Is your home office ready for when lightning strikes?
As I was doing some research for my column one night last week, a really bad storm came sweeping through the D.C. metro area. At first, I didn’t think that it was too terrible, so I mostly ignored it and kept working. However, the storm had other ideas.
The thunder quickly went from a distant rumble to a series of those pronounced summer boomers that we all know. Just as I was considering shutting down my computers, there was a brilliant flash of light, one of the brightest I have ever experienced. It was as if a million flashbulbs were going off at the same time. It was so brilliant that the sheer whiteness blasted through the windows, temporarily washing out all other colors in my home office and nearly flash blinding me.
This was followed by what I can only describe as a deafening electrical crack and a thunderous explosion that shook the windows and gave me a heck of a jump scare. I can see why Thor tosses lightning bolts around. Even a near miss can cause you to almost die of fright.
I believe the cracking noise must have been the lightning bolt itself since I have never heard anything like that before, while the explosion was most certainly the following thunder. Back when I was a reporter in Southern Maryland, I used to report on the weather sometimes—yes, I know that’s super exciting—but I learned little tricks like counting the seconds between the flash of the lighting and the sound of the thunder to determine how far away the center of a storm was located, or how far away the lightning was hitting. In this case it almost, but not quite, seemed instantaneous.
After that, the storm only lasted about 10 more minutes. I went outside in rain gear with my super-bright LED flashlight (after waiting until all the lighting had passed) and thankfully there was no damage to my house or any indication where the bolt had hit, at least in the dark. Back inside, however, quite a few electronics took a hit. In total, I lost two flatscreen TVs, a router and the video card on a test PC that wasn’t even powered up at the time. My PlayStation 4 lost its ability to send out a graphical signal (though I think it’s working otherwise) and two cable boxes fried so badly that they won’t even turn on anymore. Oddly enough, both computers that were powered up at the time, including the one where I was working on this column, came through the incident just fine.
The odd pattern of damage was kind of puzzling to me, and I figured with so many federal employees working from home now, I would investigate the incident at my place and try to determine what protections worked, and what didn’t. That way, you can better secure your own home office and not face any crippling downtime should more storms rip through the area. Given the history of bad summer storms around D.C., we need all the help we can get.
Two Achilles Heels
I had good surge protection on all of the devices that got damaged by the lighting strike. However, my protection only encompassed the actual power cords, which meant that several inputs on most devices, including the cable wire for the televisions and the network cable on the computer that got damaged, had no protection. Given the fact that two cable boxes fried to the point of being inoperable, it’s a safe assumption that the surge came in through the cable. However, the only way the router could have been damaged is if the surge went through the television and then through the network cable, and it was still strong enough at that point to kill the router.
The surge probably partially killed my PlayStation 4 the same way. Only instead of a network cable, it first went into the television and down to the PS4 through the connected HDMI cable. It’s interesting to note that my PS4 was sitting on HDMI input one, and I had an old PlayStation 3 on HDMI input three. The PS3 was somehow unharmed. It’s possible the PS3 got lucky, or the surge was stronger on input one as it was closer to the source given the layout of the circuits in the television.
The computer that lost the graphics card is a bit of a mystery. It’s possible that the power spike came through the network cable, though I don’t know why the graphics card would have taken the hit in that case. It had a DisplayPort cable running to a Tripp Lite KVM that was seemingly unaffected, as were other systems tied into the same KVM. So that part of the case might be forever unsolved.
One thing is clear however, the systems that were totally safe had been networked in such a way as to protect them from surges, though accidentally. They were both on closed systems. Yes, they were protected by surge protectors for their power, but they were also not attached to anything else. Both systems get their network connectivity wirelessly, and both used HDMI cables to drive their own monitors. Short of a direct hit from a bolt of lightning, that is about the best protection they could have. And if you are worried about wireless speeds, know that one of those systems is a gaming PC, and it’s extremely fast without needing a wire.
Protecting Your Home Assets
So the best thing you can do to make sure you are able to work safely from home is to invest in a good surge protector for the computer that you use for your agency job, and then eliminate all other paths that electricity could use to reach it. You can do this by giving it its own monitor and using wireless networking. Of course, if you use a notebook, then you already have this setup, but unplug it during storms just to be safe.
If a setup like that isn’t possible, or you need to protect other assets like televisions, then there are surge protectors that are designed to safeguard power and network cables. The Rocketfish line is known for this and is generally pretty inexpensive.
When looking for a surge protector, you should know that they are rated in joules. A single joule can dissipate one watt of energy over one second. So higher is better.
But one thing to keep in mind is that the joule rating isn’t static. You can think of it more like a bank account. Yes, you can get a huge surge that will deplete the bank in one shot and hopefully save your equipment, but each little surge also depletes a bit of it. For example, in the eight port Rocketfish model I referenced, it has a 3,600 joule rating, which is really good. However, let’s say you get a tiny surge that the unit has to stop. That might take 50 from the rating. Thereafter, you would only have 3,550 joules left. Also, the joule rating is divided up among three areas, the hot wire to ground, the hot wire to neutral and the neutral to the ground. So you only have a third of that protection in any one area. That’s why I recommend getting a surge protector with at least a 2,000 joule rating. They will provide better protection and last longer.
The Rocketfish models are great because they self-monitor their condition. There is a blue protection button that is lit when the unit is working. If its joule rating is depleted, the light goes out, and you know the unit is no longer protecting your equipment.
Direct lighting strikes are nearly impossible to protect against as the energy is just too great. There is a surprisingly small patch of dead grass with a little scorching around it, about an inch wide, in my backyard where the bolt could have hit. It was so small that I didn’t see it until the morning. Given how far it was from my cable box, I think a surge protector on the cable line might have helped. And I hope my experience will help you better protect your home office from a similar fate.
I purchased three new surge protectors with coaxial cable protection. Now I just need to find a new television to connect to them. So begins my research into OLED versus QLED, but that is a story for another day.
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys
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