Best Lightning Detectors: Stay Safe in Severe Weather

lightning
Tyler – stock.adobe.com

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 is lightning, and what causes it.

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 with each other, transferring electrical charges which then lead to lightning strikes between these two points. But what causes the thunder you hear with a lightning strike? It’s literally 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 buildup 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, and is 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 when this happens 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 electromagnetic interference caused by a lightning strike can be detected from much farther than the lightning bolt itself could be seen.

What You Should Do When Lightning Strikes

Lightning is the most powerful natural force in the world. 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 in the distance over water
Wollwerth Imagery – stock.adobe.

Lightning detectors provide advance 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 heard an EMP yourself listening to AM radio. 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 literally 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

lightning over the bay
Christopher Boswell – stock.adob

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 truly 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 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 is able to detect lightning without false positives due to interference, you will need to pay more. An affordable lightning detector, such as the AcuRite model we recommend below, is better than nothing, however.

Our Top Picks At a Glance

Price current as of October 7, 2021

Best Lightning Detector in a Weather Station – WeatherFlow Tempest

WeatherFlow Tempest Sensor on pole
The Weather Station Experts

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

Read our Review

Best Portable Lightning Detector – TALOS Lightning & Storm Detector

talos lightning detectors
TALOS

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.

Features at A Glance

  • Impressive lightning detection
  • Waterproof and built rugged for outdoor use
  • Color LED lights give a visual representation of strike distance

Best Visual Lightning Detector – Robic Strike Alert HD Lightning Detector

robic strike alert hd lightning detectors
Robic

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.

Features at A Glance

  • Detailed information on every strike detected
  • Great battery life
  • Suberp lightning dtection capabiities

Price current as of October 7, 2021

Best Budget Lightning Detector – AcuRite 02020 Portable Lightning Detector

acurite 02020 portable lightning detectors
AcuRite

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 a strike count is displayed. 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.

Features at A Glance

  • A portable device that fits in your pocket
  • Lightning dection up to 25 miles
  • Visual and audio alerts alerts when a strike occurs
  • Strike distance on every detection

Price current as of October 6, 2021

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 that’s not on our list, using our tips below will help you decide whether it’s a good buy.

Directional information

Any lightning detector should be able to 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.

Distance

A good lightning detector use EMP signal strength to estimate distance. In the higher-end models, we’ve seen accuracy in our own tests within one or two miles of actual strike reports from professional networks. Cheaper models typically have trouble with this as they’re more prone to interference.

Range

The Boltek professional lightning detector we recommended earlier can detect lightning up to 250 miles away. With consumer-grade detectors, the sensor range is limited to about 25 miles, although a higher-end personal lightning detector can often detect strikes beyond that.

Wrapping Up

lightning over golf course
Ronald Kotinsky – stock.adobe.co

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.

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