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Lightning Can Easily Fry Your Studio
- Even If Cables Are Buried. What To Do ...
July 20, 2016

Editor's note: Last night, during a blazing lightning storm in our area, we recalled the following article in the VoiceOverXtra archives, written by VO pro Mike Harrison, about protecting equipment from lightning strikes. Today, Mike says the advice still pertains, so we think it's worth a second look ...

By Mike Harrison
Voice Actor
 
Unless you can afford hiring a licensed electrical contractor to consult and install whatever is necessary to protect your precious home studio gear from power surges due to lightning strikes, put your trust in retail-purchased surge protectors at your own risk.  

Several years ago, I was living in a garden apartment complex with maybe 10 or 12 units per building. All utilities were underground. That includes electrical power, cable TV and telephone.

Cables for those services came above ground only in the basement of each building and into their respective distribution panels, from which feeds to each apartment is run.

I make a point of mentioning the buried power, cable and phone service only to illustrate that there are no utility poles along the streets within the complex for lightning to hit.  

MY GEAR SET-UP

In my studio at that time, the power cords for the 13-inch TV and all of my equipment – the Power Mac G4 and its monitor, plus several Firewire hard drives and a CD/DVD burner, and my audio gear, which included mic preamp, Digidesign Digi002 A/D interface and Telos Zephyr ISDN codec.

These were all plugged into several industrial-grade multiple outlet boxes which, in turn, were plugged into my APC battery backup/uninterruptible power supply, which featured some degree of surge protection.  

ZAP!

The uninterruptible power supply proved its worth on a couple of occasions, keeping everything humming along quite nicely when the power would suddenly go out which, oddly, happened far more often than I’d ever experienced before.  

But there were never any serious issues … until after waking one morning to find the computer wouldn’t power up. Everything else was just fine, but no computer.

When I got down on my hands and knees and moved closer to the computer to investigate, I began to sense the dreadfully familiar odor of burnt electronics.

I instantly remembered being awakened during the night by a lightning storm.

Upon opening the computer, nothing out of the ordinary was visible, so I assumed the toasting took place inside the G4’s power supply.  

WHAT HAD HAPPENED?

Using my old Power Mac 6500, I was able to find a rebuilt G4 power supply on eBay and, within a few days, the G4 was up and running again. The 6500 was able to keep me working, but it was slower going.  

With all electrical power underground in the apartment complex, the lightning obviously hit something a good distance away.

Yet, of all the units in the entire complex, of all the units in my building, and of all the equipment power plugged into the same source inside my apartment, the power surge caused by the lightning strike chose only the power supply inside my G4 to toast.  

STRIKE TWO ...

Fast-forward to the summer of 2012. Now living in a condo in a much nicer community and, as before, all electrical, cable TV and telephone service is underground; no utility poles with exposed cables or transformers on the property.

Pretty much the same gear wired in the same way; into those same multi-outlet boxes plugged into the back/UPS.  

One afternoon, as a thunderstorm approached, I turned everything off and went to the kitchen to make a sandwich.

I don’t even know what word to use to describe what was truly the absolute loudest crash of thunder I’d ever heard in my 50+ years. Almost literally heart-stopping. It sounded as though lightning had struck very close-by. VERY close-by.  

WHERE'S MY ISDN?

After things calmed down and the sun began peeking out, I fired up the studio.

The computer powered up, as did everything else I needed … except the 13-inch TV. It apparently took a hit and was fried.  

Then I noticed the front panel of the Telos Zephyr. The usual ‘Ready’ status had reverted to ‘inact,’ meaning the connection to the ISDN network was lost.

Several attempts to reboot didn’t cure it, so I looked at the rear panel and saw, above the RJ11 phone jack, that the green LED that is usually on steadily was out.

After describing the scenario to the fine support staff at Telos, the verdict was that the ISDN card inside the Zephyr had also taken a hit and was fried. They ruled out the possibility that the fault was with Verizon’s network because, had it been, the green LED would be flashing.  

HOW'D IT HIT?

But, Telos said, this surge did not come down the power line. Had it done so, the Zephyr’s power supply would’ve taken the hit.

No, this nasty surge came down the phone line. And this was not the first time Telos had heard this same scenario.

You might know that residential telephone cable has four wires, and that only two are required per line. In my case, one pair is for my landline phone and the other pair is ISDN.

Wherever the lightning strike occurred, it came down only the ISDN pair and left my telephone untouched.  

BEST PROTECTION: UNPLUG

Telos continued by saying there are some very good power conditioning products out there, but they are not cheap. Those that are more affordable for the masses might do pretty well keeping the power on during an outage, but are seriously lacking in adequate surge protection.  

Telos sent me a new ISDN card and, $350 later, the Zephyr was online again.  

Thus, the overwhelming advice for the ultimate studio protection during electrical storms is to not only shut everything off, but completely disconnect – unplug – everything, from both AC power, cable (internet) and phone.  

UNPLUGGING DRAWBACK ...


One possible slight drawback to this is that - depending on your Internet service provider - disconnecting your cable modem (and router) from their network and unplugging their power may cause your IP (Internet Protocal) address to change when reconnected.

Such is the case with my ISP. Security on my website is achieved by not allowing administrative access to any IP address but my own.

It took some trial-and-error to learn I have to leave the cable modem and router powered up and connected to their network to retain the IP address. Those two pieces are plugged into a separate power strip and then directly into the wall; not into the back/UPS.

But I disconnect the Ethernet cable from between the router and computer.

IF STRIKE THREE COMES ...

So, if another lightning strike occurs, the only things that might get toasted are the cable modem (which belongs to my ISP, so I couldn’t care less) and my router, which is far less expensive to replace than anything else in the studio.

If you have nothing that would be impacted by your IP address changing, all the better.  

Yes. I unplug when storms approach, anytime I’m away from home and, of course, when hitting the sack for the night. A few extra seconds is so worth it.  
-------------------
ABOUT MIKE
Since 1973, Mike Harrison has been engaged professionally in several fields (radio, corporate communications multimedia production, advertising) where work was performed in either acoustically-treated rooms with microphones and/or semi-darkened rooms filled with expensive equipment featuring pretty, often-blinking multi-colored lights and various knobs, switches and buttons, and whose innate skill with said equipment, particularly the fluency and speed with which he operates it, has been aptly described by the words, "wip, bom, bip, bom, boop.” He also writes pretty darned good copy.  


Web: http://mike-harrison.com


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Comments (10)
Howard
7/20/2016 at 3:47 PM
…but this heat is getting to my head. Laptop is only isolated that way if we are not using a mains driven mic and pre.
Howard
7/20/2016 at 3:44 PM
A further thought, prompted by Keith Michaels' note: using wireless rather than ethernet connection of course provides total isolation for a battery-driven laptop.
Howard
7/20/2016 at 4:54 AM
Yes, worth a second look at Mike's piece. Big electrical storms are not frequent in UK, but in this week's unusual heat, the AM radio is giving out those tell-tale crackles so plugs will have to be pulled in the next hour or two.

Typical surge arresters are of limited use as they only block voltages appearing between pairs of conductors, not the bolt that may arrive along both, including the utility company's provided 'ground'. If that's also hit, an arrester has nowhere to dump the current.
Mike Harrison
6/13/2014 at 8:34 PM
Hey, thank you all for your feedback. Yeah, it's a great example of "what we don't know can indeed hurt us."

No one was more surprised than I: first, at how amazingly selective power surges can be (how they somehow ignore everything except one appliance); and second, a spike coming down the phone line and choosing the more expensive of the devices attached.

I think I sleep better now, after unplugging for the night. ;)
Chuck Davis
6/7/2014 at 7:01 AM
With you all the way on this one, Mike. I've had a Zephyr fried by a lightning strike. These days, if a storm is on the way, everything goes off-line. Disconnected from power and ISDN. Actually, if the Zephyr is not in use, it's always disconnected. Since I operate on Wi-Fi in the studio and elsewhere in the house, I can stay online to check emails through the laptop. Respond to clients and get back to work when the coast is clear.
Howard Ellison
6/7/2014 at 5:27 AM
Good tips, Mike. There's a storm right now, approaching western England. If it gets near, every plug will be pulled from the back of the Mac because above all I don't want to lose data: worth far more than my simple hardware!
Once we lived in hilly Wales (all utilities on poles) and a crashing hit on our FM aerial fried a much loved vintage amplifier. My wife still misses the sound of that old Williamson.
Keith Michaels
6/6/2014 at 12:48 PM
Good stuff, Mike! I live in Tampa (the lightning capital of the World) and my electric company provides me with a Zap Cap, which is a device that attaches to the meter and prevents surges from getting into the house. My PC is wireless so no cable or ethernet wires to worry about. Your article reminds me about the risks we face as studio owners that we can forget about.
Moe Rock
6/6/2014 at 12:46 PM
HOLY GUACAMOLE!!! Twice?

I must admit I've gotten really lazy about unplugging. And here in the NE, we have LOTS of thunderstorms. A good reminder Mike.
Linda Joy
6/6/2014 at 12:46 PM
Mike,
What a story. Okay, you have me checking my set-up now!
Thanks - great advice!
Linda
Bobbin Beam
6/6/2014 at 12:29 PM
Mike,
OH MY! What a tale. I have a power conditioner and battery backup, but now I'm thinking that unplugging is the best line of defense to save our expensive gear and keep intact.
Thanks for this so much!
Bobbin Beam, Female Voice Talent
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