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Electrical Errata

© John Keith 2007

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A few weeks ago I heard some shockingly bad advice on the radio, and I've been charged up about it ever since.

Two newscasters were chatting about a woman who had been struck by lightning while she was watching TV during a thunderstorm. She had survived and credited her lucky escape to the fact that she was wearing rubber flip-flops on her feet. One of the newscasters said, yes, yes, it was really lucky she was grounded when the lightning struck. No -- I'm afraid that wasn't it. It doesn't work that way. Do not, I repeat, do NOT ground yourself in a thunderstorm.

It is probably true that if the lady had not been wearing her flip-flops when the lightning struck her TV, she would have been toast -- and I mean that in the literal way. The woman got a pretty big jolt as it was and it singed her hair, but if she actually had been fully grounded, it would have been a different story. The high voltage electricity would have leapt across the gap between her and the TV and coursed through her body to the ground. Electricity takes the path of least resistance -- the path of least electrical resistance-- and if she had been grounded in some way, well, she wouldn't have been just singed or toasted, she would have been fried.

The lady, my dear broadcaster, was not grounded by the flip-flops; she was insulated. The rubber in her flip-flops did the opposite of grounding. Rather than providing an inviting conduit for the lightning, the rubber blocked or impeded any flow of electricity through the woman. The lightning found an easier way to the ground, mostly likely through the green ground wire on the electrical cord on her TV set.

I do understand, however, where that broadcaster was coming from. Grounding actually does prevent electrical shocks, but it is the TV or appliance or electrical device itself that is grounded NOT the person. If there's a short-circuit, the electricity follows the path of least resistance through the ground wire connected to the appliance and ignores the person. People are rather bad conductors of electricity generally -- unless inadvertently grounded by touching a pipe or standing in a pool of water -- that sort of thing.

Here's a few electrical safety tips to remember. In a thunderstorm, do not watch TV, whether or not you are wearing flip-flops or rubber running shoes or have on thick, insulated socks. Insulated socks, by the way, don't have the type of insulation we're talking about. And don't work on your computer either. Surge protectors aren't rated for lightning.

If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, do not stand under a tree -- it's a veritable lightning rod -- and don't stand out in the open, either, where the easiest path for lightning to go to ground is through the top of your head. Do not use your cell-phone or Blackberry, and turn off that I-pod -- but that's another story.

And do not, I repeat, do NOT ground yourself by any means -- don't stand, rain-soaked, in a big puddle of water, or lean against a drain pipe, or hold onto a metal railing. If lightning were to strike nearby, even flip-flops wouldn't save you.

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