Sportfishing Giant Adopts 'Experimental' Anti-Lightning System
Viking's Mushroom-Shaped Air Terminal Not Proven To Work, Experts Say
Second in a series.
Viking Yachts is a powerhouse on the American boatbuilding scene, cranking out around 75 battlewagons a year with pricetags of up to $10 million. Like any big sportfish boats, Vikings are more vulnerable to lightning damage than the average powercraft because of their aluminum towers and tall outriggers—and the fact that fishing tournaments tend to happen in areas prone to thunderstorms.
The kind of lightning protection recently adopted by Viking is dismissed by the American lightning science community as having no proven scientific basis. NASA’s go-to authority on lightning protection for its launch facilities went a step further. Dr. Carlos Mata called Viking’s system “bogus.”
With a customer base and insurance partners increasingly annoyed by million-dollar insurance claims for lightning damage, Viking decided to offer the option for boatbuyers to purchase what a spokesman conceded was an “experimental” system to prevent lightning strikes. The lightning threat has become more acute nowadays because the proliferation of sensitive electronic equipment, which includes electronic engine controls and Seakeeper gyroscopic stabilizers.
Viking has three boats with completed installations now in the water, and there are plans for 20 more, according to Todd Tally, general manager of Atlantic Marine Electronics, a subsidary of Viking Yachts. The price of the system tops off at about $60,000, which Tally described as almost trivial to customers who spend $8,000 or more for fuel in any given day on the water.
“If we get 150 boats in the next 18 months, we’ll start seeing what’s happening,” Tally said. “This is a real-world experiment, and these guys are millionaires, and they don’t care. ‘Yeah, go ahead throw it onto my boat, and let’s see what happens’.”
At the centerpiece of the system is an air terminal that resembles an oversized mushroom, called a DDCE or Electronic Charge Compensation Device. It’s manufactured by a Spanish company named Dinnteco, which primarily caters to commercial and industrial customers. AME is now the exclusive marine distributor for Dinnteco in the U.S., Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica.
Lightning is a spark
Lightning is an electric discharge that attempts to equalize voltage between storm clouds and the earth. The difference in polarity between the bottom of the cloud and the ground is called the charge differential.
When charge differential is high, the cloud begins to form downward leaders, and objects on the Earth’s surface, such as a boat, begin to form upward streamers (sometimes referred to as “upward leaders”). A leader then connects with a streamer at an attachment point, such as as tuna tower or masthead, giving lightning a path to equalize the charge between the earth and the cloud.
And, in the absence of any protective system, potentially blowing holes through the boat, frying the electronics and harming the people on board. Lightning is effectively a high-voltage spark.
According to Tolly and AME literature, the DDCE “avoids the formation of lightning” around any structure that it sits atop. It works by draining away excess negative charges in the nearby atmosphere through a grounding plate attached to the bottom of the boat. According to Dinnteco, this stops the formation of a positively charged upward streamer and thus eliminates pre-conditions for a strike within a “radius of protection” advertised to be 100 meters.
Early marketing declared that Dinnteco devices prevented lightning outright or acted like “camoflauge,” rendering a structure “nearly invisible” to lightning, but that kind of verbiage appears to have been toned down, emphasizing reduced probability of a strike instead of outright elimination.
“They say that the technology is designed to reduce the electric field that builds up in the atmosphere by discharging the static charge. I don’t think anything can be any more bogus,” Dr. Carlos Mata said. “What they are saying is that they are somehow going to transfer this charge in the atmosphere to ground, and none of the process that we understand as lightning will happen as a result. This of course is a bunch of B.S.”
He ridiculed the notion that what is a small capacitor can manipulate the atmosphere in a way that effects the formation of lightning. “It’s perhaps worth it to think of the actual scale of the problem here,” Mata said. “You have a device that is just inches in size, and you have a thunderstorm that is hundreds of square kilometers, and it is seven miles up in the air. How is a device on the ground going to prevent that thunderstorm from generating lightning?”
Mata was introduced in an earlier Loose Cannon story, in which he also denied the effectiveness of a so-called dissipation air terminal typical sold to sailboat owners.Mata is not alone is his strong belief that the Dinnteco system does not work. The American lightning science community is broadly in agreement, including its foremost expert on lightning protection for watercraft.
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Ewen Thomson researched the phenomenon of lightning for 22 years while an associate professor at the University of Florida. Since then, his company, Marine Lightning Protection, has developed an advanced conventional lightning protection system that meets the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard for watercraft.
“Their science is non-existent,” Thomson said, referring to vendors of non-convention lightning protection. “ What they rely on are glowing reports: ‘Oh, we put this thing on a tower, and in three years it didn’t get struck by lightning. All of their accounts are just that.”
According to Mata and Thomson, Dinnteco’s system fails to meet the NFPA standard because there is no credible third-party, peer reviewed literature that verifies its effectiveness. Systems such as Dinnteco’s and the dissipator air terminal profiled in the earlier story are grouped under the heading of “non-conventional” lightning protection systems.
Over the years, scientific papers have debunked an array of non-conventional systems, while grudgingly acknowledging the sales acumen of their vendors, who boast about the many big-name businesses that have purchased their products. To the lightning science establishment these commercial inroads are worrisome in the same way that medical doctors in the early 20th century fretted about the proliferation of “snakeoil”cures.
NASA policy precludes using Dinnteco or other non-conventional lightning protection, according to Mata, nor are they acceptable to the Department of Defense or the Federal Aviation Administration.
Tally of American Marine Electronics (AME) accused Mata and other conventional lightning protection experts of being hide-bound in their thinking. Their criticisms, he said, are self-serving because they see Dinnteco as a business competitor.
Mata, for example, is chief technology officer for Scientific Lightning Solutions, a company that designs lightning protection systems, including those at Kennedy Space Center. Thomson designs lightning protection systems for boats, including a patented “Siedarc” grounding electrode. Thomson is now working with an owner in South Florida installing lightning protection in his a 60-foot Hatteras sportfishing yacht.
“They (the principals at Dinnteco) don’t think that Dr. Mata understands the theory behind their technology. From my standpoint, it’s like he doesn’t really want to. He’s so ingrained in the traditional, and now he’s been put on this pedestal as such an expert,” Tally said.
“It could be that the Dinnteco stuff totally doesn’t work. I’m not scientific enough to decide. But I do believe the Dinnteco guys are ethical and truly believe they have an answer,” he said. “If we get 150 boats in the next 18 months, we’ll start seeing what’s happening. This is a real-world experiment, and these guys (Viking owners) are millionaires, and they don’t care: ‘Yeah, go ahead throw it onto my boat, and let’s see what happens.’ That’s kind of what my thought process is now.”
Before AME, the U.S. distributor for Dinnteco was an Indiana company called EMP Solutions, which now sells a competing product very similar to Dinnteco’s DDCE. EMP President Jay Kothari told Loose Cannon that his company had overseen the installation of mushroom shaped static discharge devices on about 150 recreational vessels ranging in size from 40 to 300 feet, including Jimmy Buffet’s 50-foot sailboat Drifter.
St. Augustine Airport example
In 2015, EMP installed a Dinnteco DDCE air terminal, marketed as a “Halo” system, at the St. Augustine airport control tower in Florida. About a year later, two more Halos were installed. About a month after that, local television news reported that the tower had been struck by lightning, even though EMP officials were quoted as saying that the Halos would “100 percent prevent strikes in the protected areas.”
Since 2016, lightning has struck 1,111 times within two-kilometer radius of the St. Augustine tower, according to the National Lightning Detection Network. Mata said the strike pattern, as shown in the Google Earth figure below, shows no evidence that lightning has been prevented around the tower.
The 2016 divorce between Kothari’s EMP Solutions and Dinnteco was a bitter one. Reading what happened next is like having to ingest a helping of alphabet soup:
EMP formed an alliance with SERTEC, another break-away Dinnteco distributor in Paraguay. SERTEC manufactures its version of the DDCE (called a CMCE), which EMP then sells to the U.S. market. (Dinnteco told Loose Cannon that the EMP air terminal violates Dinnteco’s DDCE patent.)
In April 2021, EMP was sued after a Texas property protected by EMP’s system was damaged as the result of “a catastrophic explosion and fire” due to lightning. Attorney Chris Volf, representing Key Energy Services, wrote in the lawsuit that the sales pitch for the CMCE amounted to a “dangerous and irresponsible fraud.”
“Promising people such protection in lightning storms is irresponsible and…relying on unproven ‘gimmicks’ to protect people from lightning strikes is a recipe for tragedy,” Volf wrote. “Indeed it seems impossible that the lightning suppressor installed at plaintiff’s property, which is an unpowered device the size of a shoebox, stops 100 percent of lightning forming within a 500,000-square-foot area.”
(Dinnteco told Loose Cannon the Texas catastrophe was likely the result of ill-advised modifications that EMP and SERTEC made to Dinnteco’s patented device.)
The lawsuit was settled without going to trial, as was the case with several similar lightning protection lawsuits examined by Loose Cannon, and they all contained language similar to Volk’s. If a disgruntled Viking owner were to sue Viking, it would almost certainly contain similarly worded allegations.
The lawsuit did reveal a major difference between the Dinnteco warranty and the EMP warranty. EMP had promised to cover up to $500,000 in lightning damage.
According to Tally, each AME/Dinnteco lightning protection customer signs a warrranty with this clause: “If the boat or people in it suffer damages caused by lightning striking on its structures, or impacting external structures, as well as damages caused by overvoltages or electro-magnetic pulses, these damages are not covered by Dinnteco’s manufacturer warranty.” (The warranty, however, does guarantee replacement of DDCEs damaged “from elements like hail or salt.”)
There’s a whiff of irony in the workings of the Dinnteco system, if you believe Mata, Thomson and other American scientists. They say that even though the DDCE does not work as advertised, it could nevertheless benefit a boat owner by not working as advertised.
They say the DDCE could actually function as a run-of-the-mill copper lightning rod in the tradition of Ben Franklin because the mushroom air terminal connects directly to a below-waterline grounding plate on the outside of the hull. This set-up could afford protection to boat and crew by channeling a strike through the boat and out the grounding plate. And because the Dinnteco system also incorporates surge protection devices, electronics might survive as well.
In other words, Dinnteco’s system has the potential to provide some unintended protection, albeit at a cost several times higher than a well designed traditional system, which had also incorporated surge protection.
Dr. Carlos T. Mata of Scientific Lightning Solutions is the man who designed the lighting protection systems for the launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is indisputably the most sophisticated lightning protection system in the world.
In 2009, Mata was awarded NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award that the space agency can give a private citizen for an “achievement or contribution… that has made a profound or indelible impact to NASA mission success, therefore, the contribution is so extraordinary that other forms of recognition by NASA would be inadequate." Other past honorees include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan and Robert Heinlein. —NASA's Go-To Lightning Guy Disses Fuzzy Dissipators, June 6, 2022
According to National Public Radio, the first written usage of the phrase appeared in Stephen Vincent Benet's epic 1927 poem “John Brown's Body,” when the poet refers to "Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades ... sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings."
Agree with NASA and the Lighting experts, I studied lighting strikes quite closely after two of our 188’ GRP US Navy vessels were struck causing a lot of electronics damage and expense. I don’t believe this device will “protect” anything. Stick with a high spike and heavy and straight cable to good size grounding plate through the hull.