July 12, 2024

Supervisors contemplate lightning strike protection for courthouse

Historical structure was struck by lightning in May, which damaged county equipment

After the Jasper County Courthouse was hit with another lightning strike in May, staff discussed possible protection options during the June 25 board of supervisors meeting.

They say lightning never strikes the same place twice. Well, tell that to the folks at the Jasper County Courthouse.

Severe storms rolling through the area in May 2024 and October 2019 resulted in the courthouse being struck by lightning, and both times left lasting effects on the structure and its inner systems. The lightning strike almost five years ago forced offices to close due to inoperable phones and computers.

Adam Sparks, maintenance director of Jasper County, said the most recent strike damaged the elevator, the heating and cooling system and IT switches. During the June 25 board of supervisors meeting, Sparks and IT director Ryan Eaton brought along a lightning protection installer to discuss future solutions.

“This was probably one of the worst ones we had,” Sparks said of the lightning strike that took out 30 AC units. “I’m still down on a couple pieces of equipment. Most of it is back. Just in the bills I had, the elevator alone was $7,000, I bet I’m at $20,000 and I haven’t even received any of my bills for heating and cooling.”

No board action was taken and no sale was negotiated. Rusty Smith, of AC Lightning Protection, provided options to supervisors that could help deter or even prevent damage from any subsequent lightning strikes. Sparks said the county did take some protective measures after the 2019 lightning strike.

“We reached out to Van Maanen (Electric, Inc.). We put a protector on our main panel coming in. Obviously, we took another lightning strike after that,” Sparks said. “Now that this has happened again, I reached back out to Van Maanen to see if there was anymore that we could do to protect the courthouse.”

Van Maanen directed Sparks to AC Lightning Protection, a Nebraska-based company that has been providing its eponymous services since 1978. Sparks said the protection system would have at least two ground cables attached to the main area in the basement of the courthouse and then connect to the roof.

Lightning protection systems generally provide a series of strike termination devices which intercepts strikes to the ground, Smith said. AC Lightning Protection recently installed these types of systems for the Dallas County Courthouse a month ago and even the Iowa State Capitol Building years back.

“My system’s main priority is structural integrity of the building, making sure if the building is struck it’s not going to blow up and have damage and stuff of that nature” Smith said. “We do that in conjunction with our electrical partners at Van Maanen to put in surge protections like it sounds like they already did.”

Together, it may produce a viable solution to the lightning issues the county has had. But is there a guarantee? Smith said there is no such thing as a guarantee on a God-given act, but the company has not had a failure — or a building getting struck and blowing up.“

It’s almost impossible to 100 percent alleviate any possibility of a side flash or a transient voltage,” Smith said.

Sparks said the county is not necessarily seeing damage to the building but rather seeing damages to electrical equipment, which also means claims on insurance and increased prices. The loss of equipment also means downed time. The county wants to mitigate those instances from happening.

Currently, a lightning protection system for the courthouse would likely cost $50,000 or so, which is as much as what the county paid for its surge protection a few years ago. County staff asked Smith if the courthouse’s underground geothermal system would cause problems for the lightning protection system.

“When we’re putting a ground rod in we’re obviously going to have to figure out where’s the best place to have good soil not by any piping or anything,” Smith said, noting a when the lightning strike passes through the ground there is very little friction, and the rods will barely energize.

While insurance will take care of the damages, Sparks said he is ultimately trying to find solutions to reduce claims and damages.

“I’m not saying this is it or not it,” he said. “I’m just trying to learn and find things that could help us down the road.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.