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With business relying on electronic communications, control and safety systems as never before, the exposure to losses from lightning strikes and related electrical surges also is greater than ever.
Given that business' reliance on potentially vulnerable electronic systems has developed only in recent decades, history may not be a guide in determining the extent to which a company should take steps to protect itself from lightning-related losses.
Losses from lightning strikes typically are covered under existing property or business interruption insurance programs. But the potentially disastrous circumstances a business could face from a crippled facility or damage to key systems or data make loss control efforts a critical component of addressing lightning exposure.
"Past experiences don't help very much," noted Dimitrios Karydas, senior engineering specialist at Factory Mutual in Norwood, Mass. "The probability may be the same, but the exposed systems may be very different."
And, to best address the exposure, lightning risk needs to be assessed on a site-specific basis, Mr. Karydas and a risk manager say. Also, loss control solutions are most easily implemented during the construction of a new facility, rather than trying to retrofit them later.
According to Mr. Karydas, the potential problems lightning can cause can be divided into its direct effects and the indirect effects.
The direct effects tend to be far more visible and can involve such things as a direct lightning strike that damages roof-mounted equipment, such as air conditioners. "In many other cases we also have the structure itself, which may burn," the engineering specialist said.
The direct strike also could dislodge structural components of a building, such as bricks and chimneys.
"In other cases we have units that handle flammable liquids or vapors," Mr. Karydas said. "These have been very vulnerable to lightning," with the potential for fire or explosion resulting from a direct strike.
Telecommunications antennas also can be very vulnerable to a direct lightning strike.
By contrast, "the indirect effects are very tricky," Mr. Karydas said. Those indirect effects can stem from two sources: the earth voltage that occurs near the area where the lightning actually touches the ground and the electromagnetic fields associated with the lightning flash.
Both pose a hazard for electronic equipment.
"These effects can be felt in many different ways," Mr. Karydas said. "The magnetic fields and earth voltages can directly penetrate a building or other enclosure, depending on the type of structure we have."
Al Niederfringer, a manager of fire protection engineering at Travelers Property Casualty Corp. in Hartford, Conn., noted that the situation is complicated further by the fact that while the building itself might be protected, lightning-related overvoltages can travel into the building on the lines serving it, even through buried cables.
Among the types of systems or equipment at risk are computers; building security systems; communications systems; computer-based cash registers or inventory control systems; local area networks; and computers controlling manufacturing processes.
"More and more equipment is having microprocessors and electronic logic installed in it," Mr. Niederfringer noted, and the risks expand in kind.
"Many systems in an industrial plant at this time are electrically controlled or electronic," Mr. Karydas said. "These are extremely vulnerable." Damage to those systems can be extremely costly, he added.
For example, the loss of communications or damage to an electronic control or safety system can lead to further unsafe conditions in the manufacturing process itself.
But the risks can be reduced.
"There are things you can do to protect your facilities," said Carol A. Fox, risk manager at telecommunications company Cincinnati Bell Inc. in Cincinnati.
While she noted that her company has had "a couple of lightning strike losses that have been covered" under its insurance policies, controlling lightning-related losses is important for Cincinnati Bell, "particularly for our billing subsidiary."
"It's a real important issue for us when we look at new facilities and can begin with the construction design phase," she said.
According to Mr. Karydas, that's the best time to implement the loss control measures. "It's best to be done beforehand, before the installation, because retrofitting systems is very difficult and sometimes impossible," he said.
In terms of how that protection is crafted, there are various approaches that depend on the site of the facility, the types of equipment to be protected and the vulnerability to a lightning-related loss.
"The questions to be addressed are 'How likely?' and 'What are the consequences?' " Mr. Karydas said. "And based on those two criteria, you proceed with the appropriate protection."
"There are different levels of protection," said Mr. Niederfringer. "You can spend a fair amount of money protecting items with very sophisticated surge protection."
In some cases, a business could even install a small motor generator that would provide a clean electrical supply for critical equipment. Such a measure would be expensive, but if the equipment in question is particularly critical to the business, it might be worthwhile.
"There are many ways of skinning this cat, and it depends on what you have at risk, both in terms of the dollar risk or computer equipment and also in its criticality to your operation," said Mr. Niederfringer.
"It's a business-case cost justification, and it's a matter of weighing the risk vs. the benefits," he said. "In my opinion, it takes a site-specific risk assessment to reach a determination."
Other issues must be considered as well, Mr. Karydas noted. It's important to consider the vulnerability of the property to be protected and the frequency of lightning strikes in the area.
Other factors include whether the facility is in an open space and therefore particularly vulnerable, or whether it's surrounded by taller buildings more likely to be struck.
"So, at an early stage, you have to understand the vulnerability of the building," he said.
"It's definitely site-specific," agreed Cincinnati Bell's Ms. Fox.
Various sorts of surge arrestors placed somewhere on the power circuit along the way to the electronic component are the most common way of protecting against lightning damage, according to Mr. Karydas.
General lightning protection can range from "the Ben Franklin-type protection all the way to the most modern type of protection that includes sources that direct the lightning to areas where it would have the least effect," he noted.
That latter type of system uses ionization sources to actually direct the lightning away from the most vulnerable areas of a building or manufacturing site to a place where it's less likely to cause damage.
"Recognize that all the electronic equipment is very vulnerable," Mr. Karydas said. Power supplies should be protected with surge arrestors, and electronic components themselves should be isolated and "hardened" to withstand surges, if possible.
Despite the possible damage that lightning can cause and a growing awareness of the need to try to control this exposure, Mr. Karydas said many businesses still consider taking appropriate loss control steps only after a loss occurs.
"Unfortunately, most of the time when I'm personally involved, it's after the fact," he said.
He conceded that it's true that the chances of having a lightning-related loss are, basically, those of getting hit by lightning. But the potential losses might be too great to merit playing the odds.
"There's no guarantee that it's going to happen today, this year or in the next 10 years," Mr. Karydas said. "But when it happens, it happens.'