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How Does A Personal Lightning Detector Work?

Lightning strike on city.


The very first lightning detector, invented by Alexander Popov in 1894 was also the first real radio receiver.

Lightning strikes, both cloud to cloud and cloud to ground (really ground to cloud, which is the direction energy travels,) give off an electromagnetic pulse or EMP. This EMP energy is a combination of HF, LF, and VLF radio frequency energy. There are very accurate lightning detectors, such as those used by weather researchers and airports. These are very expensive and accurate instruments costing into the thousands of dollars. Professional lightning strike detectors can determine the direction and intensity of a lightning strike with high accuracy. On the other hand, in the consumer category, there are small personal lightning detectors that sell for less than $100.

 A personal lightning detector, about the same size as a pager, can indicate the proximity of the EMF pulses given off by lightning strikes and indicate whether they are cloud to cloud lightning or cloud to ground lightning.

Personal lightning detector. A Personal Lightning Detector.

Personal lightning detectors, such as the Strike Alert model above, measure the strength of the EMP and use that number to calculate the distance to the strike up to forty miles away. Other EMP characteristics are used to determine if the strike was cloud to cloud or cloud to ground. Some devices can also determine from the increase or decrease in the number of individual EMP's whether lightning activity is approaching or receding.

Limitations Of Personal Lightning Detectors

One of the biggest limitations of personal lightning detectors is there is no warning of the "first strike" which can come out of the blue sky, up to ten miles away from a thunderstorm. Lightning alarm devices must have an initial strike to begin showing activity. Unfortunately, in rare cases, the first strike can be deadly.

Another one of the limitations that affect personal lightning detectors are that they are susceptible to EMP from sources such as automobiles, industrial activity such as welding, power line noise and strong radio transmissions.  For example, you cannot use a personal lightning detector near a mower or in an automobile. The will however, work fine in a diesel tractor, which does not use an electrical ignition system.  Away from these types of interference they work very well to give you warning of an approaching storm containing lightning activity. Most personal lightning detectors have a battery life of approximately 100 hours.

Should You Rely On A Personal Lightning Detector?

Personal Lightning Detectors Are Useful When Initiating A Job Shutdown

No single device can keep you safe from a lightning strike, however a personal lightning detector can be one of the tools you use to keep yourself, your workers or sports team safe. They can help initiate a "shutdown" in an orderly manner on a jobsite before the storm arrives. Contractors might use them to prepare the worksite for a shutdown. Coaches often wear them and use them as a sign when to have the team head to the lockers.

Another valuable asset to have to help you know when to shut down a job or sporting event is a portable NOAA weather radio with the S.A.M.E. local area warning alert system. NOAA weather alerts are often based on lightning strike reports from professional equipment located in official monitoring stations. Unfortunately, these monitoring stations may be far from your location, requiring local information such as that from visual storm observation and personal lightning alarms.

Common Sense, The Best Lightning Detector

Lightning hitting a sports stadium.

Use common sense always. The best lightning detector is your ears and eyes. If you see a dark thunderstorm approaching, seek shelter. While only a handful of people in the United States are killed from lightning strikes each year, many more are severely injured. Those in positions of responsibility for the safety of others, such as coaches and jobsite foremen, owe it to their workers to warn them of an approaching lightning storm.




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