Up on the roof

June 28, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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The situation on high has changed since the day in 1926 when George Portfleet started selling and installing lightning rods for church steeples and silos in the Standale area west of Grand Rapids.

"As a rule, we are seeing a large investment (in lightning protection) in the hospital sector, due to the electronic nature of the equipment and facilities," said George Portfleet — great-grandson of the original George Portfleet.

Portfleet is general manager at Michigan Lightning Protection, headquartered at 2401 O'Brien St. NW in Walker. MLP is a fourth-generation, family-owned company headed by Portfleet's uncle, Terrance Portfleet. It is a small company with only six employees, but it is known far from Grand Rapids. MLP is active throughout most of the western side of Michigan, into the Upper Peninsula and occasionally into Indiana.

Last week was Lightning Safety Week in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service, which reports that while summer is the peak time of year for lightning, it can occur year-round. An average of 62 Americans are killed each year by lightning: As of last week, 15 had been killed in 2009.

Lightning is a costly menace. The Lightning Protection Institute reports that between 3 and 5 percent of all commercial insurance claims are lightning related. The Ohio Insurance Institute has estimated that lightning is responsible for 30 percent of all church fires and 18 percent of all lumberyard fires. In the 1990s, lightning caused an explosion at a Pennsylvania incinerator plant that killed two workers and more than $2 million in damage. OSHA fined the company for failing to provide adequate lightning protection and a U.S. court upheld that judgment.

The Portfleets and their employees are licensed master designers and installers of lightning protection systems, and Terrance Portfleet is a member of the board of directors of the Lightning Protection Institute, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Missouri.

George Portfleet said he is aware of five or six lightning protection companies in Michigan, but the company they consider their main competitor is Guardian Equipment in Novi. As far as which is the largest lightning protection company in Michigan, "it's one of the two of us," said Portfleet. He did not reveal his company’s annual revenue.

MLP installed the lightning protection system, including "air terminals" — short, spike-shaped lightning rods — that can be seen on the periphery of the roof of DeVos Place convention center in downtown Grand Rapids. The company also installed lightning protection on the new Macatawa Bank building in Holland, the Metro Health Hospital in Wyoming, and on the new roof of the Public Museum in Grand Rapids last year.

"We have a presence on the Medical Mile," said Portfleet. MLP has been involved with construction of several facilities in that area, and is now installing lightning protection on the new Secchia Center, which will house the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids.

Portfleet said there are a number of insurance companies headquartered in Michigan, and when they build a new facility, "they typically will specify lightning protection for their structures."

Those insurance companies must know something. Unlike Florida, where lightning protection is mandated in the building codes, Michigan does not require lightning protection.

"It's a safety standard that most architects and engineers will include in commercial construction, but because it's not mandated, it's up to the owners' discretion," said Portfleet. The standards usually followed are those set by the National Fire Protection Association.

Bruce Burgess, vice president of construction management at Wolverine Construction, said the cost of lightning protection varies depending on the design of the building, but "the amount of risk or potential damage is so great, the cost to protect it is relatively small."

Hospitals, universities, manufacturing companies and high-tech research centers now invest millions in sophisticated electronic equipment that must have surge protection — but these aren't the surge protectors tangled up in the cables underneath computer tables. Industrial-strength surge protectors, which are also part of MLP's expertise, are installed where the electrical service enters the building.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average lightning bolt carries about 30,000 amps of charge, has more than 100 million volts of electric potential, and is quite hot — about 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Central Florida is the most lightning-prone area in the U.S., while the northwest coastal U.S. is least prone. In Michigan, the most lightning-prone area is the western half of the Lower Peninsula, due to the proximity of Lake Michigan.

"Lake Michigan helps whip up some of those little ions that like to produce lightning storms," said Portfleet. The wind created over Lake Michigan by temperature changes moves rain drops, ice pellets and dust particles high into the atmosphere. When they collide with each other, it causes friction, generating static electricity that builds up until it is discharged in the form of lightning bolts.

"When we speak with architects and engineers, they ask about the lack of lightning strikes in Grand Rapids proper, with all the tall buildings," said Portfleet. "Most of the tall buildings in Grand Rapids actually have lightning protection, and that’s a system that, once it's installed, is kind of a 'set it and forget it' system, with the exception of re-roofing or adding on to buildings, adding mechanical units (on rooftops), things like that. So the short answer to architects and engineers is (that) you won't hear as much about it because the lightning systems do exactly what they are supposed to do."

Lightning protection systems are still "basically the same system that old Ben Franklin employed," said Portfleet. Braided copper or aluminum cable runs from the high points on buildings down into the ground, providing a path for the electricity to follow. Lightning systems don't prevent lightning strikes — they just channel the electricity more or less harmlessly down into the ground rather than allowing a lightning bolt to tear into a structure in search of a path to the ground.

Portfleet said MLP occasionally gets calls from building owners who have been told by their insurance companies that they won't renew coverage unless a lightning protection system is installed. That is usually the result of more than one lightning strike at that property, he said.

"The old adage that lightning never strikes twice is really false," he said, "While there are hundreds of thousands of random strikes, there will be places that have repetitive strikes," he said, adding that "there is something there that lightning is attracted to."

Some large insurance carriers, such as Chubb and AIG, offer a discounted premium for property that has a lightning protection system inspected and approved by Underwriters Laboratories.

Portfleet said he believes there is at least one major insurance company that also offers a discount for use of UL-approved surge protection systems to protect expensive electronic equipment.

Although lightning protection systems have traditionally been a "set it and forget it" process, that is changing now — whenever new communications towers are installed on top of a building,or new mechanical equipment for the HVAC, or solar panels or wind turbines, as Meijer Inc. did on its corporate headquarters in Walker this spring.

Portfleet said "wind turbines pose a new challenge" in the lightning protection industry. He said the NFPA is currently studying wind turbines and possible ways to reduce the chance of lightning striking the blades. At the commercial wind farm installations in the Plains states, he said, "That's a frequent problem."

Burgess said he is aware of other lightning protection companies, "but I find myself time and time again working with George and Terrance. They're very good at what they do."

"People who are good at what they do are passionate about what they do," added Burgess. "And these guys are passionate about protecting buildings" from lightning.

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