Updated May 2017

Lightning frightens but lightning risk in caravans is very low. That risk however is far from random. Here’s how to reduce it yet further.

 About 80% of those struck generally were using a land-line telephone, but this risk is falling fast as people switch to risk-free mobiles. Golfers however are particularly at risk, especially if swinging a club. Also at risk is anyone using an umbrella during a storm, or walking on a beach. It’s not that hard to reduce the odds!

Some areas of Australia are especially prone to severe thunderstorms. These include the Blue Mountains, the Dandenong Ranges, the Kimberley, and the north of Australia (generally during the monsoon season). The lightning risk in caravans in these areas is very much higher than in most other areas. It is primarily for those living or travelling in such areas that this intended.

lightning gelong

Lightning strike over Geelong (Victoria) in March 2012. Pic: (by Rod Howard) courtesy Geelong Advertiser.

 How lightning strikes

At all times, the earth’s surface carries a typically negative charge. The upper atmosphere carries a positive charge. As a storm develops, the voltage difference builds up to many hundreds of millions of volts. Once the voltage between ground and upper atmosphere exceeds a certain level, the air ionises (i.e. electrons become freer to move). This eases the passage of a lightning strike much as straightening or surfacing a road initially eases traffic flow.

So-called ‘step leaders’ reach down toward earth and (like early pioneers, the one that gets there first tends to set the route for that which follows). On earth, objects respond by sending out positive voltage streamers. When such a streamer meets a step leader, a conductive link is formed. The resultant current flow generates so much heat that the surrounding air literally explodes – resulting in thunder claps.

Lighting risk in caravans – seek shelter if outside

The most dangerous place to be in a thunderstorm is out in the open but there is usually a fair amount of notice. A good rule is to seek shelter once a thunderstorm is within 10 kilometres. That’s about 30 seconds between seeing the lightning flash and hearing the thunderclap. Stay sheltered for at least 30 minutes after the last lightning is seen.

If you are caught out, avoid becoming a positive voltage streamer – such as a golfer in mid-swing. Do not use an umbrella. You are actually safer if soaking wet as any current is more likely to pass through the wet clothing.

If the risk seems very high, crouch down with feet together and with your head held low. Never shelter under a tree. If you have to stand, keep your feet as close together as possible. This is because a nearby strike causes voltage differences of thousands of volts per metre in nearby ground. Having a few hundred volts difference between one foot and the other leaves you very dead. Absolutely do not lie down.

Almost any form of building is safer than being outside, but keep away from walls, metal plumbing etc. Do not use the loo (water is conductive). The lightning risk in metal-bodied caravans, motor homes and coaches is exceptionally low. A metal structure (even of metallic mesh) provides a so-called ‘Faraday cage.’ All current flows through the external metal to earth. Within such an RV you may not even be aware of a strike

If the storm is at least 10 km away, lower the TV antenna (disconnect it at least). Physically disconnect all external power leads. Do not do either if a storm is closer.

Lighting risk in caravans – ‘cone of protection’ is a myth

Ignore all campfire and Internet mythology about the ‘cone of protection’ provided by tall trees and buildings. These attract lightning strikes. Such strikes cause a voltage gradient that spreads out on the ground beneath and near the sides of a tree or building. This can kill at up to 30 metres or more from that strike’s centre. Essentially nowhere outside a building or vehicle is safe whilst lightning is around.

Whilst a vehicle’s tyres might appear to insulate the vehicle from earth, post 1970 or so rubber tyres contain carbon. They are deliberately semi-conductive to limit static charge build up. At lightning’s voltages, tyres become good conductors but in storm conditions do not exit the caravan holding the door handle whilst touching the ground. It’s best not to go outside anyway. 

All large external metal structures attached to a caravan or motor home (e.g. air conditioners) should be bonded to the chassis using at least 6 AWG cable.

Lightning rods

These work by dissipating ‘electrical charge’ built up where the voltage difference does not become high enough to attract a ‘step leader’. They work best if they have a point at the top as that concentrates and assists charge dissipation. Well worth having in lightning prone areas.

Lightning risk in caravans that have fibreglass or composite bodied vehicles is reduced by having a conventional lightning conductor with a (sharp) spike. This should be well above the roof and earthed to the vehicle chassis via starter motor cable that runs externally. If you do this never use soldered joints as the current flow will melt them instantly.

Lightning seeks the straightest path. To reduce lightning risk in caravans keep any such earthing cable as straight as possible and routed well away from where people may be.

Lighting risk in caravans – further information

For those seriously interested in lightning risk in caravans the Standards reference is AS/NZS 1768:2007.

The topic of electrics and caravans generally is covered in depth in my book Caravan & Motorhome Electrics. That of solar for cabins, camper trailers, caravans and motor homes is in Solar That Really Works!. That for larger home and property systems is in Solar Success. My other books are the all-new Caravan & Motorhome Book, and the Camper Trailer Book.  For information about the author please Click on Bio.