We can’t spare the rod

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Going to great lengths: Hartono has to sometimes get into drains and climb rooftops to take pictures for his research on lightning.

In this second part on lightning safety, Sunday Star looks at the authorities’ role in enforcing and enhancing lightning protection measures to shield people from danger during thunderstorms.

“WHEN thunder roars, go indoors.” That is one Americanism that we should adopt. Taking that basic guideline to heart, however, will come to nought if our homes are not adequately protected from lightning. Lightning strikes can cause dangerous power surges if your house is not properly protected – injuring you and damaging your electrical equipment.

According to lightning expert Hartono Zainal Abidin, some 90% of Malaysian homes do not have proper lightning safety measures. One reason, says Hartono, is that although the Energy Commission had in 2011 issued a circular putting in force the installation of lightning protection systems that meet international standards called MS IEC 62305, it is still not widely enforced.

He explains buildings are protected by installing metal lightning rods – called Franklin rods – that are earthed to channel power surges safely to the ground when they are hit by lightning. Many buildings here, however, have their Franklin rods installed at the wrong places – like the middle of the roof instead of all the roof corners. Some only have one rod covering the whole building, without any consideration to the size of the building or the complexity of its architecture.

This widespread use of non-conventional lightning protection systems includes the Enhanced or Early Streamer Lightning Protection (ESE), which its manufacturers claimed to have the ability to “attract” lightning – a single ESE lightning rod installed centrally on the roof can provide protection for the entire building and the open area surrounding it.

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Danger at the park: The gazebo at a park in USJ 16 where a student who was seeking shelter was struck by lightning.

The consultant engineer who spends a lot of his time doing “detailed surveys” of lightning damage around the city estimates that as a result, some 80% of buildings, especially high-rises, in the Klang Valley have been struck by lightning. The damage is easy to spot, shares Hartono, who has been carrying out his independent research since the 1990s, as he quips, “Now it’s easier with digital cameras.” He explains that he looks for top corners of buildings that are missing small chunks of masonry or concrete. “Lightning often strikes the exposed corners,” notes Hartono.

Another issue is public awareness, he adds, as many do not see it as a necessary investment to properly protect their properties from lightning. “What they don’t realise is that it will affect their insurance,” he says.

Concurring that the MS IEC 62305 series is the optimum lightning protection system, director of the Centre for Electromagnetic and Lightning Protection Research (Celp) at Universiti Putra Malaysia, Prof Ir Dr Mohd Zainal Abidin Ab Kadir, believes that awareness on the importance of lightning protection is slowly but surely growing in the country. He says the Energy Commission’s Guide on Lightning Protection System For Buildings, published in 2014, has helped highlight the problem with ESE and other non-conventional systems. The authorities have been working to include it in the building bylaws, he says, “The Energy Commission will enforce the building bylaws so that it will be mandatory for building owners and developers to comply to the standard lightning protection system. If they don’t comply, they will not get their CF (certificate of fitness).”

Dr Zainal says there has been enforcement since 2011 and the number of incidences has decreased, but concedes that it needs to be more stringent. Hartono hopes the authorities like the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Ministry and local councils can also look into the safety of public shelters such as gazebos in parks and bus stops. While steps have been taken to improve the safety of public shelters since the death of a student who was struck by lightning while taking shelter under a zinc-roofed gazebo in a Subang Jaya park in 2006, more can be done.

In Singapore, for example, small park gazebos are earthed with thick metal strips to the ground, he says. Unfortunately in Malaysia, we have to also contend with theft as the few public shelters that have been installed with a lightning arrestor, have had their arrestor stolen for resale. Our challenge now is to impress on people that lightning strikes are a real danger and proper safety measures and protection are needed, says Dr Zainal.

“Celp conducts training programmes for engineers on lightning protection technologies and we are trying to reach out to schools and raise the awareness of children from young,” he notes.

Source: The Star Online By Hariati Azizan. Sunday, 19 June 2016