When lightning strikes, thousands of volts of electricity are unleashed.
Don't just assume you're safe if indoors or if you're on the telephone or using electrical appliances. You may not be.If telephones or other appliances are not properly grounded, those using them could receive a severe electrical shock. Even if they are grounded, it is not wise to use appliances during an electrical storm, according to experts.
Problems that can occur with telephones and appliances during lightning storms were demonstrated during a recent storm that hit the Salt Lake area. A lightning bolt struck Greg and Megan Marsden's home on Salt Lake's west side and knocked Kurt McCunniff, Cedar Falls, Iowa, who was in the home, off his feet.
McCunniff, 22, who was not injured, had just completed an incoming call on a cordless telephone and was knocked to the floor when lightning struck a large tree and the one-story frame and aluminum-sided structure.
The Marsdens and their baby were not at home at the time.
McCunniff, who was near a kitchen window, said he had just laid the phone down on a wooden kitchen table and was not touching the telephone. He said he was not shocked.
"It is hard to explain. It was just a kind of unexpected jolt. It gave the house a pretty good shake when it hit."
But the lightning knocked the telephone and a microwave out of commission and blasted two floodlights off the back of the home. Those problems and 12 burned exit holes on aluminum eaves of the home and smoldering bark off the tree are sobering reminders of the power behind the strike.
Salt Lake Fire Department Lt. Tim Hynes said McCunniff, who is Mrs. Marsden's brother, could have been killed if he had been talking on the telephone. Firemen said the lightning bolt could have set the house on fire and caused an explosion.
Hynes said telephone lines are electrical conductors. He and Salt Lake Fire Battalion Chief Gordon W. Nicholl said incidents have occurred in which people have been killed or injured while talking on the telephone during electrical storms.
While not trying to explain this particular case, Ray Child, Utah public relations manager for AT&T, said telephones, like any other electrical appliance, should be used with caution during electrical storms. He said materials distributed by AT&T warn telephone users of potential dangers.
Bob Liljenquist, a technician for Precision Wire & Telephone Co., Salt Lake City, said a telephone line should be grounded to the same common ground to which power-company lines are grounded. That would make it a common ground. The most commonly used ground is a cold water pipe, Liljenquist said.
Liljenquist offered a possible explanation about the May 30 lightning strike. He said the cordless telephone would have to be plugged into an electrical outlet to keep it charged when not in use. When the lightning hit the house, the floodlights and the microwave, it probably also came through the power outlet to the telephone, Liljenquist theorized.
"A proper ground is the main thing you should check for to avoid a lightning strike. If a line is not grounded the lightning will spread all over the house, but with the ground it sends or dissipates the charge into the ground," Liljenquist said.
Carol Dunlap, manager of public relations, US WEST Communications, formerly Mountain Bell, said the telephone has been regarded as one of the safest devices found in a home. But it would be prudent, she said, to avoid using the telephone during an electrical storm.
Dunlap said telephones should not be used in a tub, shower or swimming pool. While a phone might be used safely in a bathroom or near a pool, it should not be taken into the water, she said.
If a gas leak is suspected, it is always wise not to use a telephone in the vicinity of a leak to report the problem. Using a standard phone is just like a light switch. It contains electrical contacts. These contacts can generate a tiny spark when someone lifts a handset and dials a phone. It is unlikely, but conceivable this spark could trigger an explosion if the concentration of gas were high, Dunlap said.