Southeastern Wisconsin is home to some extreme weather swings, and with rising temperatures from spring into summer, rainy days are often accompanied by thunderstorms. Streaks of lightning may look beautiful against dark skies, and many people love to watch storms roll in, watch the flashes of light and time the loud cracks of thunder. Taking shelter during such storms is common sense, but all homeowners should be aware of some extra precautions one should take, even indoors, as well as potential damage that lightning can cause to the home itself.

Beginning with some basic facts about lightning… Many people don’t take cover until a storm is upon them, yet lightning often strikes far outside the rain clouds, as far as 10-15 miles from the thunderstorm. A common myth is that lightning is attracted to small metal objects; lightning is a giant discharge of electricity, an electrical transfer between negatively charged particles in the storm and positively charged particles down below that travel through tall objects, such as trees, telephone poles and people. And, while some people are victims of a direct lightning strike, even more people are struck as the current associated with lightning moves along the ground.

While a home or other substantial building is the best refuge for individuals during thunderstorms, the building must have some mechanism for conducting the electrical current from the point of contact to the ground to provide adequate protection from lightning. This mechanism may be on the outside or within the walls of the structure, or a combination of the two. Any custom-built home will have adequate protection; lightning can move along the outer shell of the home or may follow metal gutters or downspouts to the ground, and, on the inside, electrical wiring, telephone lines and plumbing all serve as conductors for the lightning to follow to the ground.

Lightning can enter the home by either a direct strike, or via any wires or pipes that extend outside the home and into the ground. Once lightning enters the home, it can travel through several conductors, such as telephone or electrical wiring, plumbing and even through metal wires within concrete walls and flooring. Therefore, it is important during thunder and lightning storms to avoid contact with any plumbing (dishwasher, laundry, shower) or electrical equipment. Surge protectors do not protect from direct lightning strikes, thus an added precaution from potential damage to any electronics is to unplug them prior to the storm hitting.

Many owners of luxury custom-built homes opt for a professionally installed lightning protection systems that will ensure the safety of the home and its occupants in the event of a direct lightning hit. These systems prevent an explosive lightning channel from passing through building materials, thus protecting from fire and structural damage. However, they do not offer surge protection to prevent damage from sensitive electronics. A fire is the greatest danger posed to a home following a direct lightning hit; following its strike, it usually has to pass through wood and other flammable materials before it reaches a more conductive path such as wiring or pipes. As it further travels through wires, it may burn them up, presenting fire hazards anywhere along these affected circuits.

Lightning may be beautiful to watch, but it poses a real threat to individuals and their homes. Should your home incur a direct strike, call the fire department, as a fire can start anyplace the lightning has traveled. It is also wise to contact an electrician to inspect the home’s electrical system for any damage which could pose a future fire hazard.