Hardware

Lightning strikes computer modem leaves burned circuits behind

Lightning strikes computer modem

When lightning strikes a computer, charred metal, melted plastic, and burned circuits are the results.

This computer's modem was hit with a power surge during an electrical storm. The computer was protected by a surge protector but not one with modem outlets.

The owner brought the machine to IT Systems Administrator Brad Rowden--who took these pictures.

Photo by Brad Rowden

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

160 comments
Regulus
Regulus

Please - Where is the Blog entry or .pdf file on this.

ron_r_a
ron_r_a

well, make that middle-aged. I was setting up communications in a church. Had the coax cable in my hand ready to connect the cable modem when lightning struck a pole outside. A long white spark traveled through my hand (sending the cable flying), exited my wrist and grounded itself on the monitor. The TV, phone system and stereo were destroyed. The computer was saved. Years later, I have a white spot on my wrist that is still sensitive to touch. When God uses the internet, He expects lightning speed.

ron_r_a
ron_r_a

The ageless advice to turn everything off during a storm does not apply to surge protectors. According to manufacturers, surge protectors must be left on in order to do their job. So, if you run coax, ethernet and/or phone through a surge protector then unplug it or turn it off, you simply added a relay. I never knew this until some smart-aleck insurance guy pointed out this info from a manufacturer's manual. Somehow I doubt he was just trying to make conversation.

charlton.dimitriou
charlton.dimitriou

Modems really? What is this the 90's? I agree that you need surge protection but at least use some recent pictures. That motherboard is ancient!

Artymonn
Artymonn

This is such and old story. Just look at the motherboard sockets and the Pentium 4 CPU Cooler. I'm sure I've seen these same photo's almost 10 years ago. Must be a slow day for new stories.

john.higgins
john.higgins

A picture is truly worth a thousand words. Lightning protection, done well, is worth far more than the cost of the equipment. On the other hand, if this was a recent strike, lightning may well have done the user a favor. It was high time for a PC upgrade as the damaged motherboard has ISA connectors!

twocsbo
twocsbo

Several years ago, our house got a direct hit by lightning, it not only fried my computer and printer, but 2 stereo systems and 3 color televisions, lots of ceiling lights and fans and the microwave. It did not take out every circuit. The refrigerator, freezer, washer and dryer all survived, as did the lights in some of the rooms. It is indeed scary and expensive and took a pretty good while to get everything repaired or replaced. Unplug. We had turned main breaker off before going to bed, but this struck about 2 am. If not for turning off breaker box, damage would have been much greater, probably a house fire.

kd2im
kd2im

When lightning strikes the current flows from the ground to the "cloud" hence the damage at the ground is massive.

kjs420
kjs420

"At least the hard drive survived", I doubt it.

dons
dons

Which board is the modem and what's the other board? What is the connector below the yellow one connected to? There's more to this than a surge on the phone line that this evidence shows. First of all, UPS' are not to be used for surge protection. They are not designed for it. Their purpose is to provide electrical power during and after an outage. The manufacturers include the surge protection as an added feature which now jeopardizes the UPS. Not every UPS uses the same technology. The inexpensive ones from the retail outlets let the incoming power through until parameters are exceeded,.....then they supply power and only IF the input sensor, transfer switch, batteries, and input relay work. The surge protection you rely on is much like a fuse itself. In fact, if the protection circuits inside these minimal devices partially fail, they will inject high frequency electrical noise into your computer and cause more problems than you'll understand. Surge protection technology is only a shell game. They do not remove or dissipate the surge (transient). They "let through" a certain amount of transient by "clamping" the overage and moving it to one of the other internal conductors. I can explain that in more detail for anyone interested. Also, transients on the ground can actually "back feed" from the ground in your home (or business) back through your computer and out the phone or data line to a better ground path if your building's electrical ground is not conducting well. I consulted on a 911 site in the greater Houston area where the initial installation of their equipment room was literally blown out the first night as a result of an inbound transient that took a path through their equipment to the "new" ground installed by their electrician. Turned out to be a better ground that the building's old ground. Their sandy soil had a little to do with it too.

jdonald
jdonald

Who in the heck still uses a modem?

brian
brian

That thing caught fire for sure.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

And there's your lesson right there, kids. So much more efficient than disconnecting, especially if you're not home during the hazardous weather.

walterwood44
walterwood44

I live in central Florida commonly called the lightning capitol of the world. Here you would not be able to get anything done on a computer during the summer months if you unplugged your systems whenever there was the possibility of lightning. Several years back when battery backups were very expensive, to protect my first PC I bought a Tripp Lite surge protector that included phone line protection. I had a phone line surge come through the protector and hit the modem. One of the chips on the modem actually had a small chunk blown off. From then on, the computer was not stable. I filled a claim against the Tripp Lite warranty. They refused to honor it. So much for surge protection insurance. I promised Tripp Lite that I would make sure that every time the subject came up I would mention that they would not live up to their warranty. Having said that I still take precautions against surges: a whole house surge protector on my power meter, another one on my incoming cable line and a UPS on every computer, the router and cable modem. Also back when I still used dial up I had a special set of surge protectors on each phone wire. (That got real expensive at $4.50 a pair but they worked very well.) I have had several close strikes. One wiped out my AC unit and all the phones but that was a direct hit to the phone and power lines just outside the house. Another close strike degaussed my TV set and left the picture very colorful. A third strike hit the neighbor's and slightly damaged another of my computers leaving a PCI slot flakey. Lightning is dangerous stuff.

awgiedawgie
awgiedawgie

You'd like to believe that it's impossible. But admit it - you don't make the laws of nature, and God didn't put them in a nice leather-bound 36-volume set. So when it comes right down to it, you're just making educated guesses, aren't you? Well friends, from the looks of those pictures, I'd say the owner of this computer just got himself a little education.

Orodreth
Orodreth

Disconnect your PC is great advice as well as adding a quality surge protector. I'd like to add that power surges can be almost as dangerous as lightening strikes. I've had equipment fail due to current fluctuations.

SiMechanic
SiMechanic

Back in about 1957-58 the mechanical on-off switch of our B/W TV was shorted/welded to the "ON" state by a lighting strike >10 miles away. The TV was "OFF" when the surge came through the power lines. Our farm was the last and furthest tap on the grid. This was before surge protectors became commercial and solid state was just about to be coined. The TV was all tubes, so it survived... it was just "ON" constantly. From the pictures it looks like a lot of current was shunted to ground in a short period of time.

kevsan
kevsan

The answer is a UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) They are not that expensive. Choose one that has an ample amperage. 2-3 amps is adequate. My set up is a UPS to a surge protected power board/s and all expensive devices attached to it. PC, Modem, Printer and external drives. Do a google on UPS and read up on them. They are just about an essential item these days.

JCitizen
JCitizen

on cable MCard modules, so forget that. I tried it anyway, and the DRM shut me down. I'm just going to have to hope my home owners insurance will cover me in the impending disaster. Oh! And by the way! HAL 9000 is right, they need a circuit breaker that acts something like the dial up modems that would completely break the connection to the phone line, and had on board digital signal processing. Except they need this for anything connected to an outside cable source. It could work like a screen saver. No activity or energized circuits on the device, then complete disconnection! In 25 years, I've never lost a lightning resistant dial-up modem with on board DSP! I must have installed hundreds of them.

lsemmens
lsemmens

When I was a Telecom Tech, back in the early 80s, I was called to repair a switchboard that had been hit. Another tech had been called to fix it, but while connecting a temporary phone, the line had been hit again, he returned to Darwin in an Ambulance. When I arrived, there was a black strip on the wall where the distribution box had been and the switchboard operator, whose desk was on the opposite side of the room, was sporting a bandage on her head where the box had blown across the room and hit her. Needless to say, I did my job very quickly, and got out of there!

coolmark82
coolmark82

OMG. wow, same story here. My modem literally exploded when it was hit with a power surge months ago. I ended up replacing 9 ethernet adaptors, 2 Verizon T3 modems, and a surge protector. What a bummer.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

not 'left on" most surge protectors rely on the ac plug's ground pin for line-to-ground protection

JCitizen
JCitizen

going to unplug anything. Lightning can travel for miles, and even strike through the ground where not even sight or sound can be detected. I'd rather let the dang thing do its job, and hopefully save some money. It is not worth my life trying to protect electronic gadgets by risking life and limb to unplug it. I still say using a total separation switch like the old phone modems and telephones had is the best protection. Lightning once blew up our phone line and left char marks all along the wall all the way up to the rotary phone. The phone was fine though, and survived 20 more years, until push button dialing came out. No power, no connection - all run by a little motorized switch. It is not perfect, but has proved itself to me in hundreds of dial up offices on our network perimeter. As of 2006, it seemed only ZOOM was building these; but I've not messed with that in years. The ones that had their own on board data processing were the best; kept old XP systems from brain farting. These had DSP chips built in.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Take advantage of this, to include AC circuits, where you can fiddle with the phase.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000 moderator

Why would you doubt it. What was said was that the HDD worked to recover the Data of fit. They didn't say that they reused the HDD just that they got the data off it. There is a very big difference between Destruction of IC's and degrading them. When they degrade they still work well enough to in this case recover the data though they will eventually fail sooner rather than latter. When they are destroyed they can not work. ;) I remember a system where a 33KV Transmission Line came into contact with the 240V Mains when a tree fell during a thunder storm as far as the computer that i was dealing with was concerned replacing the Power Supply cured it's no run situation though a new monitor was needed. I got quite a surprise out of that as it is what the Insurance company demanded I do. I was expecting the new PS to be destroyed. Instead that computer worked perfectly for the next 3 years till it was decommissioned. The cook top in the house one of those glass ones was embedded in the ceiling the case of the computer was the only thing from that house that survived that Hit even if the flames from the PS did set the curtain behind it on fire. :^0 Col

awgiedawgie
awgiedawgie

While it is somewhat unlikely, though not impossible, that the drive is still in usable condition, since the circuits on its interface were almost certainly affected, the actual data on it probably sustained little damage.

JCitizen
JCitizen

has many models that claim surge protection capability - they have many of their customers convinced. User reviews reflect this - maybe it is mass hypnosis.

dons
dons

We're assuming that the transient came in on the phone line. First, the phone company has a carbon block on their termination at their point of demarcation. This will dissipate much of the transient although not all of it. Most transients are very high levels of voltage, but no amperage and occur in a very short period of time (rise time). Think of electricity has water and the wire as the pipe. Voltage is the pressure to push long distances. Amperage is the volume regulated by the size of the pipe (wire). The larger the pipe, the more volume it will transport. Since most transients don't have much amperage (volume) they won't heat up the wire and won't do it quickly. That's why you don't see the wire melted. Since they do have high voltage, they will arc across gaps and can cause components to explode or be "eaten up", more from the arcing than from shear heat. The inside of that computer has smoke residue which means burning took place. In my service training at the factory for a certain brand UPS, my classroom partner and I created an open flame on a board just by shorting a 120 volt, small conductor wire against a grounded component without any high amount of amperage. We were applauded by the instructor for being the first ever to achieve that level of incompetence in his classroom. As I said in my first post, its possible the phone line could have been the exit point for the surge by having a better ground path if the transient came in on the electrical. I haven't heard yet what the second burned board is and which one was the modem. There are two burned boards in that computer. Were they both the path in or out of the PC? Did the transient come in one board and exit the other? I provide power quality surveys for commercial and industrial facilities including petro-chemical plants, offshore drilling and production rigs as well as hospitals and large high rise buildings. I'm asked to diagnose incidents that occurred last night while I was asleep. If it is a one time event, I'm shooting at a target that has already passed by. If it's a recurring event, I can use my digital power analyzer to capture it, view the waveform, then search for its source. In the the latter case, I have been successful in finding problems that have been occurring for years that other specialists miss. There are products that will provide good transient protection without partially or completely failing. The key is to properly dissipate the energy, not just move it around in a shell game like surge protectors do.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen moderator

Go visit the rural parts of almost any of the states, including yours. A large portion of the country does not have access to either cable or DSL. It's a small part of the population (5-10%, I think), but their only connection options are satellite or dial-up.

JCitizen
JCitizen

You won't catch me touching that thing in a storm! Or anytime leading up to it; unless I see it way ahead on the radar! At least with wireless, I can simplify the protection scheme.

DNSB
DNSB

Your story reminded me of a time in the 70s when I worked at a company that did moisture detectors for plywood mills. They scanned the veneer sheets and sprayed a ink marker on wet spots. The 2 circuit boards for the controller was about 12 inches by 9 inches and housed in a nice sealed industrial grade cabinet. At one mill after a lightning storm, the complaint was the unit didn't work anymore. When our tech arrived and opened the cabinet, he found a nice collection of CMOS IC's with holes on their tops where the silicon had exploded and blown holes in the epoxy. Oddly, the board underneath which carried the analog circuitry for the sensors was apparently unharmed and still worked when we hooked it up to test at the shop. Never did have the nerve to ship it back to a customer site.

Cerebral*Origami
Cerebral*Origami

I have everything hooked through UPSes (or is it UPS'?) . One for the computer and one for my dual monitors. The Ethernet cable from my cable modem goes through the UPS before it hits my computer. The only thing not protected is my Color laser printer and my 60" plasma TV. Both of these items draw too much power to go through the UPS. They ARE on surge suppressors but I still unplug them if there is a thunderstorm. That being said they will NOT protect you from a really close or direct strike. Lighting can simply arc over the components.

Jonno-the-First
Jonno-the-First

The story said aa power surge, that means an excessive voltage on the power supplied to the computer. So the phone connection may have been the path taken out of the case..... Who knows for sure....

boxfiddler
boxfiddler moderator

that's what you're up to.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

it's against surges and spikes in the power delivery from the electric company due to varying line usage by others on the line. It's a lot more noticeable if you're on the end of the line at the edge of town. A top line UPS / surge protector will have the surge protection before the UPS so that what comes out is a flat line of power due to the surges and drops being absorbed within the unit.

awgiedawgie
awgiedawgie

The bottom card is the modem, and the top one is referred to as an "expansion card." From the looks of the port exiting the back of the cabinet, it's probably a serial interface. Not enough on it to be a second video card.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Punisher of thieves with lightning. Too many downloads of the wrong sort perhaps?

JCitizen
JCitizen

Oddly enough I live in a pretty deserted area, and we have many choices; dialup,DSL,cable, Wireless(verison), wireless(local power company), and of course, whatever flavor of satellite internet you may choose from. With so many competitors here, the average broadband price is thirty dollars or less. Not bad for the desert.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen moderator

If you're willing to pay for it. A consumer-grade 1500VA UPS ($200-250) should easily deal with the power load of the TV. For the printer, you will probably need to go to the industrial-grade 1500 UPS (over $500). My home system (PC, monitor, speakers) is on an APC BE350G ($50 list). The printer and other peripherals are on a surge suppressor with a double-pole power switch that breaks both the hot and neutral lines when turned off (about $30). And yes, I unplug them as well when necessary.

santeewelding
santeewelding

And a whole bunch improbably more, youngster that I am, disrespectful of my elders, they infirm and unstable, and all that. Who knows what lies ahead.

JCitizen
JCitizen

I kinda doubt their claims; but I notice only certain models are listed as such.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Bet someone messed with the wrong 419'er...

DNSB
DNSB

Nah, too much time on the computer and not enough time in bed (or elsewhere) worshipping(?) his fertility aspect.

JCitizen
JCitizen

in your area; they were selling somewhat slow DSL for 14 bucks a month. After I used it for about 6 months, they upped it to 1.5Mbps - no charge. I think they want to run all the competition off the road here, so they can raise prices later. Sorry about location non-disclosure, our group receives a lot of threats, and we have to be careful for others, not just our own person.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Where are you (without telling me)? Maybe I can toss my life here, go there, and sell hubcaps by the side of the road.

JCitizen
JCitizen

I see on user reviews at Amazon, that some are putting the UPS on a surge protector. I've had mine every since that strike that burnt my network. I'm more worried about network connectivity than power protection, but the UPS keeps the RJ45 surge protected, and the modem and router working for my laptop. With wireless now, the threat is reduced. I'm pretty sure that port on the old UPS is already damaged and I might as well replace the whole thing. One must also bear in mind that new HDTV devices need pure sine wave power conditioning, or their fancy equipment will fail just putting it on a UPS! My old Opti-UPS was one of the first I noticed with this feature. (edited) 80 PLUS energy initiative rated PSUs need pure sine wave source.

awgiedawgie
awgiedawgie

Not all UPS are surge protectors, or even surge supressors. They're not even all power line conditioners. Some of them are very simple, basic, bare-bones battery back-ups. If you expect your UPS to protect your equipment, make sure they include a very generous equipment protection policy. If they're not willing to stand behind their equipment, don't expect them to protect yours. A really good UPS will also be a line conditioner, ensuring your equipment gets the exact voltage required. It will compensate for power surges and power dips (brownouts), as well as give you battery back-up so you can safely shut down your equipment in a power outage. A UPS is unnecessary for a TV, unless you live in an area that is prone to brownouts, or you have a TV that specifically calls for one, such as a TV/computer hybrid. Some newer HDTVs might recommend a UPS, though I haven't seen any that do. Before you spend several hundred dollars on a UPS, be sure it's what you really need. Chances are, you need only a surge protector. If you have cable or DSL TV service, be sure your surge protector includes the necessary jacks to protect the cable and/or phone lines connected to your TV. If you have satellite TV, be sure the line from your satellite dish to your receiver is protected as well. The same if your satellite receiver is connected to the phone lines. If your TV is connected to your PC, and you don't protect EVERY connection on both of them, then they are both unprotected. A surge supressor will compensate for minor fluctuations in line current, but they do not carry any replacement coverage. They are rare anymore because surge protectors are very reasonably priced nowadays. A good surge protector (not supressor) will, as I mentioned above, carry a high equipment protection policy. It is not uncommon for them to offer over $100,000 in coverage, should their equipment fail to protect your equipment. Essentially, the magnitude of a power surge that would make it past that kind of surge protector would likely also blow up every other electrical item in your home, and possibly your home itself, too. In which case, your homeowner's or renter's insurance would cover the damage. Keep in mind, too, that for you to be properly protected, and for them to cover any of your equipment loss, the wiring in your home must be installed correctly, and properly grounded, and every connection going into the device in question must be properly connected and protected (e.g. phone lines, printers, router, external hard drives, stereo, TV, satellite, etc.). Before they pay for any of your damage, they will undoubtedly send an independent investigator/inspector to your location to try to find some way for them to get out of paying you.

Cerebral*Origami
Cerebral*Origami

Thanks for the info - I'll look into getting one for the TV.