Month: January 2017

Lightning Rods or Air Terminals?

A lightning rod is a metal rod that sticks up from a roof that will carry the current from a lightning strike safely to ground. It is typically copper or aluminum today, although Benjamin Franklin experimented with other metals in his original lightning protection systems. Some can be hollow to eliminate the weight of the lightning rod, and that meets code. At BASE Lighting Protection, we use solid air terminals because a solid air terminal, although not always necessary, can handle a greater charge if the situation demands – whether or not that situation should arise. Lightning rods can also be rounded at the top like the original ones in England, or spike tipped like the ones Benjamin Franklin pioneered here in the U.S. Each has its own advantages.

Today, the lightning protection industry has started to shy away from the term ‘lightning rod’ in favor of our new, more inclusive term of ‘air terminal.’ As you see in our picture, you don’t need a rod to carry the current. You see Mickey Mouse up there? He is an air terminal. Our friends in Orlando work closely with Disney to disguise their lighting protection systems. Disney has some of the most creative lightning protection systems in the world. In order to do that, they had to veer away from the typical lightning rods we saw in years past.

Nowhere in our lightning protection codes does it require that these metal objects that intercept the current before it touches a building has to be a rod. In fact, we in the community like to “nerd out” when we see an air terminal that isn’t a rod. Code specifies that we can substitute rods for metal objects at least 3/16″ thick that can carry the current safely to the ground. Code also specifies that the object has to be 10″ above the structure it needs to protect. Mickey, here, is tied into the system in a less conspicuous way than the average lighting protection system. Mickey also sits at the peak of the building, effectively protecting the building. He was custom-made to be the correct thickness in order to pass the required codes and is just as effective as any old lightning rod.

There are tons of other ways that we can disguise lightning protection. We wrote another article that talks about all the different ways that we can bypass using lightning rods. You can put a deck on the top of your house or high rise building and use metal railings to connect into the system.

For these reasons, the industry prefers the term ‘air terminal.’ We can more effectively communicate when we understand that there are many creative, innovative ways to meet code and please a client.


The History of Lightning Protection

Most of the time when we tell a new client unfamiliar with commercial construction that we do lightning protection, we get something like, “What? Lighting protection? Why do lights need protection?” Truth is, lightning protection (yes, with two ‘n’s. Yes, like the stuff in the sky.) is not at the top of most people’s heads, but everyone learned about the history of lightning protection in school.

The Story of Ben Franklin and the Kite

This is when the light bulb goes off in people’s heads, or the lightning bolt, if you will. The story goes a little like this:

Benjamin Franklin liked to study storms, and he thought lightning was static electricity. To test out his little theory, he climbed to the top of a hill during a thunderstorm and flew a kite with a key on the end. He did this to attract the lightning to prove it was electricity. Eventually, he was struck by lightning and felt that familiar electrical shock from his routine tinkering with electricity.

Everyone knows how that story goes. That’s when the remember, and understand, exactly what we do at BASE Lightning Protection here in Atlanta and the rest of the Southeast.

The Backstory of the History of Lightning Protection

Benjamin Franklin was a tinkerer. He liked to learn and build things and test them. He is known as a Founding Father, the founder of the first fire station, the Father of Electricity, and an avid inventor. Innovation was his hobby that turned into his profession. In 1747, Franklin took particular interest in electricity and started working on several experiments. By 1749, he predicted that lightning was static electricity. (Spoiler, he was right.)

In the summer of 1952, he was in the process of creating the first lightning protection system. He used the tall, sharp steeple as the lightning rod, now called an air terminal, to protect the Christ Church in Philidelphia, Pennsylvania. His idea was that a sharp, pointed piece of iron could pull the electricity out of the cloud before lightning struck and started an electrical fire.

In June, he became too impatient with the slow building process of the church. He knew a front was coming in that was sure to bring storms. He tied a metal key to a kite and went to the top of a hill. Sure enough, lightning struck the kite and traveled through him to the ground. He finally proved lightning was electricity.

Still today, people aren’t quite sure how he survived the strike. People every year get struck by lightning and occasionally one will survive, but with the amount of charge going through a body, it isn’t likely. One common theory is that the storm had already died down so the lightning strike wasn’t as strong as it was during the peak of the storm.

We hope this refreshed your memory, if not enlightened you, about the history of lightning protection. Click this link to see the even more in-depth story covered by the Franklin Institute.

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