Polite Advice: Tesla Lightning Strike Video Proves Why You Shouldn’t Refuel Any Car in an Electrical Storm

It doesn’t matter if you’re afraid of them, of love to sit and watch them break on the horizon after a hot summers’ day: thunderstorms can be powerful, destructive and swoop in at any time if the conditions are right.

Luckily, being struck by lightning is mercifully rare: while the earth is struck by lightning more than 100 times a second, the odds of being hit by lightning is somewhere between 1 in 300,000 and 1 in 700,000, depending on who you ask. Luckily, you can minimize the risk of being hit when outside by ensuring you’re not the tallest thing around or lying flat on the ground if you feel your hair starting to stand on end as a charge builds up between you and the clouds above.

If theres an electrical storm about, its best not to charge.

If theres an electrical storm about, its best not to charge.

But lightning isn’t just dangerous to humans. It can cause damage to buildings, trees, and your electric car, as Tesla Model S owner Sarah Day of Ohio found out last weekend when her luxury electric sedan was hit directly by lightning while supercharging.

“I was at the supercharger as well as another owner. I heard the crash, and just a second or two after about 9 errors popped up on the dashboard,” she recounted. “Some of them were low charge warnings, saying it would disable some functions. Others were on how the car needs to be serviced. I was also getting that the car can’t be charged, and that the 12v battery is low.”

With a dash cam on her car, the entire scary event was captured on camera, but given lightning’s tendency to travel at the speed of light, there’s very little to see in the video above. Needless to say, the lightning strike — which may or may not have been direct — had managed to completely incapacitate her car.

In her latest update on the Tesla Motors Club Forum, Sarah reports that Tesla still has her car and is giving it some special attention to tackle the various bits of electrical damage the car has sustained as a result of the lightning strike.

In the interests of fairness, Sarah isn’t the first electric car owner to have her car damaged by lightning, either. Here’s a story from a Nissan LEAF owner whose LEAF was damaged when an electrical storm took out his home electrical system after a direct hit.

While some Tesla owners have expressed concern over what the mass-media will do with a story about a Tesla Model S being incapacitated by lightning — and others have joked about it with references to Back to the Future and Tesla working on some super-secret super-fast lighting-powered charging system — we’d like to remind readers that there’s a valuable lesson to be taken away from this unfortunate incident.

At its peak, the average lightning bolt produces at least a terawatt of electricity

Lightning strikes are incredibly powerful — and they can do some serious damage to pretty much anything from a house to a person. And whenever there’s an electrical storm about, you should do everything you can to make sure you — and your car — is safe.

Superchargers are great, but don't use one in a thunderstorm.

Superchargers are great, but don’t use one in a thunderstorm.

At its peak, the average lightning bolt produces at least a terawatt of electricity. Admittedly, that’s only for a few nanoseconds, with the entire strike from start to finish transferring about 5 billion joules — about 1.3 megawatt-hours worth of electricity — but that’s still enough to do some serious damage to even the hardy power electronics in a rapid charging station as well as any car unfortunate enough to be connected to it.

With tires providing full electrical insulation, an unplugged electric car isn’t at any risk of severe damage in a thunderstorm. With its battery pack safety switches disengaged and only the barest of 12 volt accessory systems live, there’s a good chance that a direct hit won’t do any major damage, traveling the most direct route to the ground via the closet part of the car to the ground at that point.

Plug in an electrical cable, and things become a little less certain, especially if the car is charging at the point of the strike, enabling the electrical energy from the lightning to travel through the car’s energized charging circuits and do whatever damage it can.

At this point, we’re going to acknowledge that video — the one Nissan showed of a Nissan LEAF plugged in and charging in a lightning laboratory. In it, a Nissan LEAF is hit by several large, powerful lightning bolts and appears to survive just fine.

Given how flammable Gasoline, Diesel and Hydrogen are around electricity, it’s best not to refuel them in an electrical storm, either.

But while the video is impressive, we’d like to point out that the principle function of any car when being hit by lightning is not to catch on fire, explode, or otherwise cause danger to its occupants or surroundings. Nissan’s famous lightning test wasn’t to see if the car’s systems could withstand a direct hit but was instead a test to see if the car’s body diverted lightning safely away from the majority of the car’s sensitive electronics systems.

In the case of the LEAF, it doesn’t mean that you can plug-in during an electrical storm and know that your car will be fine.

Ecotricity Electric Highway Rapid Charger

Ecotricity stations in the UK carry a warning against operation during electrical storms.

Still unconvinced? Take a look at most public CHAdeMO or DC quick charging stations, and they’ll warn you to not stand near to them if you happen to have an implanted pacemaker or defibrillator (implantable loop recorders however — which this author has — are just fine). They also warn you not to use the charging station if there’s an electrical storm, as you could damage both your car and the charging station if a lightening bolt hits nearby.

Essentially then, it’s best to treat an electric car like any other valuable electric appliance during an electrical storm — and unplug it.

In fact, given the fact that gasoline, diesel and hydrogen fuels are also incredibly explosive when placed near large amounts of electrical energy, we’d suggest that it’s common sense to not refuel any sort of car when there’s a storm.

[Featured Image: ‘Lightning Strikes’ by Flickr User John Fowler, reproduced under By-SA-2.0


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  • BEP

    Another consequence of the awful city development model in the USA: low buildings, low buildings everywhere occupying a lot of land. With taller buildings, properly designed to catch lightning strikes, this probably wouldn’t have happened.

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