Amateur Radio Station: W5EHS - FCC Licensed Owner/Operator: Dan Kautz

More Lightning Thoughts

Lightning is natural electrical (electron) current flow event. It’s a natural occurrence with supernatural power.

lightningIt’s most seen and common form occurs in severe weather events in the atmosphere. This is not the only location. Lighting is observed in earth events such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. It always requires some sort of particle of material such as water vapor, snow, ice, dust on which to accumulate and build (store) a charge. The solid earth is also such an “accumulator”


In every case there is an “accumulation” of electrical energy and that word has become a common term for electrical charge retention. An accumulator. The electronic component called a capacitor is one small example.

The “science” of the process is that negative electrons can be scrubbed off a normal neutral charge material by friction. It also occurs from chemical action in things like batteries and from magnetic forces as in generators. Pressure on crystalline structures can create a high voltage. Certainly, there are other processes of which I don’t know. The result is electrons are accumulated creating a negative charged region of material. That from which the electrons were “scrubbed” becomes opposite charge (positive).

A term I learned in my science education is, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” This implies the natural (resting) condition in nature is a neutral one. High pressure always flows to low pressure to create a neutral pressure region. Electricity balances the same way.

Electrical flow is energy transfer rather than air or water flow. It’s a convenient human thought process to think of it as a movement of material. Einstein says matter converts to energy at the speed of light squared. But then there is another rule that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. I assume that means without becoming energy. Science is so confusing… 

Lighting is a supernatural process of electricity obtaining this same kind of “Natural” balance of high and low electrical pressure. With electricity the pressure difference is called voltage. The flow is called current. Together they are known as power. Lightning is one of the worlds natural and true super-powers.

Atmospheric lighting is a continuous process on a global scale. It never stops. Its semi-random occurrence means a human often sees lightning but seldom become directly affected.

Except for me. My present house has been struck twice in less than a decade.

I have a ham radio vertical antenna on my house. All common lightning knowledge states that lightning protection (lighting rod systems) and devices such as antennas don’t ATTRACT a lightning strike. They provide a low resistance path to ground, preventing explosive destruction of high resistance building materials and natural materials like tree trunks.

My first strike entered the wiring in my house and burned out electrical wall outlets and damaging mirrors on bathroom walls. Slight heating damage to the RF matching network at the base of the antenna.

The recent second-strike event was apparently mostly diverted to ground through the antenna grounding with secondary path to my radio feed line and equipment and computers all connected by surge arrestors and common wiring. The three surge protectors in my office protected most of the house wiring but linked together all my office electronics, home cable TV and phone systems. The antenna RF matching network exploded into fragments in this strike.

Forty plus years ago when I lived in Ohio, I observed and measured the voltage of an arc jumping from the center conductor of a disconnected antenna coax connector to its outer shell (ground) The center conductor connected directly to a single ungrounded element of my “beam” antenna fifty foot up on my antenna tower. All the other antenna elements, the tower and coax outer braid were grounded.

There was a nice quite (no wind) large fluffy-flake snowfall occurring outside. There was a once every few seconds “snap-snap” as the 3/8” long arc occurred in the disconnected coax connector laying on the floor. This snapping noise is what attracted my attention. I measured over 10,000 volts as that was as high as my HV meter probe was rated.

No “strike” occurred but it fully demonstrated to me how much potential difference can be built up and stored on an ungrounded antenna element. That amount of charge would certainly damage radio equipment.

That 50-foot tower never received a lightning strike and demonstrates that such grounded towers do not “attract” lighting. But if ungrounded, can become charged to a deadly voltage charge.

I have worked around tall commercial AM radio towers. The entire structure is the antenna and not at DC ground. Arc gap points are built into the base of these towers to permit high voltage accumulation to arc to ground. I was told a “scare story” of someone casually “kicking” at one of these gaps and blowing his foot off…

Touching the ungrounded tower even on a clear day can electrocute animals and humans. The ground (open field area) around the base of these structures have a buried wired radial system. This superior ground system and isolated tower structure can create exactly what I witnessed with my ham antenna. A huge capacitive charge can accumulate without the presence of a thunder/lightning storm.

All personal Ham Radio antenna systems I have used are well DC grounded. RF coupled (as my present vertical) and center conductor grounded when not in use to blead off charge accumulation. This does not stop a full strike as Lighting will easily jump large air gaps.

I have resolved - Any future Amateur Radio outdoor antennas and the complete radio installation will be totally separate from all home office computers and equipment.  No desire in the future to combine the potential damage of a lighting strike with everything else electrical in an office environment.

The convenience is not worth the risk. Amateur radio stations need to be a separate entity. Isolated as much as possible from all other Electronic and electrical devices with conductive paths and be extremely well grounded electrically by separate purpose grounding. All outdoor antenna connections need large gap disconnects and grounding when not in use. Antenna disconnect action must be a consistent practice.

With this resolve, my goal is lightning and atmospheric electrical issues will no longer be a major damage causing event.