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A lot of aerials (almost by design) would be rather good attractors of lightning. What steps do I need to take in the field to keep my gear safe against a lightning strike?

I'm presuming the obvious already here (such as not operating in a storm), but are there any additional steps I should take?

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    $\begingroup$ As it stands right now, this question is too broad. What are you wanting to safeguard? What kinds of circumstances are you trying to protect against? Is your equipment your key requirement, or do you care more about the other facilities? $\endgroup$ – PearsonArtPhoto Oct 23 '13 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ If lighning strikes close by the EMP can still damage sensitive equipment. Ground antenna, unplug from power strips, short all input/output ports/plugs, enclose in a Faraday cage if you become fanatical. $\endgroup$ – Optionparty Feb 27 '14 at 2:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Optionparty Most of the damage from nearby strikes comes from strong voltage gradients over the ground or between the ground and things near it, causing arcing, causing things near the ground to effectively be grounded. You don't need a whole Faraday cage to protect against this; just a ring of wide copper strap around a building will do, forming a sort of two-dimensional Faraday cage. Commercial broadcast stations do exactly this, and this is part of why they are able to stay on the air despite multiple strikes per year and never disconnecting the antennas. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Feb 27 '14 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ An additional reference on constructing antenna grounding systems with NEC standards in mind: reeve.com/Documents/Articles%20Papers/… $\endgroup$ – user2943160 Jun 6 '16 at 0:55
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There's a lot that can be said about lightning protection, but it usually boils down to doing all of these things:

  1. make good, low impedance connections to Earth
  2. bond all Earth connections together with a low impedance path
  3. have only a single point of entry to protected equipment

A real problem when discussing lightning protection is that people will consider only some of these things, and the result is sometimes worse than doing nothing.

make good, low impedance connections to Earth

Just about everyone understands this one. You want long rods in the ground, at least 8 feet. Multiple rods, if you can, about as far apart as they are deep. Lightning currents from a big direct strike can be in excess of 100,000 amperes, so you need fat conductors so they aren't vaporized by the current. Lighting is also an extremely fast pulse, which means it contains a lot of high-frequency energy, and you should think about it like RF current. Wide strapping is better than round conductors (skin effect) and you should make the path of your conductor as straight and short as possible to minimize resistance and inductance.

bond all Earth connections together with a low impedance path

This one is frequently neglected. The current from a strike is so huge that it won't simply all go into the closest grounding rod can find. The Earth itself isn't a low impedance conductor, so even when lightning strikes a point in an empty field, significant voltage gradients can be observed significant distances away from the strike point.

W8JI has a great example of this, where a tree was struck, and some 20 feet away, arced back out of the ground to travel through a Beverage antenna.

Consequently, if you have multiple connections to Earth, or even things close to Earth, lightning currents will find a way to those points, even if that means flowing through your station equipment, arcing across water pipes, HVAC ducting, or even through wood or concrete in your home, which aren't great insulators. Bonding all the grounds together with heavy wire gives the current an intentional place to go.

Most building and fire codes require that all grounds are bonded with very heavy wire or strap, for this reason.

have only a single point of entry to protected equipment

Perhaps the most neglected point of all. If there are multiple points of entry, that means lightning current can enter at one point, and exit at another. As discussed in the previous point, lightning currents are so huge that they make significant voltage gradients almost everywhere, including between the two points of entry to your station. Where there are voltage gradients, there are currents, and where there are currents, things break.

A very common situation in amateur stations is to have a grounding rod at the mast or tower, where the feedline enters the shack, or both. W8JI provides a great diagram of a poor grounding system:

poor station ground configuration

(I highly recommend reading through the rest of W8JI's lightning and grounding information. Lots of diagrams, pictures, and good advice. On this topic: Ground systems, House ground layouts, and Second floor grounding.)

When lightning strikes the power lines, some of this current will go to ground through the additional ground(s) at the tower or shack entrance. After passing through your equipment and frying it, of course. Strikes on the tower cause the same problem, in the other direction. This is a situation where a naïve attempt at protection has made things worse, virtually guaranteeing equipment damage when a strike occurs. Even a nearby strike might introduce enough of a voltage between the grounds to cook your equipment.

Worse, in some setups, disconnecting the feedline leaves this extra ground (B) still connected, violating the popular "wisdom" that disconnecting the feedline in a storm protects your equipment!


So what can you do?

the ideal approach

Ground the base of your tower or mast with a large field of radials and a lot of ground rods, spaced over a wide area, bonded together with wide copper strap. Bond the shields of all coax feedlines to this.

Surround your entire house in wide copper strap, with a hefty ground rod every eight feet or so.

Bond these two ground systems together with wide copper strap, so that any current caused by a voltage between them favors that strap over your feedlines. Make sure any utility grounds (electric, telco, etc) are also part of this system of grounds.

Every cable that enters your shack, including the mains wiring, any control lines up the tower for rotators and such, ethernet cables for a home network, everything, enters the shack through a big, fat copper plate that's connected with a wide, short, straight connection to the ground running around the house. Each of these cables go through protection devices such as gas discharge tubes or MOVs. Conductors that should be grounded (feedline shields, AC safety ground, etc) are bolted directly to the grounding panel.

With a setup like this, you can confidently leave your feedlines connected in a storm, and survive direct strikes to the antennas. In fact, your house is probably less likely to be damaged by lighting than ordinary residential construction. A direct strike may cause some damage to exterior components, burning insulation or melting thin-gauge wires, but equipment inside is quite safe.

more modest approach

Most people will not want to invest the time or money to install a protection scheme that extensive. If you don't have a tall tower, or you live in an area where lightning is not frequent, it may be difficult to justify such expenditures.

In this case, it's better to think about what you shouldn't do. Don't create an extra ground. It's better to address common-mode currents with baluns and proper antenna design. If you must have a ground (such as a vertical installed at ground level), then consider the ground part of the antenna, not the station, and be sure to disconnect it in storm conditions.

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Many companies make lightning surge protectors. the install in the coax to your radio and divert the strike to ground.

NOTE: THERE IS NO SURE WAY TO PROTECT YOUR RADIO EXCEPT DISCONNECTING IT FROM POWER AND THE ANTENNA.

Search for polyphaser, they are well respected, MFJ also makes some lower cost options..

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    $\begingroup$ What options are there other than simply disconnecting? It's seems to me that any device won't put enough space between the radio and antenna to prevent a significant surge from arcing across the space (especially considering that lightening is arcing from clouds to the ground/tree/tower/etc.). Is disconnection simply creating a higher resistance path that encourages lightening to find another route to ground? Do manufactured devices provide this sufficiently? $\endgroup$ – Peter KB1AVL Oct 22 '13 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ This is a gross oversimplification to the point of uselessness. Simply installing a lightning surge protector in the feedline is likely to do little to nothing in the way of protection. YOUR VERY LOUD CAVEAT IS ALSO WRONG. Do you think commercial broadcast stations detach their antennas for every storm? I think not. Yet, they all remain on the air, somehow, despite being in the worst possible location from a lightning exposure perspective. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Feb 17 '14 at 21:34
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QST magazine printed a comprehensive three part article in 2002 addressing lighting: Lightning Protection for the Amateur Radio Station. They are republished by the ARRL.

The surest way to protect your radio gear is to disconnect it from power, from the antenna, from your computer and even from ground. And even that is no guarantee -- a while back I had an enormous bolt of lightning strike my backyard. I had three transceivers; one rig was still connected to my computer and both the computer and rig were smoldering. The other two rigs were also fried despite being disconnected from power and antenna. My presumption is that the electromagnetic field from the lightning was powerful enough to destroy components in the rigs.

It's a hassle, but disconnect your rigs from power, antenna and computer.

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    $\begingroup$ It's worth underscoring that in order for this solution to work, every cable must be disconnected. Feedline, power, ethernet, any "RF grounds", etc. Everything. Most likely, your rig was toasted by current from the strike, if it hit the antenna, traveling down the feedline, to the chassis of your radio, through the ground of your PC interface cable, to the computer, to the electrical service ground. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Feb 26 '14 at 14:36
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A discharge tube would serve to protect your rig from a close strike. Apart from that, make sure you have a decent ground for your shack.

Having said that, it's probably not a good idea to operate in heavy weather. Unless absolutely necessary to continue operation, I'd go QRT, and disconnect the coax from the rig.

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    $\begingroup$ Just adding a discharge tube will do little to nothing to protect equipment. Adding a decent ground, depending on how it's done, might make things worse. The most usual "solution" is to ground the feedline and/or antenna mast, which creates two grounds: the mast ground, and the electrical service ground. A strike on the antenna or the power lines will cause high currents between these two grounds, through your equipment, breaking things. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Feb 26 '14 at 14:33
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What you need to do is follow the requirements of the National Electrical Code (assuming USA).
This article covers it well.

(ps. Failure to comply with NEC 810 is the #1 reason ham radio operators in the US have fire insurance claims denied, and why they have to buy ARRL's silly little insurance policy. If you follow NEC 810 and get permits for your work, your insurance company won't try to deny your fire claim)

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