For most of the country, rain cools things off. In the summer, most of America is (relatively) fine with the occasional shower.
Down here in Orlando, we have a different view. The Sunshine State could just as easily have been called the Lightning State, as Florida residents know well. After all, didn’t Tampa name their hockey team after our most common spring and summer weather phenomenon?
Florida experiences tropical storms at a higher rate than the rest of the continental United States. The upshot of that is simple: lots and lots of lightning. These typically start in the spring, and they can continue throughout the summer.
Worst of all, they don’t really cool things down. Instead, they just make it intensely humid, which raises the heat index and makes the outside practically unbearable. During those soupy, muggy days and nights, most Orlando residents retreat into that loveliest of modern amenities: air conditioning.
Willis Haviland Carrier, thank you for your contributions.
What do storms and your AC have to do with one another?
We get a lot of calls during storm season. Sometimes, it’s for repairs on HVAC systems that have been damaged, but more often, it’s to ask a simple question. It’s one we have to answer on a weekly basis, at least, when lightning is searing the skies overhead.
The question is this:
“Can I run my AC during this storm?”
Rain and lightning remind people that electricity and water don’t mix. They’re mostly concerned about their HVAC system and the lightning having a sort of hairdryer-in-the-sink mishap.
Breathe easy. In this article, we’ll explain what the real risks are, and exactly when you should and should not be using your air conditioner.
First, if it’s just raining, even heavy rain, go ahead and run your air conditioner. Any AC repair company in Florida will be able to tell you that, barring unusually dangerous weather, there is absolutely nothing to be concerned about. No amount of rain should pose any risk to you, your family, or your outside condenser unit.
You see, when engineers decided that, in order to deal with the noise, they’d better keep those condensers outdoors, they built them to survive all kinds of weather. Like a good postman, your HVAC unit is built to survive.
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night shall stay your brave condenser from the steadfast completion of its cooling duties.
However, when we get into thunderstorms, there are a few precautions we’ll discuss.
Should I worry about flooding?
Flooding can be problematic. If it rains heavy enough that your home experiences flooding, water can collect and damage your AC. If you’re in an area that’s under a credible flood warning – and you’ll know, they’ll tell you! – you have got to do yourself a favor and shut your system off.
If you’re in a flood prone area, like a good chunk of Florida happens to be, you might want to consider asking your HVAC installation and maintenance company whether you can elevate your outside unit. It’s a great option for homeowners who want to avoid costly repairs.
Should I worry about rain?
Whether it’s a downpour or just a sprinkling, rain should never be a risk factor all by itself. The outside unit is built to withstand searing summer heat, snow, wind, and all manner of elemental dangers.
If, however, you’re a worrier, there are weatherproof covers you can purchase that provide an additional layer of protection for your equipment. We never scoff at that kind of thing. After all, your air conditioner costs a great deal of money.
Between the prices of air conditioning maintenance and the staggering price tag on a new AC installation, we can completely understand why you’d want to take every precaution. Our job is to make sure you stay cool and comfortable, at reasonable prices, all the time.
If I’ve got surge protectors, am I safe?
If you’re seeing frequent flashes of lightning, and you’re (very naturally) worried about your HVAC equipment, you might wonder whether it would survive a lightning strike.
It’s a good idea to ensure that all of your heating and cooling system components are plugged into surge protectors. They’re an investment designed for that specific occurrence, and they can save you a great deal of money in the event of a strike.
AC surge protectors are your equipment’s best line of defense against outages, shortages, and lightning strikes. They absorb the electrical damage so that your equipment doesn’t have to, and then they redirect the energy to the ground.
In addition to protecting your equipment, surge protectors are there to protect you and your home and family.
AC Repair Orlando: A note on surge protectors and power strips.
Most surge protectors look just a like power strip, which may lead to many homeowners confusing the two. In fact, some manufacturers even market power strips as surge protectors.
They are NOT the same thing. This is very important. A power strip is essentially a glorified extension cord. It doesn’t provide any additional protection.
Here’s how you tell the two apart. A power strip:
On the other hand, a surge protector, while it may look like a power strip:
Surge protectors are aimed at electronics – televisions, networking gear, computers, and HVAC equipment.
When it comes to air conditioning, surge protectors are only a first step.
What you want for HVAC equipment is a high-end protection, able to absorb a very large amount of energy. Installing industrial grade surge protectors is a great start, but given that you live in Florida, the Lightning State, it may not be enough. In the event that lightning strikes a unit while it is operating, a surge protector may not be enough to defend the system’s controls against corruption or damage.
What can happen if lightning strikes my air conditioner?
A lightning strike is immensely powerful. It briefly heats the air around it up to five times hotter than the sun. They travel around two hundred million miles per hour. Each bolt can contain up to one billion volts of electricity. By way of comparison, your house current is running at about a hundred and ten volts.
That’s why a surge protector isn’t a cure-all. What you want to do is ensure that your house is properly grounded. That can be accomplished by using a lightning protection system. That will use lightning rods, conductors, and ground rods in a system around your home that will “catch” the lightning and redirect it harmlessly into the ground rather than through your home’s circuits.
Of course, even these systems aren’t 100% effective.
So, if you’re trapped in your home on a hot, humid Florida night, watching lightning rip across the sky, we’ve got some bad news for you:
The safest option is to turn your air conditioner off until the lightning and thunder have moved out of your area. If it’sjust rain, you’re fine, but when it comes to lightning, there are unavoidable risks to running that air conditioner.
Lightning can render your air conditioner completely unusable in a number of ways:
All of that and more can come out of a single lightning strike, and in worst-case scenarios, your entire HVAC system may need replacing.
How do I know when it’s safe and when it’s dangerous?
While we hate to be the bearer of bad news, we can’t stress enough that running your air conditioner during a thunderstorm is dangerous.
In Florida, March through June tend to be the peak of thunderstorm weather, but they can pop up almost anytime, bringing all the dangers we’ve discussed in this article. Long before breakers trip and surge protectors cut things off, your system could get walloped with billions of unwanted joules of electricity. The havoc wreaked therein is devastating, so of course you’d want to know how to avoid the risk.
Here’s the rule of thumb we employ, and it’s an easy one: If you can hear thunder, you should turn your AC off. Period. If you are within earshot of thunder, that means you are within striking distance of a lightning bolt. If you play the childhood game of counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, and you determine the storm is several miles away, that does not make you safe. Lightning bolts can strike as far as ten milesoutside of the storm area, in areas most people would consider safe.
So, to remain truly safe, instead of truly sorry, we advise waiting until all you hear is falling rain before kicking the air conditioning on. This way, you don’t have to call your AC repair Orlando specialists to come out and assess the damage once the sun’s come out again.
Michael Haines is a veteran A/C contractor and founder of the largest and oldest e-commerce site in the heating and air conditioning industry. His HVAC websites have served 10's of thousands of customers.