How Lightning Works

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Lightning Rods

Lightning rods were originally developed by Benjamin Franklin. A lightning rod is very simple -- it's a pointed metal rod attached to the roof of a building. The rod might be an inch (2 cm) in diameter. It connects to a huge piece of copper or aluminum wire that's also an inch or so in diameter. The wire is connected to a conductive grid buried in the ground nearby.

The purpose of lightning rods is often misunderstood. Many people believe that lightning rods "attract" lightning. It is better stated to say that lightning rods provide a low-resistance path to ground that can be used to conduct the enormous electrical currents when lightning strikes occur. If lightning strikes, the system attempts to carry the harmful electrical current away from the structure and safely to ground. The system has the ability to handle the enormous electrical current associated with the strike. If the strike contacts a material that is not a good conductor, the material will suffer massive heat damage. The lightning-rod system is an excellent conductor and thus allows the current to flow to ground without causing any heat damage.

Lightning can "jump around" when it strikes. This "jumping" is associated with the electrical potential of the strike target with respect to the earth's potential. The lightning can strike and then "seek" a path of least resistance by jumping around to nearby objects that provide a better path to ground. If the strike occurs near the lightning-rod system, the system will have a very low-resistance path and can then receive a "jump," diverting the strike current to ground before it can do any more damage.

As you can see, the purpose of the lightning rod is not to attract lightning -- it merely provides a safe option for the lightning strike to choose. This may sound a little picky, but it's not if you consider that the lightning rods only become relevant when a strike occurs or immediately after a strike occurs. Regardless of whether or not a lightning-rod system is present, the strike will still occur.

If the structure that you are attempting to protect is out in an open, flat area, you often create a lightning protection system that uses a very tall lightning rod. This rod should be taller than the structure. If the area finds itself in a strong electric field, the tall rod can begin sending up positive streamers in an attempt to dissipate the electric field. While it is not a given that the rod will always conduct the lightning discharged in the immediate area, it does have a better possibility than the structure. Again, the goal is to provide a low-resistance path to ground in an area that has the possibility to receive a strike. This possibility arises from the strength of the electric field generated by the storm clouds.