Stories of Coincidental Electricity

The annual Tanner Electronics Robot Show was on Saturday, April 14. The DPRG held their annual robot talent contest concurrently. So, not suprisingly, I was planning on working late the preceding Friday to get my new little robot, Robozoa, into shape. This mostly involved finishing some hardware-related things like wiring from the H-Bridges to the motors and from the motor encoders to the microcontroller. This sort of work is better done at the DPRG Lab where there are plenty of tools and test equipment to make it easy.

The weather prediction was for rain in the evening, so my plan was to head up to the DPRG immediately after work. Not suprisingly, a last-minute work-related emergency held me up for a couple of hours. By the time I was finally able to leave, a torrential rain had started. When a break in the rain materialized, I ran out to my car; only to get a phone call before I was out of the parking lot. The call was from Susan, who was holed up at home in a bathroom with the three cats because the TV had just announced a tornado was headed her way. She said the tornado watch area extended to the downtown area where I was, so I decided I’d be better off inside the office than in my car until things calmed down.

I ran back through the now heavy rain into the office. As I dried off, I clicked up a few weather radar sites. Sure enough, there were some nasty looking thunderstorms headed my way. They passed over Irving, where Susan was, without any serious damage resulting (it’s now unclear whether the reported tornado really touched down or not). The worst of storms were now north of Dallas in the Garland area, where the DPRG Lab is located. I decided to settle in and do what work I could on the robot at the office. I finally left about 1am by which time the rain had stopped. I was a little annoyed that this series of events had kept me from making it to the DPRG where I could have worked more efficiently.

The next morning, I showed up at the Tanner’s event. The previous night’s storm had brought with it a freak, one-day cold front. Despite the cold, a fair number of humans and robots showed up to participate. But, more interestingly, several people said they’d seen the DPRG’s building in Garland on the news. There were firetrucks in the parking lot. Apparently it was hit by lightning. Eric Sumner, Ed Paradis, and I decided to drive up to Garland and check out the damage.

From what we could tell, the lightning hit the transformer immediately behind the DPRG building. It largely destroyed the power line between the transformer and the building, reducing it to a series of short fragments. The power meter was completely destroyed. The charred metal casing of the meter was still on the wall, surrounded by blackened bricks. The transparent housing and meter electronics, or the remains of them, were found on the ground. The meter had contained several boards with surface mount components. The lightning blast had desoldered all the components and completely vaporized many of them. Inside the building, the main breaker box was also a charred mess but it appears the breakers vaporized so quickly that it limited the damage to the downstream breaker boxes.

By Tuesday power had been restored and we were able to evaluate the damage. Remarkably, the only losses discovered were a single surge protector and one very old dot matrix printer. Aside from those two casualties, test equipment, networking gear, computers, all seemed to have survived no worse for the wear. All thing considered, I’m glad I wasn’t around Friday night when it hit.