LAKEWOOD RANCH — A terrible storm was thrashing the East Manatee neighborhood of Rosedale when Frances Mallarino saw a bolt of lightning and heard a crash.
“I checked my house, sat back down to read, smelled smoke,” she recalled about the afternoon of Aug. 21. “I opened my front door and said, ‘Oh my God, that house is on fire,’” seeing flames next door in the 9700 block of 51st Terrace. “The roof’s collapsed, it’s a total loss, it’s a disaster.”
Fortunately, the damaged house was unoccupied the day of the fire, as it was a vacation home and its owners were in Iowa.
It was at least the second such fire in the area in a matter of weeks.
On July 1, a Lakewood Ranch home valued at nearly $1.5 million was severely damaged in a fire officials suspect was caused by lightning, incurring between $700,000 and $800,000 in damage, they told the Herald at the time.
The fires prompt a question: Would residences equipped with lightning rods be better protected?
Florida recorded 815 fires caused by lightning in 2008, with 15 in Manatee, according to Nina Bannister, a spokeswoman for the state.
But a local fire marshal said he was not sure whether he would recommend lightning rods.
Scientifically, the devices have a long history of success Scientifically, the devices have a long history of success dating to the era of their inventor, Benjamin Franklin, but now, even among fire officials and home builders, there’s little consensus about their use.
“We discussed it with the firemen, they said it wasn’t any good because it drew lightning to them,” said Mallarino. “That’s what they told us. We were all discussing getting lightning rods, and in fact, it was a fire inspector who said he didn’t recommend them.
“My husband and I have been discussing it, and I don’t think any of us are getting a lightning rod.”
The majority of Manatee homes do not have lightning rods, maybe for aesthetic reasons, said George Ellington, fire marshal for East Manatee Fire Rescue. When asked if he recommended their use, he said he was not sure, as he was not convinced they really work.
Myths are common about lightning rods, said John Barber, lightning protection sales project manager for Windemuller Technical Services, of Sarasota.
His company installs lightning rods for residences, as well as atop commercial facilities, such as those owned by Florida Power & Light.
He noted that some believe lightning rods attract lightning to one’s house, but added: “They do not.”
“They control lightning, they control lightning safely into the ground.”
“If lightning is going to hit a house, lightning rods give it a safe place to hit,” he said.
During a thunderstorm, lightning from a cloud is positive, the energy field from the ground is negative, and as the lightning travels toward the ground, it pulls an exact opposite charge out of the ground, Barber explained. They meet, and that is the flash people see.
“It’s a dead short,” Barber said.
Lightning enters a home or building in three main ways: according to a National Weather Service Web site:
n A direct strike.
n Through wires or pipes that extend outside the structure.
n Through the ground.
Regardless of how it enters, once in a structure, lightning can travel through the electrical, phone, plumbing and radio/television reception systems, the Web site said. Lightning can also traverse metal wires or bars in concrete walls or flooring, it said.
Barber works with many local builders, installing about 500 lightning protection systems each year.
A residential installation typically costs between $3,500 and $4,500, he said. The device he installed on his own home is a pole about 5 feet high with a 9-inch-wide, saucer-like piece perched on top, he added.
He also recommends surge protection systems that preserve expensive electrical equipment, such as computers or home entertainment systems.
Manatee County builder Pat Neal remembered frame farm homes, built on the prairie in his native Iowa, each sporting lightning rods; but homes here typically do not.
“In Florida, I have never installed a lightning rod in 7,700 homes,” he said. “The homes are concrete block and stucco, and for the most part, have a cement tile roof while many have Fiberglass shingles.”
He has installed lightning protection for commercial buildings, though, he said.
On the other hand, Sarasota custom home builder Michael K. Walker recommends lightning protection for all his clients.
“Pretty much all homes we do, we recommend it,” he said. So far, none of the homes he has equipped with protection has been set afire when struck by lightning, he said.
Walker knows all too well lightning’s majestic power, since he was working with a construction crew atop a house one afternoon when a bolt hit a flagpole behind him.
“I must admit it scared us all half to death,” Walker said. “It was exciting, standing on 14 tons of reinforcing steel, all tied to the ground.”
“It’s hard to explain, it’s like you can smell the ozone burn when it hits, there’s an aura about it,” he said. “It’s strange.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-0411, ext. 2120.