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Zapped!

Stormy weather

August 15, 2010—It's monsoon season here in northern New Mexico—the time of year when it rains day after day after day. The weather is as predictable as clockwork: every morning it's mostly sunny; by noon it clouds over; and in the afternoon and evening come thunderstorms.

I know this normally dry land needs the rain, but after a couple of weeks of the same thing every day, it gets monotonous and a little depressing for me. I thrive on sunshine, which is why I'm out here in the southwest instead of back in New Jersey.

Last Wednesday followed the typical pattern, except that the rain was heavier than usual, and there was pea-sized hail for a little while in the early afternoon. Alix and I watched it from inside the rig as I did my usual stint at the iMac, answering emails and working on graphics for my clients.

Suddenly there was a sharp, frighteningly loud BANG! from the front of the coach. I turned to look, and saw orange sparks showering down outside the dining room window. "That's not good," I thought, in a masterpiece of understatement. There was only one possible explanation: Skylark had been struck by lightning.

My first thought was of fire. Inside this coach, I'm never more than about six feet from a fire extinguisher, but it was raining and thundering heavily, and I didn't want to risk going outside and being struck by lightning myself. Alix was crouched in a corner looking very scared, and I felt the same way. My hands were shaking and my heart was pounding.

I walked up front and saw light smoke in the cab, but there didn't seem to be any fire. I figured one of the antennas on the roof had been struck, and the CB radio, the dashboard stereo, or both were probably toast. (It's a little known fact that modern electronic devices run on smoke. The proof is that if you let the smoke out, they stop working!) There wasn't much I could do until the storm passed and I could go outside and assess the damage, so I went back and sat down at the computer, which was still running, and tried to comfort Alix.

Amazingly, the iMac had never skipped a beat. Shore power had dropped out, of course—in fact, half the campground was offline until the next morning—but my proSINE 2.0 inverter/charger took over just as it's supposed to, and the combination of my Surge Guard whole-house surge protector and my Zero Surge 8R15W computer surge protector saved all my 120VAC equipment. Usually a lightning strike takes out the microwave oven, VCR, and other always-connected AC appliances, but this one didn't—not one item was damaged.

After about an hour the storm had moved off, and I went up on the roof to see what was what. I wasn't surprised to find that my CB antenna has been destroyed right down to its mount. There were tiny shreds of partially melted metal all over the area.

Antenna stub

The solar panel next to the antenna was shattered, probably by the shockwave, its tempered glass cover cracked in a fine network. I was surprised to find that it was still putting out power, though.

Solar panel closeup

See those metal shreds lying on the glass? They're all that's left of the CB antenna. Actually, they're not shreds—they're spatters of molten steel. The front part of the roof has lots of them. The ones that hit the plastic escape hatch cover next to the antenna burned little holes in it.

Escape hatch holes

The damage inside

So much for the roof. I spent the next couple of days testing everything I could think of inside the rig, finding out what worked and what didn't. Surprisingly, the CB radio appeared to be OK, although without an antenna, it wasn't picking up any signals. But the dashboard FM/CD stereo was dead as a doornail... that's probably where the smoke came from. Here are my "good" and "bad" lists:

WORKING

  • proSINE 2.0 inverter/charger
  • Surge Guard
  • solar charging (all five panels appear to be working)
  • generator (starts and runs fine, but no power gets through—see below)
  • water pump
  • water heater
  • refrigerator
  • microwave oven
  • air conditioner
  • computer
  • scanner
  • printer
  • iPod and charger
  • CB radio
  • XM receiver
  • weather radio
  • Cambridge SoundWorks audio system

NOT WORKING

  • motorhome engine
  • transfer relay (stuck in shore-power position, so generator power can't get through)
  • rear view video system
  • ScanGauge II OBDII display
  • furnace
  • propane tank sending unit (reads empty)
  • dashboard stereo FM/CD player
  • cell phone booster amp
  • FM, CB antennas
  • escape hatch cover

When you think about the energy in a typical lightning bolt—30,000 amps at several hundred million volts—it's remarkable that so few items were damaged. I was very, very lucky. Lucky the rig didn't burn to the ground, if nothing else.

Yes, but... now I'm sitting here in a motorhome with about $2,500 worth of equipment damage so far... and every day, it seems, I find something new that doesn't work. Yesterday it was the rear-view video system. Today it was the trailer light wiring, which appear to be shorted out in a way that was draining my engine battery until I disconnected it. Tomorrow... who knows? It's pretty discouraging to watch the list of broken things grow.

My insurance company (Progressive) has been very helpful so far. My claims representative spent a good hour making phone calls to find the best places to get repair work done. I finally settled on having Mike Sylvester, the best RV tech I know, and the man who did most of the electrical upgrades on this rig when I bought it four years ago, meet me at a park in southern Colorado to do most of the repair work. That sounded like a perfect plan... until I found out that Skylark's engine won't start.

I wasn't prepared for this, because I had tried the engine a couple of hours after the lightning hit, and it started right up and ran fine. Now, a week later, it turns over, but won't catch. So I can't drive up to Colorado and meet Mike until I get this fixed. It could be anything from a dead fuel pump to a failed engine computer. I'm pretty much in the middle of nowhere—the nearest big town is Santa Fe, 95 miles south of here, and my preferred shop for Ford chassis work, Statkus Engines in Albuquerque, is 156 miles south. And the local repair shops don't exactly inspire confidence.

Chama repair shop

I do have Coach-Net emergency road service—like AAA, only with BIG wreckers!—but the thought of being towed to Albuquerque is daunting. Heck, the idea of being in Albuquerque at this time of year is daunting. They're expecting highs in the mid-90s F. next week, whereas here at El Vado Lake State Park it's more like upper 70s. And of course it's the opposite direction from where I need to be heading: north to Colorado to meet Mike. I'm still thinking about what to do.

If I sound flustered, I am. Ordinarily I don't have trouble making decisions. But the continuing complications of the lightning damage, plus an overdue package delivery (my new iMac computer) that's keeping me pinned down in this park, plus some kidney problems last week, have me feeling more than a bit overwhelmed. I don't multitask well; I do a lot better when I can deal with one thing at a time.

What's helped tremendously has been the outpouring of support from friends and RVing acquaintances, especially the good people in the Yahoo Lazy Daze discussion group I moderate. I've been flooded with public posts and private emails, offering everything from moral support (much appreciated) to specific technical suggestions (ditto). If I had to deal with these problems in isolation, I don't know what I'd do. Probably pull out the rest of my hair.

This story is going to go on for awhile, obviously. I'll post an update when I have a better idea of the next steps I need to take.

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