Lighting Strikes: a Bolt From the Blue

One evening late last summer I took the most expensive workout of my life. In my hurry to meet a friend at the gym, I left the house, leaving my computer and hi-fi on despite the ominous look of the sky. In the South, experience teaches you to dash about disconnecting everything at the first sign of a thunderstorm. Usually I do, but this time my mind was elsewhere.

I headed across town toward my favorite gym. Stopped at a hilltop intersection, I saw one of the new office towers take the biggest lightning strike I have ever seen. The building, 40-some stories of Gothic Modern topped by a decorative open-ironwork chisel point, lit up for a few seconds like a gigantic searchlight. Then came the deluge. For a quarter-hour rain fell like Niagara Falls, visibility shrank to about 20', and traffic slowed to a crawl.

During a lull I parked and dashed into the gym. It wasn't very busy—just me and five or six other lunatics. I trained for about an hour while the thunder boomed and rolled. My friend never showed up. He missed a great experience; there's a primeval charm to pumping iron while Nature rages. Outside, it looked like Zeus was pressure-washing the city with a galactic firehose. Inside, the lights dimmed and brightened, went out and came back on. Power failures are common in this part of the world: trees fall across electrical lines, cars slam into utility poles, lightning strikes everywhere. It's like earthquakes in California: you accept their inevitability and assume that you'll be lucky. This particular evening my luck ran out.

When I came home I found Jodi standing in the dining room looking at hundreds of pieces of plaster scattered over the table and carpet. The house had taken a direct hit! The innermost wall had a shotgun-blast hole near the ceiling, which in turn had a smaller hole by the outer wall. (Entrance and exit wounds? I wondered.) We began a cursory examination of the damage.

The phones were dead. The bedroom TV worked but the cable was out. Sound but no picture on the big Sony. Two VCRs were inoperative. My software was still displayed on the monitor, but the computer wouldn't respond to the keyboard. A rack's worth of audio gear was kaput. In the kitchen, a small TV was dead, but the KLH model 21 table radio plugged into the same outlet worked fine. So did the kitchen appliances, including the microwave oven. Curiously, there was no correlation between surge damage and whether or not anything was actually powered up at the time of the strike. We walked around testing and unplugging things, as if that might prevent further destruction. The storm continued all night.

The next day I began some inanimate-object triage. The damaged were divided into three groups—the irreparable, the easily repaired, and those that with great effort might be brought back to life. There were some pleasant surprises: among the survivors were a Pioneer CLD-2080 laserdisc player, a PS Audio 200 Cx power amplifier, and a Randy Tomlinson–modified JVC XL-Z1010 disc player (which to my plebeian ears sounds as good as almost anything on the market. Doubters are directed to John W. Cooledge of The Abso!ute Sound.) Light casualties included a Panasonic portable phone (new AC adaptor) and an Adcom GFP-565 whose tape-out buffer chips were blown even though its phono and line stages worked normally. My old reliable answering machine was beyond hope; its printed circuit board was charred. A cheap telephone attached to it had suffered permanent brain damage—it would receive calls but dialed wrong numbers. It was trash-can time for the two of them. The phone line which fed them was burned open.

A stack of line-level gear (tape decks, tuner, cheapo carousel changer, etc.) had been plugged into a "surge-suppressor" outlet strip, which was in turn plugged into an isolation transformer. The strip didn't get a chance to do much suppressing; the isolation transformer suffered an open primary. This was actually fortuitous for everything it supplied—it all came through unscathed. Worst hit were the NEC video recorders in another room, which, being connected directly to cable and AC outlets, were doubly susceptible. One had some shorted power-supply components; the other was so far gone I decided to strip it for parts.

Fixing the computer was a comic nightmare. I have an IBM XT with a monochrome monitor and some outdated software, which works just fine for what I do with it. If I sound a bit defensive, it's because I know a certain percentage of readers are technoholics, which is fine; it's just that my testosterone level and self-esteem are not directly related to the size of my on-board memory or the speed of my microprocessor. Occasionally I write up an invoice or mull over a piece for the magazine, and I've found every time that, even at my best, I can't out-type the old IBM. Most of my writing time (which is a rare enough occurrence—sorry, JA) is spent staring out the window or changing "glad" to "happy." In other words, I need a 486/50MHz with glittering, variegated fish swimming across its high-resolution screen like I need a third leg. My fondness for the XT stems from my days as a computer tech, when Big Blue was shipping this machine by the millions, and it was standard equipment in every respectable office and le derriere du chat for the home-computer jock. It's big and accessible and easy to work on, and parts will be available forever. Or so I thought.

If you think the audio world is badly infected with the latest-and-greatest syndrome, you haven't been paying attention to computers. Or maybe the fact that newer and better DACs seem to be unveiled every month has made you aware of rapid developments in the digital realm. My particular sad truth is: the XT is several generations out of date. I called around to computer stores to find parts. Sample responses: "We don't service those anymore." Click. "Why do you want to fix that old hunk of junk? It's a dinosaur!" Click. "Sure, we can get you an original IBM motherboard, $250 I think." Click. "Why try fix? XT obsolete. Need 386. Come in, we make deal." After three days of this, I heard about a computer salvage shop, literally an electronics junkyard, in a disreputable part of town. There I found everything I needed, at prices so low I had to stock up just in case: motherboards $17, keyboards $20, printer ribbons two for a dollar. I was up and running again.

So, what does this have to do with audio? Big repair costs, that's what. How much? Let's ignore my resourcefulness and add up the tab as if this had happened to a typical retail customer:

Beyond Repair: Replacement Cost
1 NEC hi-fi stereo VCR $465
1 answering machine $90
1 telephone $40
1 isolation transformer $60
1 AC adaptor for phone $28

Repaired: Parts+Labor
1 Adcom preamp $125
1 Sony Profeel monitor $200
1 NEC hi-fi stereo VCR $150
1 computer $250
1 13" TV $85

Total: $1493

The phone line was repaired by the phone company (maintenance fee: $24/year), and the TV cable at the utility pole, two weeks later, by the cable company at no charge. "That storm's given me 50 hours of overtime so far," the repairman grinned.


Charles E Flynn's picture

Laszlo's picture

The Brickwall company makes an excellent and reliable product which does not rely upon sacrificial MOVs. I use it on my stereo gear and on my computer as well.

Charles E Flynn's picture

If I recall correctly, Brickwall and a few other companies license ZeroSurge's patents. It should serve you well. ZeroSurge reports that they have never had a failure.'s picture

Great reprint Barry. In the '89 quake, we were Sony TV dealers. Many, many 27" Trinittrons came crashing down from dressers, cabinets etc. At that time, the major Sony service station was in Santa Clara. Sony fixed the sets for free, back in their profitable days.

IgAK's picture

While it is laudable that the Brickwall brand is guaranteed not to fail, there is this, from their website:

"We believe that surge protectors should not fail. At the heart of our Series Mode Surge Protector is a massive inductor"

This is unfortunate because a series inductor will limit transients of not only the lightning type, but, also the audio type, and will blunt the leading edge rising transient. Inductors are also prone to ringing. Their device also has:

"No surge diversion to ground"

While this seems laudable on the face of it, actually shunting the surge to ground would be done by a parallel circuit such as with the use of TVS (Transient Voltage Suppression) diodes which have super-fast reaction times or GDT's (Gas Discharge Tubes) which are relatively slow to react but can handle huge amounts of current, which will not affect sound quality because they do not limit normal audio transient draw, only coming into use when needed for damaging surges.

Common (and cheap - "get what you pay for") surge suppressors use MOV's which are "medium fast" compared to the two above, about the same or somewhat less capable in current handling than the TVS type but are also parallel shunting types. But they have limited lifetimes that are unpredictable and those green "protected" lights are dangerous eyewash that doesn't go off when the MOV expires, leading you to false confidence in safety that is gone. These must be replaced frequently and regularly but you have no way of knowing when they are dead (or about to be with even one last small transient)...and there's that green light fooling you. MOV's are also considered poor sonically by many as they can distort the AC waveform after they age - another reason to replace them frequently. (See the Zerosurge or Brickwall articles.)

Both the Brickwall and Zerosurge devices are large inductor-based and therefore transient-limiting *all* the time, not just when that is needed for a surge.

A combination of carefully chosen TVS and GDT devices can give super fast picosecond response times and prodigious peak current protection in a non-"sacrificial" package that does not expire under any situation short of a *direct* lightning hit - in which case it may or may not die (depending on lightning hit severity and duration) *after* saving your equipment.

I am not aware of anyone offering such a combination as of yet, so I designed one that has already withstood a lightning hit less than 1,000 feet from my house while all my equipment and computer were on. Not financed for production yet but watch for it. Designed by an audiophile for audiophiles (even includes a nice also shunt-type noise filter)...and, shockingly for audiophile-meant products, is actually inexpensively cheap insurance for your precious gear. Watch for it. Even has a catchy name I can't reveal until that is trademarked.