HT Boot Camp: Grounding and Surge Protectors

Editor makes stupid grounding mistakes and pays with fried gear.

Those of you who have installed your own satellite systems have seen RG-6 coaxial cable with a second wire attached to the outside. I can't speak for the rest of you, but I know I never paid a whole lot of attention to that second wire. Sure, it was handy for tying the cable to stuff and so on, but, frankly, who really gives it a whole lot of thought? Even our detail-oriented (PC for anal retentive) technical editor Mike Wood admits he's never found much need for it, either. That is, until he heard my tale of woe.

Early last summer, my wife and I moved into our dream house. Finally, I said to myself, I can install the kind of full-blown video-distribution system I've always wanted, allowing for both DirecTV and EchoStar in any of five rooms plus connections to a giant antenna on my roof.

The amazing thing—aside from the fact that I paid for the installation (we electronics writers are notorious for scamming stuff)—was that I trusted the guys who were doing the install. I asked whether the dishes were grounded and was assured that they were, but I failed to, um, actually check on it myself. I was delighted with the DirecTV dish in the tree in my front yard, although I was less thrilled with the DISH Network dish in my front yard, which was rigged to an ugly piece of wood and cinder blocks.

Once everything was up and running, I was thrilled. I had enough video infrastructure to easily run two satellite boxes in my office and, with a bit of coax run through the hall, four separate satellite boxes. "DBS Face Off, here we come," I thought.

While You Were Out . . .
One lovely Friday night in the warm, steamy days of late August, I took my wife to the movies to see The Thomas Crown Affair (no, it didn't sound as good as it would've in my living room, but until new releases go directly to DVD, I'm stuck). While we were in the theater, the power went out for a few moments, a testament to the line of powerful thunderstorms rolling through the Brandywine Valley—the quiet portion of Pennsylvania where I live. Although the power outage was annoying during the movie, I didn't really give it much thought after the fact.

It was dark when we arrived back home, so I didn't notice anything amiss—until I tried to turn on the TV in my bedroom. No DirecTV. No antenna. Nothing. I looked out the bedroom window at the giant tree in pieces in my front yard, and I saw that the wires from the tree to the house were down. Lightning had stopped by to say hello while we were out. Needless to say, I wasn't amused. It was late, but I gave the house a quick check, only to find that none of my services or gear (except EchoStar) were in working order.

With the light of day, the damage became much more obvious. One fried satellite dish. Two fried satellite boxes. Two fried Pioneer A/V receivers. Surprisingly, the built-in modem on my iMac was also fried, as was the modem in my stepson's PC. Of course, the tree was a mess, although it at least survived.

Slowly, I started to reconstruct what happened. Lightning hit the dish and the tree, sending a surge of electricity into the two satellite boxes. Although the surge appears to have been weaker in my bedroom because of the longer cable run (I think), the surge pushed out of the downstairs DirecTV receiver and out through the composite video connection and the modem port. The surge killed my Pioneer Elite VSX-14 receiver but, thankfully, stopped short of the HDTV it was connected to. While none of my phones were damaged, the surge jumped from the DBS-receiver modem to the two computer modems, killing them off. Was the dish grounded? Not even slightly. Did I have a coax surge protector? Nope. A phone surge protector for my computer? Nope. I very smugly figured the AC-power surge protectors would be more than enough.

I kicked myself for not checking the installers' work and just taking their word for it. The ground wire was used to tie off the cable, not to ground the dish. The power surge had nowhere to go but into the house to wreak havoc. I counted myself lucky not to have found the smoldering remnants of my new house when I got home from the movies.