Shocking developments 

Probably you've heard that Florida is the Lightning Capital of the U.S., and maybe you've wondered if it's just another marketing label, like Sunshine State or Margaritaville. Who knows? Maybe the state's tourism officials want to lure every last Ben Franklin wannabe.

It's a fact, though, and a label "well-deserved," according to one study, "Florida Monthly Lightning Climatology," by the National Weather Service. Thunderstorms gather here like conventioners. Blame it on the water on both sides of us, the many lakes in our middle, and the pancake-flat terrain, all of which create lots of temperature boundaries that bump into each other with nothing to get in the way.

So our sky flashes, again and again, with supersized static electricity. The resulting show can be impressive and theatrical, but it's also potentially damaging. More people die from lightning in Central Florida than from any other weather hazard. In Florida between 1959 and 1994, 345 people were killed by lightning; in the No. 2 state, North Carolina, the number drops to 165.

The life work of photographer David O. Stillings is to capture images of lightning, many of which can be seen on his website ( He says the whole I-4 corridor is "lightning alley," and he recalls a time in 1985 when a bolt struck just a few feet from where he stood with his camera equipment, knocking him off his feet. His hair stood on end -- "not just the hair on your arms or the hair on the back of your neck, but your hair everywhere," he explains. Even stranger was the sudden, absolute silence: "The weirdest thing about when lightning is so close, you don't hear anything."

Man is but one victim; nature is another. In recent years lightning has been blamed for an untold number of Florida's rampant brushfires. Robert Bowden, director of the Harry P. Leu Gardens, says that occasionally the garden's trees get struck. "I've seen it blow the entire side of the tree away," he says, with a touch of awe. "If everything's just right, it will throw splinters everywhere, for hundreds of feet."

Lightning also causes millions of dollars of property damage each year. One scientist offhandedly noted, with the kind of hyperbole not usually found in scientists, that an "astronomical number" of buildings in Florida must get struck. In Lake County in September, a lightning strike at the Tavares water-pump station sizzled computer systems and caused low water pressure in half the city. The computer's components, says public-works director Aaron Mercer, "were all in pieces like broken light bulbs -- all black and fried."

Some industries, like petrochemical and aviation, bear the brunt of lightning's destructive power. But the threat to everyday residential and commercial buildings has increased as our lives have become more wired. Expect your computer to die a quick death if your house is struck by lightning.

Thus the advent of lightning-protection systems. Although nothing can direct the path of lightning or make it strike in one place and not another, protection systems can channel the current away from the structure and safeguard internal systems that could be harmed. Certain types of buildings -- tall ones, metal ones, computer-filled ones -- are most vulnerable.

For 200 years, in the wake of what Ben Franklin learned in a thunderstorm with a kite and a key, people have been using lightning rods to channel the charge. A conventional protection system consists of lightning rods; conducting wires that carry the current to the ground; and a grounding system that dissipates the current into the earth. "A lightning-rod system directs `the lightning` and gets rid of it," says Guy Maxwell, president of Maxwell Lightning Protection of Florida. Often an external system is combined with internal surge suppressors, in case the charge doesn't come from a direct hit but from a cable running into the structure. (The Tavares water plant, pretty much just a concrete block, has rods, but the lightning that hit a neighboring power pole was too much for the internal surge protectors. Mercer is at a loss to explain what went wrong. "We had three different people look at it," he says of the failed system. "How that got past the system, we're baffled.")

No system can completely seal a building from a lightning strike, but one organization helps direct people to what's most effective. For nearly 100 years, the National Fire Protection Agency, a nonprofit organization that provides "scientifically based consensus codes and standards" relating to fire prevention, has issued a "Standard for the Installation of Lightning Protection Systems."

This code, known as NFPA 780, is then used by contractors, architects and code-enforcement officials. Maxwell, who opened his Lake Buena Vista business in 1993 but has been installing lightning protection "since I was 9 with my father," explains that in Florida, lightning-protection systems are required on schools and hospitals. Rods, though, sprout from all kinds of roofs across the horizon: on the SunTrust Building, for example, and throughout Universal Studios and Disney, where Maxwell had installed such systems. The downtown Orlando building being renovated at Orange Avenue and Jefferson Street will have a system of rods and groundings to protect the piles of computer systems planned for inside. Project manager Damian Stuart, of Lamm & Co., assures that the system complies with NFPA 780.

All would seem clear cut -- that is, until a new type of lightning-protection system was developed. It, too, wants the NFPA's blessing, but the NFPA won't give it. The ensuing struggle might end up in a mess -- specifically, no lightning-protection guidelines at all. The next time lightning hits a Central Florida building (and all things considered, that could be just about any moment now), if the circuits get sizzled, is the failure due to nasty lawsuits or insufficient science?

The new technology, called early streamer emission (ESE), uses a system that isn't wildly different from the conventional one, except for the design of the lightning rods. ESE uses rods topped by a saucer that emits an ionized field. The manufacturer says the field creates a much broader zone of coverage, thereby reducing the number of rods needed to protect an area.

After the NFPA refused more than once to issue a standard for ESE, the lawyers for ESE manufacturer Heary Brothers Lightning Protection pounced. Heary Brothers claims that the NFPA standard creates an unfair competitive advantage for the conventional rod systems.

In response, last spring the NFPA set up a special three-person panel to take another look at ESE systems. Their report concluded, "The ESE lightning protection technology as currently developed in the installation of complete systems does not appear to be scientifically and technologically sound in relation to the claimed areas of protection."

But in the course of their report, the panel did something unexpected: They pointed out that there wasn't enough scientific evidence supporting the validity of the conventional systems, either. Consequently, the NFPA proposed completely withdrawing the 780 guidelines. Scientists and manufacturers were taken aback. Currently, the NFPA has given supporters a year to assemble convincing proof that the 780 systems are valid.

"My big concern," says Maxwell, "is if they take the code away, you're opening the door for these flim-flam artists to come in with whatever they have."

But Jasper Thompson, owner of Jasper Thompson Lightning Protection in Kissimmee, installs both conventional and ESE systems, and he thinks the NFPA has been expecting a higher level of proof for ESE. "You've got to hold everybody to the same standard," he says. In the course of 17 years in the lightning-protection business, Thompson has done work on the Orange County Convention Center, Orange and Osceola counties' courthouses and Islands of Adventure. ("I did Superhero Island and Jurassic Park Island," he clarifies.) "They can't prove to me that ESEs don't work," he says. "It's worked everywhere that I've put it up." His next big job is to put four ESE rods on the corners of Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.

Why propose chucking the 780 standard now, after nearly 100 years?

Arthur E. Cote, senior vice president and chief engineer at NFPA, admits that the situation is unusual, and describes it this way: "A technology that's been around for a very long time is being challenged. That's come about because a new technology has been challenged. The new technology has chosen to question the validity of the existing technology." Such a challenge has merit, says Cote, because both the panel's report and a previous literature search contained comments that questioned the effectiveness of traditional systems.

Cote notes that the long history for conventional systems actually makes its current situation more difficult: "Older technologies don't have as precise a documentation as you might get from a new technology."

For Jennifer Morgan, vice president of East Coast Lightning Equipment, a Connecticut company, the sudden precariousness of 780 is simply exasperating. "One of my biggest criticisms of the review is that it didn't look at any information that was generated prior to 1986," Morgan says, noting that lighting rods date back to the mid-1700s. "Just because nobody's validated it `recently` doesn't mean it's not true. Nobody's validated that water runs downhill lately, either."

Supporters of keeping 780 in place point to evidence that the systems work. "There is no question about the fact that conventional lightning-protection systems, such as those described in NFPA 780, are effective in preventing fires and other damage due to lightning," states William Rison, a professor of electrical engineering at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. "There have been numerous studies to demonstrate that this is true." Rison points to studies as far back as the early 1900s, and notes that prior to the September Space Shuttle launch, lightning struck the launch pad, which is protected by a 780 system, "and the protection system did its job -- there was no damage to the Shuttle."

Notes Morgan simply, "If they weren't working, you'd hear about it."

At this point in the discussion, the issue switches from the laboratory to the courtroom. Supporters of traditional systems claim that the NFPA decided that the threat of lawsuits over lightning protection standards were causing too much trouble. Indeed, the Heary Brothers' lawyer threatened to sue the NFPA as well as its individual Standards Council members unless they would accept ESE systems. "I have a theory," says Morgan. "The legal threats -- the amount of time that the NFPA legal `staff` have had to put into lightning protection -- is disproportionate to the other standards that they maintain," thus causing the organization to back off altogether.

For Rison, the issue is straightforward: "There have been no independent studies showing that ESE-type systems ... are effective," he explains. He and two other professors published a paper, "Measurement of Lightning Rod Response to Nearby Strikes," that offers such an assertion as part of its conclusion.

He adds, pointedly, "Several years ago, New Mexico Tech was threatened with a lawsuit unless `a colleague` and I retracted our work." Indeed, one scientist contacted for this article preferred not to be named, citing the excessive number of lawsuits that have gotten thrown around.

Is the NFPA succumbing to lawsuit pressure from ESE manufacturers? "The NFPA is being threatened by lawsuits in this case from both sides," sighs the NFPA's Cote. "It's a matter of, who do you want to be sued by?"

Since Thompson installs both types of systems, he's not fretting too much about the hubbub. "There are different systems. If the owner wants it and if I think it works, I'll sell it to the owner." He notes that for large projects, ESEs can be cost-savers. For example, for a job at the Orlando Opryland Hotel, the owners would have saved about $60,000 installing an ESE system, "but they wanted the UL master label" -- that is, the seal of Underwriters Laboratory, which follows NFPA 780 guidelines and therefore doesn't certify ESE, either. In the end, Thompson shrugs: As with an insurance policy, you're buying protection that you may or may not use, and who can say if the systems work? "If it's too big a bolt and it wants to go somewhere else," he says, "it's going to go where it wants."


More by Theresa Everline


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