge protector set-up to blame? What would be a better solution, short of having the entire house re-wired? (We don't own it, and have no electrician firends or electical ability ourselves.)
- Is it worth it to invest in expensive anti-lightning surge protectors? Do any of those things even work?
- Is my house being struck directly by lightning? If not, why does electricity keep running into my house over and over again? Would lightning rods or other grounding devices help?
- The power line from the city connects with our house directly outside where the computer is located. Is this an additional vulnerability, so be so near the primary connection?
- Is it worth filing claims for damages on our renter's insurance policy, or will it raise our rates more than a $120 Xbox is worth?

Of course, we realize that the best defense is to simply UNPLUG everything. But short of spending 4-5 months of the year constantly unplugging and re-plugging our electronics, what can we do to protect our stuff?
posted by junkbox to Technology (18 answers total)
"Is my house being struck directly by lightning?"

Your question needs quite a bit of research on your part. We can only speculate if you cannot even answer this question.
posted by mischief at 8:38 AM on July 26, 2005

i am totally feel you right now, more than you should know.
Yes, i blame the rigged surge protector but that won't fully protect you from the wrath of Thor (but has helped me a lot recent and i have abominable wiring to deal with) as he can cause blue fire to shoot out of outlets (yes, i've seen it).
It doesn't sound like you are getting hit (you'd know) so much as in susceptible proximity. Having been in the same situation, i can say my surge protectors saved my stuff even when it zapped the power just to my house and no one else's.
I'm hoping that someone will pipe in on the renter's insurance as you're smart enough to get it and able to have it, but the idea of getting a lightning rod isn't going to help unless you know exactly what you're directing the current at.
posted by philida at 8:44 AM on July 26, 2005

How Stuff Works talks a bit about surge protectors and lightning. Sounds like you need to just unplug everything.
posted by goatdog at 8:46 AM on July 26, 2005

Response by poster: Being inside my house during the storms, I'm not in a position to see exactly where the lightning is making contact. I'd like to believe that my house is not, in fact, being directly struck, but I'm open to all possibilities.

If my only recourse is to call an electrician, fine. That's an answer too. But I've given you everything I know as an observer inside the residence.
posted by junkbox at 8:47 AM on July 26, 2005

--also, the average deaths by phone via lightning use to be four a year and i'm not sure how to protect the phone lines but haven't had that problem with proximal strikes (and wiring for phone is very easy, hopefully someone will chime in on simple wiring, as well).
Since you are renting, this is really an issue for your landlord, unless you can get a break for improvements or are planning to buy. In those cases, i may have more to blather on about.
posted by philida at 8:51 AM on July 26, 2005

also that was a mash of i am feeling you and i totally feel you as in been there, baby, i get it
posted by philida at 8:54 AM on July 26, 2005

--last thing for now
yes, i think you are probably suffering more from shoddy work on your landlord's part because of the way the energy is being funneled into your home from how it is being conducted through the city works.
posted by philida at 8:58 AM on July 26, 2005

Two things for the landlord to consider:
1. Add lightening rods to the house and make sure the cables are properly connected to the rods and inserted into the ground. If lightening is striking your house, the rods and cable will direct it away from the internal wiring.
2. Get the wiring updated. IANAE, but I know that you'll want to add grounded plugs to the house and this may require modern wiring. Based off the age of the house, you may have some ugly, potentially dangerous, antique wires still in use. I have no idea of cost, but you'd want to call in a certified electrician anyway.
posted by onhazier at 10:32 AM on July 26, 2005

Best answer: IANAE, but I've had lightning and non-lightning related electrical problems, so this is anecdotal. I have seen my laptop survive some sort of power surge that left the surge protector almost smoking. My homeowners insurance [different from renter's but not totally different] said that I'd have to be able to prove that the surge was caused by lightning to be able to recover money for some other small end damaged items [clock on stove, answering machine]. They could do this, or my electrician could, by taking apart the electric line into the house and looking for damage, but it seemed like way too much work.

I would never plug in my computer to anything other than a grounded outlet with a non-cheapo surge protector. Also, your house is not getting hit by lightning [I concur, you would know] but it may be having power surges as a result of storm activity. In the short term, I'd invest in a long extension cord and bring the groundedness of the kitchen and/or bathroom outlets into the living room so you can safely plug in your things. This will be ugly, but it's much less gambley than doing nothing. Keep in mind that surge protectors are sort of like helmets, they're not the same after a crash/surge so don't reuse them unless you have one with an indicator light that gives you the all clear. You can also get them with phone cord input/output which are worthwhile if you think the phone line might be part of your problem. Make sure that the three prong outlets really are grounded by investing a few bucks in an outlet tester and never use those three to two pronged adapters unless you can really and truly ground them in your home.

In the long term, you'll need to hash something out with the landlord, use the ugly extension cords, or move. Check with your local tenant's union to see what, if any, responsibility the landlord has to provide you with grounded outlets. You might be able to forge a compromise and get one grounded outlet installed in the living room for example.
posted by jessamyn at 10:55 AM on July 26, 2005

Best answer: With regards to:
Is the jerry-rigged adaptor-surge protector set-up to blame? What would be a better solution, short of having the entire house re-wired?
You mentioned that you are using a three-wire to two-wire adapter to connect your surge protector to a two-prong outlet. Unfortunately, surge protectors require a ground to provide adequate protection, without a ground they're not much more than a basic power strip. Sometimes a two-prong outlet will have ground connected to its box (which is why the adaptors usually have a ground wire that you can connect to a metal screw on the faceplate). However, in my experience, in older homes two-prong outlets usually mean the outlet has no ground. Can you ask your landlord to contact an electrician and ask him to install three-wire grounded wiring to one or two wall outlets on the second floor? At least that way you could use surge protectors to protect your most expensive equipment.
Is it worth it to invest in expensive anti-lightning surge protectors? Do any of those things even work?
Interior surge protectors will do no good if the interior wiring does not contain a ground. Would your landlord be willing to install an exterior whole-house surge protector between the electricity meter and the house? That would protect you from surges on the power line, but not necessarily those on the phone line or cable TV lines (although your cable installer may well have connected a ground/lightning arrester to your cable TV line at the point it enters the house).
The power line from the city connects with our house directly outside where the computer is located. Is this an additional vulnerability, so be so near the primary connection?
I don't believe this is serious concern, although I suppose one can imagine cases where it might be an issue.
Is it worth filing claims for damages on our renter's insurance policy, or will it raise our rates more than a $120 Xbox is worth?
What is the deductible on your renter's insurance policy? It may well be the case that if you filed a claim you woudn't recover much money, particularly if these were separate incidents each individually subject to the deductible.
posted by RichardP at 10:59 AM on July 26, 2005

I know a client i worked for had run ethernet between two buildings, and this caused big problems for their grounding and they would regularly get equipment ruined by lightning strikes. Maybe someone more electricly inclined can provide more info, but it might be worth it to check for connetions to other houses or buildings (or maybe some left by folks that stole cable or something).
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 11:04 AM on July 26, 2005

the power lines downed as i saw responding
from a lighting strike to a tree across the road
i'm taking this as a sign

posted by philida at 11:54 AM on July 26, 2005

What would be a better solution, short of having the entire house re-wired?

Unplug anything you don't want ruined.

Is it worth it to invest in expensive anti-lightning surge protectors? Do any of those things even work?

From what I've heard, no surge protector will stop a direct lightning strike. They may be a tad better than your average surge protector, but in the end, your best bet is to unplug (that is, electric and telecom cords) anything you don't want fried.
posted by geeky at 12:07 PM on July 26, 2005

The list of items that have been damaged is very odd!

The modem was inside a computer... I think that means that the damage must have come from the phone line or an internal computer malfunction. The router and cable modem both have power bricks, so it seems very unlikely that they failed due to a power line problem. The computer speakers also probably have a power brick.

Are you 100% certain the problems are correlated with lightning?

I don't see how these things could be prevented with an AC line surge suppressor - power bricks already have lots of surge suppression properties if you don't mind replacing them. Yes, of course you can also put your phone and cable through a surge suppressor... It wouldn't hurt...

It seems to me something else is going on. Possibly just coincidence, possibly a problem with the grounding at the utility pole.

yeahyeahyeahwhoo, ethernet connections are all transformer isolated - they shouldn't cause grounding problems.
posted by Chuckles at 12:13 PM on July 26, 2005

Response by poster: Are you 100% certain the problems are correlated with lightning?

Pretty sure. Each and every time we've had damage like this, it's always directly after a powerful storm. When the lightning started last night, I turned off the PC, but I was busy and forgot to unplug everything. I was working 4-5 feet from the computer/modem. Lightning struck very close; I heard the bang of thunder, heard a buzz and a 'pop' from the area of the computer/modem. I smelled a hot sort of smell. When the storm was over, we turned on the computer -- and the ethernet port was fried (it's indicator light is dead, and no network connectivity).

Computer's fine; monitor's fine; modem appears to be working though we haven't tested it yet. Ethernet port -- toast. And as I mentioned, this is the 3rd or 4th internal computer part damaged by storms.
posted by junkbox at 12:25 PM on July 26, 2005

Friends last night had the current run through the cable modem and burn out their computer. They are off to use that warranty. The current will run as far as the circuit will take them. You may want to have circuit breakers on your cords if you don't just want to do the jessamyn.
posted by philida at 12:39 PM on July 26, 2005

Non-direct lightning can cause a surge in any nearby wire, the only thing to do is unplug, including network and telephone. The immense electric field causes electrons to flow down the wires toward (or away) from the lightning strike. Sounds like it may be the network and phone lines that are more to blame than the 110v wiring. You can get surge protectors for phone and network, but I'm not sure if they will help.
posted by 445supermag at 1:01 PM on July 26, 2005

You can make your own ground. I've done this before, but for the sake of recording quality in a studio.

Use a good surge protector. Then an adapter so that you don't have to cut off the third prong. solder a heavy gage insulated wire to the little tab that will be on the adapter (sometimes the adapter comes with a little screw for that).

Run that line out of a window to a grounding rod that you can purchase at a hardware store. They are about six feet long and are to driven into the ground leaving only about one foot of it exposed.

Connect the wire to the rod with the attatched clamp. And you have a proper ground.

It might be a bit of work for you. But if you are using a high quality surge protector with an inline circuit breaker, it should work.

It that's too much fun for you, just unplug as was said.
posted by snsranch at 4:14 PM on July 26, 2005

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