Lightning Mitigation Systems

Convective activity presents a unique challenge to chemical processing facilities, as they explore options for lightning detection and lightning protection solutions. Annually, business in the United States loses tens of millions of dollars in downtime, cost of damage, and chemical incidents.1,2 Chemical processing facilities are particularly vulnerable to sustaining lightning damage due to the toxic and flammable nature of many of the chemicals with which they work. Even if the lightning does not cause immediate death or damage to the facility, simply overloading its electrical systems is enough to cause a disaster. Case in point is the April 2012 incident, in which lightning struck Valero’s Norco, Los Angeles facility. The facility experienced a power surge, causing the hydrocracking unit to malfunction. This resulted in the release of Sulfur dioxide and Hydrogen sulfide emissions during the flaring.3 From 2009 to 2014 there were almost 3,000 unplanned refinery shutdowns in the United States; 568 of them were attributed to electrical issues.4


Rising Costs of Lightning


The cost of replacing damaged equipment is rising, as lightning damage claims are increasing by roughly 20 percent every year; this is primarily due to increased implementation of electrical systems around the facility.5 Additionally the number of lightning strikes in the United States is estimated to increase by about 150,000 strikes annually, further increasing the likelihood of a facility sustaining a strike and the ensuing costs of damage control.6 Lightning mitigation solutions are therefore a worthwhile investment for any company that wants to adequately plan, prepare, and protect their facility and employees from sustaining lightning damage. Mitigating the effects of lightning strikes can be broken down into two categories: lightning detection and lightning protection.


Losses in the U.S. due to Convective Events (1980-2015)


Source: © 2016 Munich Re, NatCatSERVICE; Property Claim Services (PCS®)*, a Verisk Analytics® business. As of June 2017.


Lightning Detection


Lightning detection systems are solutions that either monitor lightning strikes, the atmospheric electric potential, or both. Lightning detection systems do not actively mitigate the effects of lightning but can offer advanced warning about impeding threats. Optical lightning sensors can detect both types of lightning, cloud-to-cloud, and cloud-to-ground but are somewhat limited without additional technology. This is because optical sensors require visual line of site to detect a strike or can trigger a false reading if exposed to similar bright flashes (i.e. welding).

For those reasons, comprehensive lightning detection systems include an electric field meter to complement the optical sensor. The electric field meter can detect potentially dangerous shifts in the atmospheric electric potential even before lightning or thunder can be noticed (read our Why the 30/30 Rule Isn’t Enough post to see why relying on visual and auditory cues is not always safe). The inclusion of the electric field meter into the lightning detection solution would also mean that safety managers are able to send their workers back out, only when it is safe to do so.


Lightning Protection


Lightning protection focuses on the multitude of available technologies that actively protect the physical structures and digital infrastructure of a company. A lightning strike can inflict plenty of damage by simply overloading a facility’s electrical system or causing a fire with a direct strike to a chemical process or storage unit. Electrical grounding, bonding, and surge protection are all parts of standard building practices to prevent power surges, should lightning strike a power line. Implementing adequate measures in these areas can protect the electrical infrastructure of a facility.


Protecting the rest of the facility from lightning strikes falls on lightning rods, arrestors, or dissipated array systems (DAS). Lightning rods and arrestors are solutions that ground various parts of the facility to redirect lightning strikes, whereas DAS is a solution that actively seeks to prevent potential lightning strikes. Although the outcomes may be similar in that damage from lightning is reduced, the two methods are vastly different in their approach.


Reactive Lightning Protection

Lightning rods were first used to protect structures at the urging of Benjamin Franklin, after his numerous experiments with electricity and magnetism.7 Although effective in its hay day, this 200+ year technology is not the ideal lightning protection solution for modern high-tech facilities. By design, this technology attracts millions of volts and thousands of amps of electricity in extreme proximity to volatile chemicals and sensitive electrical systems. A lightning bolt’s temperature can reach over 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is five times hotter than the surface temperature of the sun.9 A direct lightning strike can produce 20,000 to 30,000 Amperes of electric current which has the ability to overload most reactive lightning protection solutions.


Proactive Lightning Protection

Unlike the rest of lightning protection technologies that are meant to mitigate or re-direct the effect of lightning, Dissipated Array Systems (DAS) are designed to prevent lightning strikes all together. Lightning is caused by charge separation in the cloud, with the bottom of the cloud accumulating a negative charge and the positive charge gathering at the top. The ground has a positive charge; however, the insulating properties of air prevent the charges from connecting. When a sufficiently large collection of negative charge is built up in the cloud, a stream of negative charge rushes towards the ground. An upward stream of positive charge will meet the negative charge to complete the circuit and result in the main bolt of lightning.

Dissipated Array Systems prevent lightning strikes over an area by neutralizing the charge between the cloud and the facility before lightning occurs. DAS will provide thousands of points with separation which will simultaneously produce ions over a large area, thus preventing the formation of lightning streamers.8 DAS prevent lighting strikes by continuously lowering the voltage differential between the ground and the charged cloud below the lightning potential. It does this by using the ionization process to create a flow of current into the surrounding air and can work even during a powerful storm.


The proactive protection provided by lightning detection and dissipation systems allows facilities to evacuate personnel to safety sooner and safeguard the critical infrastructure. By monitoring or manipulating the electric potential around the facility, these lightning mitigation technologies are active safeguards when it comes to lightning safety at chemical process facilities.

For information about SAFER Systems Lightning Detection Solutions contact sales via email at or call 805.383.9711.



  1. Lightning Protection Institute
  2. International Data Corporation
  3. Digital Refining
  4. Hydrocarbon Publishing
  5. Insurance Information Institute
  6. Science
  7. Franklin Institute
  8. Electric Light and Power
  9. National Geographic

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