Lightning's Toll Can Be Contained

Damage from nearby lightning strikes may be avoidable. However, these hits create havoc by generating electrical fields around their strike spot, and resulting in toasted TVs and disfunctional phones and equipment.

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After a violent thunderstorm the control box for our sprinkler system looked like a steak that fell through the grill slats. Three televisions and a cable converter are now large paperweights.

The garage door opener won't budge. My coffee maker is a stainless steel corpse, and until Monday evening, our phones were dead.

Yet we're lucky. In Southwest Florida, where lightning strikes topped 330,000 last year, people have lost every appliance, and sometimes the house, to lightning.

There's no protection against a direct hit.

"An act of God you can't stop. When you've got 100 million volts coming in your house, there's nothing built that's going to contain it," declared Mark House, who's seen a lot of what lightning can do. His father founded Dan House Electric in Naples, Fla., in 1951 and Mark House is now its owner.

Damage from nearby lightning strikes may be avoidable, however. These hits create havoc by generating electrical fields around their strike spot, swelling the amperage on your electrical lines or taking TV cable and phone lines as conduits into the house. Result: Toasted TVs, defunct phones.

There are ways to minimize your damage, however, unless you like dashing home every day to meet the repair trucks:

  • Electrical line surges: These most often get defensive measures, but people rely on small power-surge suppresser strips, those plastic strips into which appliances plug. Both House and Florida Power and Light representative Pat Davis say that product is only secondary help. Their best function, in fact, is guarding against surges from well down the electrical grid or from inside the house itself.

    The right start, they say, is a "whole house" surge arrestor installed at the meter box, which is electricity's portal to the house. Whole-house surge arrestors can "clamp," or hold down, a much larger amount of increased amperage from a surge, leaving the smaller suppresser less work.

    FPL Energy Services (a separate company related to FPL) offers whole-house surge suppressers under its "Surge Shield" program for $8.95 monthly, installed. Should it malfunction, repair or replacement of up to $5,000 per appliance is included.

    House's and other electric companies offer whole-house suppressers for from $150 to $600, installed. The latter includes a warranty for up to $50,000 in replacement and repair value. Smaller outlet-based surge suppressers are available at electronics and department stores, and range in price from $25 up to $200.

    If you're still paying for your home through a mortgage, you probably have homeowners insurance that will pay for your newly departed appliances. It's best to ask before you need it and what your minimum

  • Phone line surges: Phone line surges theoretically shouldn't happen, according to Nanci Schwartz, Sprint spokeswoman.

    "People with residential service really don't need to worry because on structures such as telephone poles we have ... a network interface device (that) is right there at the point at which the phones lines go into the building. They're there to protect the system going out from any lightning strike," she said. However, she acknowledged that occasionally individual phone lines will suffer the effects of lightning.

    "What can happen is that basically we've got central offices that have a connection to each phone lines. Those, just like everything else, run on electricity," she said. That means an electrical surge can be what's affecting the phone line to your house.

    Phone-line surge suppressors are on the market, however. More useful are electrical-line surge suppressors that include a phone-line suppressor, a handier item for wireless or cordless phones with a home charging base.

  • Coaxial cable surges: Cable TV operates with lines that transmit a signal, not electrical energy, so there's no way a power surge should travel through them into a home, says Larry Schweber, vice-president and general manager of Comcast for South Florida.

    A lightning strike to the cable could cut off cable service, but travel into the house? It shouldn't, he says. "The key is to make sure the cable is grounded. When our service technicians are required to check. We make sure it's still grounded," he said.

    "But," he added, " this is lightning. Lightning does some really strange things."

    "We encourage our customers, if it's not too inconvenient, to unplug their modem and their cable box, the modem (for high-speed internet) even more than the cable box."

    There are surge suppressors on the market for TV (coaxial) cable. They may afford some -- but not 100 percent -- protection for those who can't quickly reach the cable outlet way back behind the home entertainment center.

    They're not as easy to find. Radio Shack carries a coaxial cable surge suppressor that retails for $52.99.

There's no protection, of course, like having unplugged all your sensitive equipment.

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