Lightning is one of nature’s most beautiful and dangerous weather phenomena. According to NOAA, the U.S. averages about 20 deaths a year, with hundreds more injured. This is why we think personal lightning detectors are so valuable because they provide earlier warning of one of nature’s most violent and potentially deadly weather events during severe storms.
Lightning detectors don’t just protect you, but the electronic devices in your home as well. Our everyday electronics are susceptible to damage from static discharges, and even an indirect lightning strike to your home can fry the electronic components inside. We’ve searched high and low for the best lightning detector out there and have come up with a few options.
But first, let’s review what lightning is and what causes it.
- What is lightning, and why does it happen?
- What You Should Do When Lightning Strikes
- How do lightning detectors work?
- Should I buy one?
- The Best Lightning Detectors
- How We Chose the Best Lightning Detectors
- What to Consider When Buying a Personal Lightning Detector
- Wrapping Up
What is lightning, and why does it happen?
Lightning is an atmospheric electrostatic discharge. This typically occurs when ice or water particles in the atmosphere collide, transferring electrical charges, leading to lightning strikes between these two points. But what causes the thunder you hear with a lightning strike? It’s exploding air! The lightning bolt heats the air in its path, which causes super-heated air to expand and explode. That explosion creates the sound of thunder, and the light from it the bolt.
The same type of charge occurs when you rub your feet on the carpet and then touch something like a metal door handle: it creates an electrostatic discharge which can cause a spark to jump between your hand and the metal. The same type of build-up happens in our atmosphere during thunderstorms. When the build-up gets too intense, lightning strikes through the sky.
Lightning also occurs when a charge is conducted between the ground and an object, called cloud to ground lightning. The charge travels from the ground upwards. Lightning strikes can cause fires if they strike an object, but a lightning strike on the water will spread out over the surface. This is why you should move away from any large bodies of water during thunderstorms. The lightning strike doesn’t have to be direct for you to get hit! Intra cloud lightning strikes, more commonly referred to as cloud-to-cloud lightning, occurs between two clouds.
There are many different types of lightning, including heat lightning. Heat lightning is named this because it’s often seen during summer nights from thunderstorms that are too far away to hear the thunder itself.
With a lightning detector, you won’t have to worry about being caught off guard. They work even when you can’t see the lightning yet — because the lightning detector detects electromagnetic interference caused by a lightning strike, even when the lightning bolt itself is too far away to be visible.
What You Should Do When Lightning Strikes
Lightning is the most powerful natural force in the world, and it’s also one of the most deadly, with lightning strikes accounting for more deaths than any other weather event. The good news is that lightning safety doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are 11 lightning safety tips to help ensure your protection when lightning strikes:
- Remember, “if thunder roars, go indoors.”
- Stay away from doors, windows, outside walls, and anything metal
- Avoid contact with water (including rain)
- Stay off phones, computers, and out of the shower
- Don’t go outside again until 30 minutes after lightning was last seen
- If you’re swimming, get to land immediately when lightning is spotted nearby
- Do not camp or sleep in tents — they are one of the most dangerous places during lightning
- Avoid open fields and high ground (such as hills) where lightning is more likely to strike
- If you’re hiking or camping, keep an eye on the sky and never shelter under a lone tree
- Make your car into a safe zone by pulling over somewhere safe if lightning starts during travel
- Stay aware of lightning if you’re boating or fishing
- And of course, consider lightning detectors to get advanced notice!
How do lightning detectors work?
Lightning detectors provide warning of approaching thunderstorms, often well before you hear any thunder. A sensor inside “listens” for the electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) that lightning produces. You might already have listened to an EMP yourself listening to AM radio, and the static crash you hear during a thunderstorm is the interference from the EMP. These lightning detectors use the same concept.
The intensity of these pulses is used to offer a rough estimate of your distance from a detected strike. However, don’t wait until strikes approach to act: lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from a thunderstorm! That’s why a lightning detector can save your life.
Should I buy one?
Lightning detectors are a smart buy for anyone who spends considerable time outdoors during the spring and summer months. It’s even more important for those that might not have immediate access to adequate shelter, such as golfers, runners, cyclists, and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Outdoor businesses should also consider a lightning detector too. Some higher-end options offer the capability to not only detect nearby lightning but track it, too — allowing you to better judge whether nearby lightning poses a threat. A lightning detector is perfect for outdoor businesses like restaurants, bars, and pools, to name a few.
The Best Lightning Detectors
While we’ve seen dozens of lightning detectors out there, these four stand out. These are all meant for consumer uses: if you’re looking for lightning detection for your business, we’d recommend Boltek’s product line.
Boltek’s pro-grade detectors are expensive — the cheapest sets you back $1,400 — but you get detection out to 250 miles, including the capability to determine where the strike occurred, which is needed to determine storm direction. The below only provide a distance, typically around 25 miles, which might not be sufficient for commercial applications. Most consumer models are handheld lightning detectors so that you can take them just about anywhere.
Like other weather gadgets, the best lightning detectors are quite expensive. However, if you want an accurate device that can detect lightning without false positives due to interference, you will need to pay more. However, an affordable lightning detector, such as the AcuRite model we recommend below, is better than nothing.
If you own a smart home, the WeatherFlow Tempest is the weather station to buy. The lightning detection capabilities are also the best we've seen.
- Super quick setup
- Outstanding lightning detection
- Fairly accurate instrumentation
- Ready for the smart home
- Haptic rain sensor doesn’t measure rainfall accurately enough
- No expandability
While the WeatherFlow Tempest isn’t our favorite weather station at the moment (that honor belongs to the Ambient Weather WS-5000), it does have by far the most accurate lightning detector on a weather station we’ve tested (and many weather stations don’t include this functionality, or you have to pay extra for an optional add-on).
We experienced far fewer interference issues with lightning detection with the Tempest than others, including the AcuRite Atlas and the optional sensor available with the WS-5000. It also seemed to track better with the lightning data we looked at, detecting way more strikes than others, and providing a reliably accurate estimated distance to the strike.
The rainfall detection and intensity sensors are great, but the Tempest does struggle to measure rainfall accurately using its haptic rain gauge. If you can look past that, and detecting lightning strikes is your priority, the WeatherFlow Tempest is the best of what’s currently available.
Features at A Glance
- Full weather station with all the features you need
- Detects lightning more accurately than most
- Smart home ready
The American-made TALOS is one of the best-selling lightning detectors on Amazon, thanks to its superior lightning detection capabilities and rugged waterproof construction Color LED lights give a visual representation of strike distance.
Understandably, not everybody needs the functionality of a weather station. If you’re looking for excellent performance and accuracy, then the US-built TALOS Lightning & Storm Detector is the way to go. This portable unit gets great reviews for its detection capabilities and is chock full of functionality.
With a ruggedized and waterproof design, we could see this lightning detector becoming popular with outdoor enthusiasts. The device’s front features a strip of LEDs that use different colors to display strike distance up to 25 miles. That said, we’ve heard buyers report they’ve detected strikes with the TALOS lightning detector more than 40 miles away, especially over water.
The TALOS is not cheap, however, and is one of the more expensive out there. But it’s an accurate device, and its superb detection capabilities and its resistance to interference make it the best personal lightning detector.
Some may prefer more than just LEDs to warn of incoming lightning strikes. In this case, we’d recommend Robic’s Strike Alert HD Lightning Detector. It’s more expensive than the TALOS and uses different colored LEDs to indicate lightning strike distance; however, the display offers more detail on nearby strikes.
The display offers information on one-hour storm trends and lightning intensity, and an audible alarm is triggered when strikes are detected close by. Robic also claims “360-degree detection,” claiming its competitors suffer from “blind spots.”
Even with the additional functionality, the Robic still has incredible battery life. On just two AA batteries, the Robic Strike Alert HD Lightning Detector lasts quite a while, but we’d warn it’s nowhere near to the 80 hours that Robic claims.
If you’re on a really tight budget and can accept a little less accuracy, the AcuRite 02020 Portable Lightning Detector is a good buy. While it is much more susceptible to interference than the above models, The AcuRite 02020 does an acceptable job in most situations.
This Acurite lightning detector has a detection range of about 25 miles, with both a visual (a flashing red led light on the top) and an audio alert when strikes occur. The screen will display strike distances each time it registers a strike and an overall strike count. The display is backlit, making it useful even in low-light situations.
The biggest issue with the AcuRite 02020 is its susceptibility to interference and a tendency to get “stuck.” Buyers report problems with false strikes and that from time to time, the device would ask users to change their location but not resume operation when they do. But we’ve seen this as low as $25 — so the low price makes it tempting to at least try. Who knows, this tiny lightning detector might work for you.
How We Chose the Best Lightning Detectors
Brands we trust and have personal experience with always get top priority in our best-of lists. In addition to being a trusted brand, solid customer support is also a must. These lightning detector manufacturers get good reviews for both.
We also look at value. Weather gadgets can get quite expensive (we speak from personal experience), and lightning detectors fall in that mid-tier of affordability. While the AcuRite 02020 is pretty “cheap,” you’ll typically need to spend $100 or more for a reliable and accurate detector.
While we only give top billing in our lists to products we can physically test, that’s not always possible. In that case, we turn to customer reviews. To ensure we’re getting a clear picture, only reviews from actual owners are considered. Are there patterns in their praises? Patterns in the complaints? Does the device detect lightning strikes accurately? Those are important to point out to you.
What to Consider When Buying a Personal Lightning Detector
Our picks are only suggestions, and we urge you to shop around. If you find one not on our list, using our tips below will help you decide whether it’s a good buy.
Any lightning detector should provide you with notice of a nearby lightning strike and how close it is. Nearly every lightning detector we’ve seen can do this, but some DIY kits may not.
A good lightning detector uses EMP signal strength to estimate distance. We’ve seen accuracy in our tests within one or two miles of actual strike reports from professional networks in the higher-end models. Cheaper models typically have trouble with this as they’re more prone to interference.
The Boltek professional lightning detector we recommended earlier can detect lightning up to 250 miles away. The sensor range is limited to about 25 miles with consumer-grade detectors, although a higher-end personal lightning detector can often detect strikes beyond that.
Any of our above suggestions offer reliable lightning detection, especially the WeatherFlow Tempest. However, if you’re looking for a portable lightning detector, we recommend the TALOS. It is an outstanding device, and like we said, American-made. Don’t wait until you hear thunder to react to a thunderstorm: with one of these devices in your home, office, or in your pocket, you’ll stay safe and sound.