Lightning and Surge Protection Of Modern Electronic Systems full report
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Lightning and Surge Protection Of Modern Electronic Systems


In virtually all aspects of our modern lives, microprocessors and integrated circuits (ICs) are hard
at work processing digital data, controlling critical systems and communicating information
through ever-expanding global networks. These now common components have dramatically
lowered system costs while increasing the power and flexibility of modern electronic systems in a
manner unimaginable just a few years ago. Yet, few developers seem to appreciate the fact that
these devices are critically susceptible to both externally and internally generated voltage
transients and surges and especially those produced by lightning.
What would lead experienced system designers and engineers to attempt to manage transient
voltage control and surge suppression for these modern systems by the use of protective
technology designed for previous generations of electronics The answers may lie in the
following questions:
¢Is there updated research available on the effects of lightning and voltage transients
¢Are widespread misconceptions regarding the manageability of lightning a factor
¢Have rapid advances in electronics out-paced the development of protective technology
The purpose of this paper is to answer these basic questions and deal with the issues in an
attempt to suggest a comprehensive but manageable approach for the design of modern
protective systems.
Lightning “ A Force to be Reckoned With
In the introduction, the question was posed Is there updated research available on the actual
effects of lightning and voltage transients
The answer is a resounding YES! In the last ten years, prestigious research bodies including
NASA, Sandia Laboratories, the University of Floridaâ„¢s Lightning Research Group and many
others have produced volumes of new information in the form of a number of published studies
that greatly enhance the designers ability to understand the mechanics of lightning strikes and the
resultant effects on electronic systems. The collection of truly meaningful data has been greatly
improved through the use of satellite imagery, high-speed computer analysis of real-time data
and advanced digital instrumentation. As we have learned more, the picture has gotten much
clearer. For the first time, industry has available sufficient information to accurately predict the
results of lightning induced transient events and to study the effects of protective technology.
Knowledge is Power “ An Overview of Lightning
Strike Frequency
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports at any single second there
are over 2,000 thunderstorms occurring around the globe, and in that same instant, on average,
lightning has struck somewhere in the U.S. six times. Figure 1 shows the five year average flash
Figure 1 Lightning Flash Density Map
(Courtesy of Vaisala-GAI)
Lightning Statistics
¢Cloud-To-Ground lightning strikes occur about 20 million times per year in the US.
¢One in every 50 US Cloud-To-Ground strikes results in an insurance claim payout
¢Estimated US annual damages from lightning: $5,000,000,000.
¢Lightning Strike Claims Paid per year (US) = $820,000,000.00 **
¢Lightning claims represent approx. 7.5% of all US insurance company distributions.
All data this page courtesy of the US Insurance Institute and is representative of private sector data only
** Claims paid per year listed above do not include US government property losses.
The Nature of Lightning
Lightning is the natural equalization of charge potential that builds in thunderstorms between
various regions of a cumulonimbus cloud and also the surface of the earth. The effect of updrafts
acting upon water droplets and ice particles results in separation of charges in the upper and
lower region of the cloud. In the typical thunderstorm, the lower region of the cloud becomes
strongly negative and this in turn induces positive charging of the earthâ„¢s surface below the cloud.
When the charge potential between becomes large enough to break down the normally resistive
characteristic of the air, a lightning bolt occurs. Bolts also frequently occur cloud-to-ground (CG),
between various regions within a single cloud (IC), or between two clouds (CC) through similar
actions. In all cases, this process repeats itself as long as the thunderstorm continues to receive
sufficient energy in the form of heat to regenerate the charge separation/equalization process.
Lightning Bolt Characteristics
¢Voltage of up to 100,000,000 Volts and current as high as 300,000 Amperes
¢The return stroke (main stroke) is approximately 30 microseconds in duration.
¢There are typically 4 “ 16 return strokes per lightning bolt.
¢Typical bolt duration of 20 - 50 milliseconds.
¢Temperature reaching to 50,000 degrees F (5 times hotter than the surface of the sun.)
¢Radius of primary surface electrical influence = 60 feet.
¢Power expended can be billions of Watts per bolt.
¢Lightning displays characteristics of both Direct Current and Alternating Current in the
form of Radio Frequency (RF) energy.
How The Damage Is Done
Lightning damage falls into two main categories “ Primary and Secondary Effects. These will be
briefly described below:
¢Primary Effect “ Direct lightning strikes are a major cause of fire, instant destruction of
property, electrocution injury and death. As one of the most common natural
phenomenon known to man, there has been no practical method developed to prevent
lightning strikes or to avoid damage caused by a direct hit. The most common technology
for dealing with this effect is to divert the strike energy to a properly grounded lightning
rod or cabling system.
¢Secondary Effects “ Approximately 1000 times more likely to occur than primary effects
for any given facility, secondary effects are the damage caused to sensitive electronic
devices, electrical networks and systems well outside of a CG strike point or as a result of
Cloud-to-Cloud (CC) strike. There are three secondary effects that are most commonly
observed “ Direct Energization, Low Side Surge and ElectroMagnetic Pulse (EMP).
These will be discussed below:
Direct Energization: This is the most obvious and potentially damaging effect of
lightning. A strike on the electrical cabling or other conductive pathways routed to a
facility can introduce dangerous energy surges into equipment connected at both ends of
the pathway. Although the strike may be a considerable distance from the facility, it may
be easily introduced into that facility by cabling, railroad tracks or even utility piping.
Common surge suppression technology is not generally effective against lightning.
Near Field Coupling (EMP): Because the underside of a highly charged cloud usually
carries a tremendous negative potential, an enormous electric field is developed in areas
adjacent to the strike path at the moment of discharge. As a result, high currents (in tens
to hundreds of kiloamperes) can develop along any electrically conductive paths to
ground within the area affected by this field. The reader should note that these fields are
developed in all lightning strikes including Cloud-To-Cloud events that do not directly
contact earth. Remediation of these common effects cannot be accomplished through
conventional grounding systems.
Ground Potential Rise (GPR): This effect is a form of resistive coupling that occurs
when a ground potential gradient forms in areas adjacent to the earth contact point of a
CG strike. Low Side Surge (LSS) is the result and it is easily the most common point of
introduction of damaging energy into sensitive control and monitoring circuitry. During a
lightning induced GPR event, the ground reference point that electronic systems critically
depend upon for diversion of excess energy can actually become a source of this
energy. Commonly relied upon protective devices and their connected grounding
systems are simply not designed to handle lightning related energy and may actually
become the pathway for this destructive energy to enter the system. If an ideal low
impedance single point grounding system (SPGS) existed in the facility, then resistive
coupling due to GPR would be a non-issue. Since this is almost never the case in actual
practice because of the relative size, complexity, and disparity of ages of different parts of
the facility, most facility grounds tend to behave as a multipoint grounding system.
Totaling Up The Risks
To recap some of the major points that what we have now learned about lightning, a brief review
of the following may prove useful:
¢Lightning does not have to directly strike a facility to do real damage.
¢Protection currently in place may be fine for normal surges caused by load switching and
utility transients, but will not be effective against lightning. They may even put system
equipment at greater risk by providing a pathway through sensitive equipment.
¢A typical facility ground will not provide necessary protection from lightning and may
actually contribute to damage through Ground Potential Rise.
¢To provide highly reliable protection, a lightning protection system design must address
direct strikes, energization of all incoming lines, ElectroMagnetic Pulse, and the effects of
Ground Potential Rise.
Example: Field strengths of 8000 volts/meter have been observed within 1
mile of a major CG lightning strike. Exposure of 10 meters of system cable to
this field could produce an induced potential of 80,000 volts on system wiring.
Example: A CG lightning strike of 100,000,000 Volts at 300,000 Amperes of
current into ground having inductance of .5x10-6 Henrys and a rise time of
2x10-6 Seconds could produce a Ground Potential Rise of 75,000 volts.
Sensitivity of Microprocessors and Integrated Circuits
Microprocessors are subject to weakening damage from reverse electrical energy as little as one
micro joule as can be seen in Figure 2 below. Integrated circuits are subject to damage from with
as little as 10 microjoules. To conceptualize a microjoule, snap your fingers. This relatively tiny
expenditure of mechanical energy is equivalent to approximately 10 micro joules of electrical
energy, the limit for an IC and 10 times more energy than is required to damage a typical
With the above chart in mind, itâ„¢s not difficult to visualize the relatively destructive effects of a
50,000 volt surge riding on the pin of an IC or microprocessor of a common digital device.
Destruction, Damage, or Blue Sky Failures
Approximately 5% of digital device failures are due to catastrophic causes such as lightning
strikes, transmission faults, or brownouts. The remaining 95% of failures are due to repeated
degradation of the equipment from transients that fall into a category between safe or normal and
catastrophic operation of a microprocessor or an IC.
The result of repeated attacks on solid state devices by transients, shown in Figure 3 below as
short-duration spikes on otherwise normal waveforms, is the seemingly unexplained "blue sky"
failures of the devices and a significant reduction in the mean-time-between-failures (MBTF) of
the system components.
Although modern electronic systems include intricate circuitry designed to filter such transients,
there is a limit to their effectiveness. If the effective surge is large enough, as in a lightning related
event, damage will inevitably occur and performance will be affected. When the accumulated
damage reaches a critical level, the component will fail.
Figure 2 - Operating Limits of Electronic Components
Trace #1
12.0 Volts/Div. Surge FT = 60Hz
Fs = 4 MHz
Figure 3
Dual trace oscilloscope plot illustrating the effect that power line surges may have
on connected low-voltage subsystem components. Surges are seen as spikes
on otherwise normal waveforms.
Normal Range
Damage Point
Damage Point
Trace #2
Low Voltage
Timing Pulse
0.1 Volt/Div.
Characteristics of Affected Equipment
Equipment damaged by long-term exposure to degrading surges and power transients displays a
variety of typical behavior patterns. These are described below:
¢Let™s start with the obvious first. A facility that experiences frequent dimming of lights,
brownouts, and partial or total disruption of electrical service during times of normal operation is
a prime candidate for problems. Uninterruptable Power Supplies (UPS), Surge Suppression
Devices and System Grounding should be considered possible suspect.
¢Computer Systems “ Symptoms of degraded performance include unexplained data loss,
errors in data transmission for networked systems, bios errors on POST, system slowdowns,
erratic behavior and unexplained lockups.
¢Control Systems “ Unexplained loss of Input/Output (I/O) sections of otherwise operational
circuitry, I/O card failures in Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) or Distributed Control
Systems (DCSs), data transmission errors, erratic behavior and the sudden onset of a frequent
need to reboot key system components.
¢CCTV Camera Systems “ Sudden loss of input channels in otherwise operational devices, lines
or pixel damage appearing in video monitors, data loss in recording systems.
¢Audio Systems “ Unexplained system noise including hum and hiss.
Hold The Phone! I Was Under The Impression ¦.
At this point, we should address a few of those misconceptions that we talked about in the
Introduction. Here are a few frequently asked questions:
1. Wonâ„¢t my National Electrical Code, Article 250 compliant ground protect our facility
Not against lightning. Article 250 specifically addresses the danger of fire and the safety
aspects associated with electrical faults in distribution wiring “ typically 240VAC and
down. In simply requiring a 25 ohm resistance (or lower) single point electrode system, it
attempts to ensure that overcurrent can be safely diverted to ground. This it does very
well. Article 250 was never intended to serve as an equipment reliability guideline.
In a lightning event, the total grounding system impedance is a much more critical factor
than resistance and a simple grounding system presents itself as a very high impedance
path. Simply put, the carrying capacity of the ground becomes insufficient to handle the
energy levels and transient characteristics present in a lightning strike and this energy will
always seek a lower impedance path to ground “ often through critical equipment.
Primarily due to the RF component of lightning and the high energy levels observed, the
ground ceases to be a safe harbor for diverting excess energy during these events. As
we will address later in this paper, isolation and electrical bonding become the strategy of
choice for dealing with lightning.
2. My facility makes extensive use of Transient Voltage Surge Suppressors. Arenâ„¢t these
effective against lightning
Probably not by themselves. Typically installed TVSSâ„¢s operate through a variety of
technologies. Most common systems based on Metal Oxide Varistors and similar
technology work well enough for normal distribution surges, but are neither fast enough
for high speed events like lightning nor can they handle the required energy levels. The
danger must already be present in the system before they begin to react. Additionally,
they degrade in performance with each protection event and can provide a ready path
from ground for Low Side Surges that occur when GPR effects occur. These low-end
devices should be avoided in all cases.
There is however, a class of upper-end transient suppression devices that operate at
much higher energy levels in a normal (line to neutral) or a multimode (line to neutral/line
to ground) configuration. These devices provide an excellent level of protection for AC
line wiring and are highly recommended as part of a total system approach to lightning
and surge suppression. These will be discussed later in this paper.
3. Weâ„¢ve been operating for years with no apparent damage from lightning. Doesnâ„¢t that
mean that we arenâ„¢t experiencing the effects described in this paper
No. As will be discussed later in this paper, it is estimated that 95% of all electronic
system failures are due to repeated degradation of the equipment from transients that fall
into a category between safe (or normal) and catastrophic operation of a microprocessor
or an IC. This is sometimes referred to as electronic rust due to itâ„¢s cumulative effect.
Eventually, the damage reaches a critical point and the equipment fails “ seemingly
without explanation. Facilities located in lightning prone areas and that experience
unexplained or blue sky failures are most likely being affected. Automatic isolation is
the key to preventing damage.
4. My facility is fully insured and the limit of our liability is only $10,000. What incentive do I
have to incur the cost of better lightning protection.
Limits of liability are usually confined to direct costs of system repair or component
replacement in the event of a catastrophic lightning or surge event. As discussed in
Question 4 above and later in this paper, it is estimated that these events represent less
than 5% of all equipment failures. Consider the following:
¢Blue Sky failures represent 95% of all electronic equipment repair or replacement
and are nearly impossible to positively attribute to specific causal events for
insurance purposes.
¢Indirect costs of equipment down time “ staff overtime, manual or extra security
measures, loss of data, etc.
¢Increased insurance premiums as a result of claims.
¢Other costs.
In the experience of the authors, the actual cost of lightning and surge damage almost
always greatly exceeds the cost of a well-designed protection system for most facilities.
In fact, many operators find that they actually reduce operating expenses through
elimination of down time and repair costs as well as the ability to negotiate decreases in
insurance premiums and lower limits of deductible liability.
Grounding and bonding in a modern facility is a complex issue beyond the scope of this paper.
The reader can find vast amounts of data and opinions on the subject with even the most basic of
research. In summary, guidelines that will prove generally acceptable in almost any application
are as follows:
¢Divert surge current as soon as possible. The longer a surge transient exists in a
monitoring or control system, the more the potential for damage exists. Hence, it is
imperative to detect and divert that pulse to a safe ground plane just as quickly as
possible. Short, low resistance ground runs and fast suppression systems are the key
to addressing this issue.
¢Use a dedicated low impedance connection for critical systems. The importance
of this is bond to the ground plane cannot be overemphasized. Ideally, the resistance
to the ground plane should be less than 0.1 ohms. While this is rarely practical, it
should be the goal. This is especially true for high frequency events such as lightning
during which ground reactance becomes more important to system performance than
simple resistance. A direct strike of 100,000 amperes to a lightning rod with a 10 ohm
connection to the ground plane could easily produce a voltage across the entire
electrical system of well over 1.5 million volts. By reducing the impedance of the
connection to 0.1 ohms as recommended, the same lightning surge would
theoretically produce a 10,500 volt pulse that would be much easier to manage with
conventional suppression methods.
¢Use a Single Point Ground System. All the subsystems in the plant, instrumentation,
communication, computers and control, and AC power, must connect to a single point
ground system. This is typically referred to as "star point" grounding. Properly done,
each subsystem ground is as short as possible and connects to the star point at only
one point. Multiple paths to the ground plane from a subsystem inherently have
different resistances. Different resistances to ground produce, again by Ohm's Law,
different voltage potentials to the subsystem that result in transient surge damage to
that system.
Star Point Grounding System
Instrument Solutions
Focusing on the monitoring and control instrumentation required in modern process facilities, we
find many similarities, problems, and solutions to transient surge elimination. The elements
primarily are:
Remote instruments and analyzers: The problem is fairly well defined and very widespread.
The most susceptible instruments in a typical process facility tend to fall into one of three general
categories “ analyzers, remote mounted instrumentation, and load/weight cells. These
instruments generally employ highly sensitive microprocessors, ICs, or strain gage sensors and
are often mounted on tall/isolated structures or the upper decks of process plants. Their isolation
from other systems, greater mounting height (i.e. longest runs to ground) and general sensitivity
make them the ideal targets for near-strike lightning effects. These devices typically require a
minimum of two elements: power to operate and the means to communicate to a DCS or PLC I/O
module located somewhere else in the plant. When designing applications that rely on these
types of devices, it should be noted that manufacturers of these instruments rarely offer more
than a minimum of surge protection as an option to the device.
DCS or PLC control system: This is where the control element, the brains of the system,
resides. Again, DCS/PLC manufacturers offer only minimal surge protection devices.
The common element to both ends of the system is the signal and power wiring. These are the
metallic power and information highways previously discussed. Once the surge couples onto this
highway, at typically up to 7,500 Volts/15 Amperes for switching transients and up to 100 Million
Volts/300,000 Amperes for a near lightning, it travels at 2/3 the speed of light in both directions on
the conductor seeking low resistance pathways to ground.
Electronics at both ends of the control loop provide these pathways. Having isolation resistances
far less than the transient surge, they break down instantaneously and often permanently under
the high voltage/current and allow the current to dissipate through them to the ground plane. And
by providing better grounding for the instruments at either end of the control/power loop, as many
instrument manufacturers suggest or require, we have made the final destination of the surge
pulse via the electronics that much more attractive!
What is the solution To summarize, the most effective defense is a combination of Automatic
Isolation systems, normal mode Surge Protection Devices installed at both ends of the loop and
on every metallic conductor associated with the system, and a true low-impedance grounding
Automatic Isolation Used In Conjunction with
Normal Mode TVSS
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30-03-2010, 11:00 AM

Lightning Protection
Facts about Lightning
A strike can average 100 million volts of electricity
Current of up to 100,000 amperes
Can generate 54,000 oF
Lightning strikes somewhere on the Earth every second
Kills 100 US residents per year
Lightning Doesnâ„¢t Go Straight Down
What Does This Mean?
Lightning can strike ground up to ten miles from a storm (Lightning out of the blue)
There is an average of 2-3 miles between strikes

So how can we tell how far away lightning has struck?

Use The Five Second Rule
Light travels at about 186,291 miles/second
Sound travels at only 1,088 feet/second

You will see the flash of lightning almost immediately
5280/1088= 4.9
About 5 seconds for sound to travel 1 mile

Stepped Leader
Four Main Features of Lightning Protection
1) Air terminal

2) Conductors

3) Ground termination

4) Surge protection
Air Terminal and Conductors
Grounding Rod

Surge Protection Is A Must

Effects Of Lightning

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