Free Electricity From The Sky!

If the headline made you think I’d invented a way to throw your power company under the bus, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you. This is not some scheme involving gathering vacuum energy with a Delta-T Antenna. (Although if we could get energy from the hot air in tabloid lies stories, our troubles would be over!) The free electricity I’m talking about is lightning, which is not a very user-friendly form of electricity.

With the Monsoon season on the horizon again, this is a good time to talk about lightning.

A bolt of lightning contains quite a lot  of energy – approximately 5 billion joules or about the energy stored in 38 US Gallons of gasoline. Problem is, it delivers all that energy in about 1/100,000 of a second, so it’s a lot like a bomb rather than anything useable. It’s kind of like getting all your lifetime’s Christmas and birthday presents all at once… You’d suffocate under them.

So what is lightning good for? It’s nature’s way of keeping forces in balance between the earth and sky. It helps purge old forests by occasionally setting them on fire (Yes, sometimes fire is good for forests!). And, it’s really good at destroying the works of puny mankind, especially electronics.

Lightning, not surprisingly, does weird things, since it packs more voltage (100 million volts, or about a million times more voltage than a household outlet!) than anything man-made. A customer of mine had lightning strike his TV antenna, just on the other side of the wall where he was sitting, and though it destroyed his TV, it only damaged his computer, and didn’t hurt him at all. Computers are generally the most sensitive to such things, but he got lucky. A friend of mine has had lightning strike close to him several times… No one knows why. A few people have actually been struck by lightning several times and survived. In fact, amazingly, 90 percent of people struck by lightning do survive, although with varying degrees of temporary or permanent impairment.

Lightning will often pass through only the surface of whatever it hits, leading to bizarre injuries in it’s victims: clothes and shoes are sometimes literally blown off by the person’s perspiration exploding into vapor. Sometimes the people aren’t burned so much as bruised over most of their bodies.

You can get a pretty good idea of how much lightning is in the vicinity by listening to an AM radio. Lightning creates a lot of energy all across the electromagnetic spectrum, including radio. The characteristic crackling is easy to identify.

How do you protect yourself and your stuff from lightning? There is no force on Earth that will protect anything from a direct or near strike. To protect yourself, seek shelter in a solid building or an automobile. Do not shelter under trees! Stay away from anything tall. If out in the open and shelter is not an option, make yourself as low as possible. Lie down in a ditch, or at least crouch low. If indoors, stay away from the telephone, electric appliances, and plumbing. Anything metal can conduct the lightning straight to you.

Benjamin Franklin made the first real contribution toward protecting your stuff in the form of the lightning rod. Since lightning usually strikes the highest point in the neighborhood, the lightning rod is installed higher than the top of the structure it’s on, and well grounded. Lightning,  being electricity, will always take the path of least resistance to ground, and therefore should follow the lightning rod instead of setting the house on fire.

For your electronics, the best protection you can give them is unplug them when you hear thunder. If you have a close strike, anything plugged in will most likely be toast. A surge protector won’t help you! Surge protectors may help if the lightning strike is 20 miles away, but they’ll be no help at all for a close one. This goes for anything plugged into a phone line, too, especially dial-up and DSL modems. If your computer is unplugged but your DSL modem is still connected to the phone line, the phone line may be the path the lightning takes, so unplug the phone line as well.

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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