KUALA LUMPUR: We have just crossed the year’s lightning month with an average 86,000 strikes recorded in Peninsular Malaysia alone. With the monsoon season and more lightning expected this month, experts renewed their calls for better lightning protection. The Klang Valley receives the third highest number of lightning strikes in the world. Scientists consider it the “lightning crown of the world” because it is the most populated and developed of the top three.
Malaysia’s Centre for Electromagnetic and Lightning Protection Research (Celp) estimates that Malaysia loses RM250mil in infrastructure damages and business disruptions due to electrical outages from lightning strikes each year. Lightning has killed 224 people and injured 2,000 more in the last eight years in Peninsular Malaysia. “Despite that, the level of awareness and government policies for lightning protection is frighteningly low,” said Celp director Prof Dr Mohd Zainal Abidin Ab Kadir.
The Fire and Rescue Department does not keep records of fires caused by lightning and neither do the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government or KL City Hall have policies on lightning proofing buildings in their jurisdiction. A study by Universiti Putra Malaysia found that Malaysians list severe weather, including lightning, as a top concern but believed lightning strikes was something “you can’t protect yourself from”. “It’s very sad. Even engineers don’t know this,” he said.
In 2011, the Government issued a circular for buildings to adopt an international standard for lightning protection called MS IEC 62305, but Dr Mohd Zainal said this standard was rarely enforced. This has led to developers and building managements having complete control on what kind of lightning protection they want to have for their structures. “Often, they choose cheaper, popular and wrong methods,” Dr Mohd Zainal said.
One of the most popular forms of lightning protection here, he said, was installing Early Streamer Lightning Protection – a metal rod that stands on a roof and is claimed to be able to attract lightning and ground it safely. However, this claim has never been backed by international research but has caught on here because it is cheap and widely used by contractors. Dr Mohd Zainal also said that even when proper Franklin rods and grounding systems were used, they were often installed at the wrong places – like the middle of the roof instead of at all the roof corners. “Some only have one rod covering the whole building, without any consideration to the size of the building or of its architecture.”
This has led to dangerous and costly consequences. In 2006, lightning ignited 720,00 litres of fuel at the Johor Port in Pasir Gudang. In 2011, fire destroyed three wards of the Putrajaya Hospital after it was struck. As recently as last year, a man in Ipoh was electrocuted to death in his shower after lightning fried his home’s fuse box and water heater.
“There really isn’t any clear authority or consistent approach for lightning protection here. The MS IEC standard isn’t tied to any law and jurisdiction between Federal and local government makes it hard to implement,” he said. The Energy Commission (ST) is currently conducting a study to gauge the extent of the Klang Valley’s preparedness for lightning, though Dr Mohd Zainal believed that more than 90% of our buildings were not protected.