Campus & Buildings

Ensuring our Campus' Future with Lightning Protection

Posted by Holly Brough
Director of Communications

As we reported in last month's blog about chimney repairs at the Inn, the relative quiet of the buildings throughout the summer and fall opened up opportunities for new building enhancements.  And we’ve been taking advantage. In addition to tackling chimney repair, we’ve used this quieter time to upgrade lightning protection at the Coach Barn, Farm Barn, and Inn. These projects are helping to revitalize and strengthen our historic campus for learning.  

The sad loss of the Old Dairy Barn to lightning fire in 2016 precipitated a full evaluation of lightning protection among the buildings at Shelburne Farms, and an investigation into best practices for installing protection on our historic structures. Some lightning protection was already in place (and it’s unclear whether lightning rods alone would have saved the 1890s barn), but we knew we had to develop a more comprehensive plan and act on it.

That action began at the Breeding Barn, where we added a lightning protection system in June 2019.  (A fire protection system is now in the works.) This summer, we turned to the other side of our campus. Associated Lightning has now installed lightning protection systems at both the Farm Barn and Coach Barn, two buildings critical to our education programs for educators and students.  Work continues at the Inn until the snow flies! 

A worker in a lift installing lightning rods on Farm Barn roof.

An effective lightning protection system involves several elements, but only some are visible to  observant visitors. These include 12-inch high rod “terminals'' that are positioned every 20 feet along roof ridgelines. That distance is the industry standard, ensuring that any lightning strike will hit a rod, not the space in between.  Those rods are then connected to exterior copper cables. The terminals accept lightning strikes and route the strong electrical charge through the cables to a grounding system, keeping the charge away from the building’s (flammable) materials and contents. Additional elements (“bonding” and “surge protection devices”) further control the path and power of the lightning. 

ladder and truck to install cables in the loft spaces of the Farm Barn
With an eagle eye, you can just make out the lighting terminals along the roof -- both in this photo and in real life! Workers climbed into attic and loft areas of all the buildings to run the cables.
Robbie Cooper of Associated Lightning, which works throughout the Northeast, says the protection work at Shelburne Farms is “probably the most fulfilling project we’ve done. The guys have really loved it.” In part, he goes on, that’s because “the buildings are so gorgeous and have so much history behind them.” It’s also because the benefits are so clear. This has been a particularly volatile year of thunderstorms at the farm (with climate change, it’s a trend that could well continue), and aside from the earlier loss of the Old Dairy Barn, a home was lost to lightning in town this season. Basically, the team has been able to “see the enemy” that they’re protecting our buildings against.

copper cable running along beams of the exterior of the Farm Barn
Copper cables are discreetly run along exterior beams of the Farm Barn to ground any lightning charges -- without affecting the look of the building.
This fulfilling project has been a challenging one, too, Robbie admits. The massive scale of these buildings has demanded a lot of labor and time, including 32 days to install the Farm Barn system alone. Discreetly locating any visible components to preserve the beautiful historic building facades also requires forethought and focus (and sometimes crawling through attic spaces alive with birds, bats, and other critters). But Robbie says, “our guys are really meticulous about aesthetics.” It shows. 

Lightning terminals were even installed on the tips of the Farm Barn turrets.

We are so grateful to donors and to Associated Lightning for their commitment to protecting the buildings of our educational campus for years to come.  

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