What’s new in the lightning protection field? From a technical standpoint, not much, although the lightning rod disguised as a rooster on a barn has been replaced by more efficient transmitters.

From a financial standpoint, there may be a tremendous business opportunity if you are located in an area susceptible to electrical storms.

However, this situation offers an excellent example of the type of thinking that retards growth in the electrical contracting industry. While researching the market in an attempt to uncover opportunities for electrical contractors, we talked with one manufacturer’s representative who said, “There are no opportunities and telling NECA members to pursue the market would be doing them a disservice.”

A startling response since his firm is a member of the Lightning Protection Institute, a non-profit organization funded primarily by manufacturers interested in increasing professionalism in the field.

Why aren’t there any opportunities in this field for electrical contractors?

“It’s simple,” he said. “An electrical contractor who gets a contract that includes lightning protection won’t hire a subcontractor to complete that installation if the subcontractor is someone he competes with on a daily basis for other electrical jobs.”

He went on to describe it as a “closed market.”

By the most recent estimates, lightning protection installations accounted for only $30 million of new business. Further, a recent Dodge Report indicates that only 5 percent of major electrical business opportunities have lightning protection specified in the contracts.

“We think there’s an opportunity to increase the business 2,000 percent,” said Chuck Ackerman of East Coast Lightning Equipment, also a member of the LPI and a manufacturer and distributor of lightning components.

A lightning protection installer for 20 years, Ackerman said, “It’s a small but potentially lucrative niche. Installation is simple. Certification is simple. And selling is easy. It’s a good business that can be very profitable because there are not enough installers in the industry.”

“In the construction industry, a 5 percent downturn is registered on a one-for-one basis. In the lightning industry, a 1 percent increase in business will offset that loss. A chronic problem is that there are not enough firms attempting to grow the industry.”

That’s more like it. But going into the business should not be a casual decision.

“A contractor who includes lightning protection on one job a year is making a mistake that may come back to haunt him,” Ackerman added. Lightning protection is serious business, and a contractor must become an expert or suffer the consequences. “Dabbling” in the field may result in systems that don’t work and, in the worst case, loss of property or life, incidents that generate big fees for law firms.

Becoming an expert

Earning the qualifications to install functioning lightning protections systems does not take a degree in astrophysics. Rather, it requires an understanding of fundamental principles and an investment of time to learn standards established by the National Fire Protection Association, Lightning Protection Institute and Underwriters Laboratories Inc. The payoff may be a Master Installer’s certificate. Since the technology is essentially a refinement of existing techniques, there is no need to make a major investment in equipment; newer tools are primarily refinements of the originals.

A typical project involves three steps: design of the system, installation and certification.

From the installer’s point of view, a typical protection system looks like this: the objective is to give all areas of a building equal protection when a cloud of negative ions overhead produces a strike. When the strike occurs, the first step is capturing the discharge (which may produce 40,000A and temperatures of 50,000 C) and moving it along an enclosed air terminal. The terminal could be as simple as a shaft inside a lamppost, or as complicated as a compartment going from the roof of a skyscraper to ground. The strike is directed to one or a series of down conductors that provide an insulated path to the ground. At ground level, ground rods or reference grids are installed and bonded to appropriate protection devices. Along the way, the main power service entry points must be protected with surge protection, as must low voltage data or control line circuits so telephone and computer systems, for example, are not cooked.

Coming to grips with the proper methods of designing and installing these systems is as simple as securing a copy of the LPI curriculum and proceeding from Point A to Point Z. The framework of the LPI course lies in National Fire Protection Association publication 780, which examines fire risks and protection; LPI Publication 175; and UL Publication 96A, which detail the standards for installation of lightning protection, installation practice guidelines and installation requirements necessary to receive the UL Master label. An optional section offered by a group of product manufacturers deals with the equipment necessary for these types of jobs. Exams include two at the journeyman level, and two for installer qualifications. Cost for the exam-certification program is approximately $750.

A second option qualifies a contractor to become a designer.

A typical specification

Compared to a lightning rod set atop a building, today’s set of installation specifications will detail the use of modern appliances and connectors. For example, excerpts from blueprints for a parking garage included:

1. Cross-run conductors are to be run in conduit.

2. Down, main and cross conductors are to be aluminum Class II (#13 AWG/Strand, 190 pounds/1,000 feet, 192 mcm cross

section area).

3. Down conductor from air terminal on top of pole-mounted light fixture on ninth level is to run down inside pole and exit at the eighth-level ceiling where it is to be tied to cross-run conductors.

4. Perimeter down conductors are to be routed within the structural columns to grade level.

5. Installing contractor must be UL or LPI certified.

6. Installed system must comply with NFPA 780 standard.

7. Roof air terminals are specified to be Class II, solid aluminum (5/8-inch diameter).

8. Metal bodies of conductance and inductance are required to be bonded per UL 96 and NFPA 780.

Matthew Caie, director of product development for Erico, said, “These jobs tend to be labor intensive, and highly profitable.” That makes sense since, if an electrician is already on site, installing protection systems will increase his efficiency.

The markets

Obvious targets for a bolt out of the blue are the tallest structure in a metropolitan area, or a television antenna in the middle of an empty field. However, less obvious, though equally important targets are power stations, substations and transformer stations; grain storage facilities; flammable liquid or chemical storage areas; hospitals; historic structures and buildings containing telecommunications equipment or computers.

Larry Lafave of Advance Communications and Electric in Tulsa, Okla., lives in a lightning belt. He entered the protection business 12 years ago. Always on the cutting edge, Lafave was among early entrants in the voice/data/video field. His firm “has survived by finding specific market niches, because I could not survive in the open market because labor rates here vary from $10 to $90 an hour,” he said.

“Anyone can stretch a wire, but what we bring to the table is an understanding of the theory of lightning.” Referring to the fly-by-nighters who operate out of their vans, he said, “Those Bob and Bobs don’t understand such basics as connecting conductors with an arc in the wire, instead of sharp angles.”

Of the three components of a lightning job, he said, “It’s typically not good to attempt to do all three because of liability issues. If someone else certifies a job, there’s less chance for repercussions.”

That makes sense, considering the potential risks to personnel, equipment and revenue and the potential for side flashing in a flammable environment.

Occasionally, he is placed in the designer’s role, however, “because manufacturers are too busy to respond to requests for drawings.” He also has learned how to improve the bottom line by providing surge protectors and uninterrupted power supplies, especially in installations where computers and telephones are at risk.

He described two irritants: “One of the problems in the industry is a lack of regulation, which allows the Bob and Bobs to operate. They’re charging $10 an hour, including travel. That probably won’t change until we’ve had more lawsuits.”

He also thinks NECA could play a greater role with pricing issues. “We’re the opposite of plumbers, for instance, who all seem to charge the same hourly rates. Out here, rates can vary from $20 to $90 per hour, which is a function of a lack of communication.”

Confident of the market’s potential, he recently hired an outside salesperson to promote the lightning protection side of his business. “On the whole, our industry has not been very good at that. We will all fail without an active sales force, and a system of remembering to say thank you to our existing customers. Once you understand the fundamentals, this is an easy business.”

Collins Electrical Construction in St. Paul, Minn., has completed projects at a law school, large apartment complex and public safety building in the last 24 months.

“The lightning protection was engineered in those jobs when we bid them,” Dave Hove said, “either because the engineers saw the risk or the developers’ insurance companies offered premium discounts if protection is installed.”

Though his firm is a full-service electrical contractor, and installing lightning protection is profitable, it utilizes outside sources for design and installation of lightning protection.

“At this point we aren’t seeing enough jobs to justify the expense of becoming trained to do the installations,” Hove said.

The bottom line

Ultimately, the decision to entertain any new business endeavor requires serious analysis of an apparent opportunity, compared to the risk and investment required. On the surface, it appears that a viable market exists in areas where electrical storms are prevalent. An awareness of the hazard is evident if engineers and insurers are requiring protection.

A contractor who thinks the glass is half full can evaluate the potential compared to the costs of educating a field force and, perhaps, hiring a salesperson.

The effort may lead to black ink on the bottom line. EC

LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at hrscrk@mcn.net.