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The Rolling Sphere Method (RSM)

1.1 The striking distance approach

For lightning flashes to earth, a downward leader grows step-by-step in a

series of jerks from the cloud towards the earth. When the leader has got
close to the earth within a few tens, to a few hundreds of metres, the
electrical insulating strength of the air near the ground is exceeded.

A further leader discharge similar to the downward leader begins to grow

towards the head of the downward leader: the upward leader.

Upward leader will be launched at points of greatest electric field intensity

(see Fig.1) and can move in any direction towards the approaching
downward leader. It is for this reason that lightning can strike the side of tall
structures rather than at their highest point.

Fig.1:Development of downward leader striking distance

The distance of the last step of a downward leader is termed the striking
distance and is determined by the amplitude of the lightning current. This
striking distance can be represented by a sphere with a radius equal to the
striking distance (see Fig.2). The striking distance r is given by:

r = 10 I 0.65

Where I is the peak current of the resulting stroke.

Fig.2: striking distance

Notes to the above formulas:

The larger the amount of charge carried by the lightning leader, the larger
the resulting lightning current, the greater will be the distance at which this

The head of the downward leader approaches the objects on the ground,
unaffected by anything, until it reaches the final striking distance.

It is more difficult for an air-terminal to intercept a smaller lightning flash

than a larger flash, as the smaller flash must approach closer to the air-
terminal before the upward leader is launched.

To protect the structure against smaller lightning flashes, air-terminals must

be spaced closer together. For smaller lightning flashes there is a risk that an
air terminal may not be close enough to intercept the down leader, thus a
closer structural point releases an upward leader which intercepts the flash
(i.e. the building is struck).

1.2 Relation between Lightning Protection Levels and Rolling Sphere


The below Table#1 indicates the following:

The Lightning Protection Levels LPL,

Minimum current level to be protected against,
Probability percentages that lightning may be greater than these levels,
The rolling sphere radius used in the rolling sphere design method.


Also, The above Table#1 explains the relation between Lightning protection levels
and rolling sphere radius as in the following examples:


Suppose that a lightning protection system to provide LPL I such that 99% of all
lightning flashes are intercepted (all those of 3 kA or greater). There is only a 1%
probability that lightning may be smaller than the 3 kA minimum, and may not be
close enough to an air-terminal to be intercepted. It should be noted that flashes
of less than 3 kA are rare, and typically would not be expected to cause damage
to the structure. Protection greater than LPL I (99%) would require significantly
more material, is not covered by the standard and generally is not required for
commercial construction.


The lower lightning protection levels (LPL II, III & IV) each increase the air-
terminal spacing, reducing their ability to capture smaller lightning flashes, thus
reducing overall the percentage of lightning events they can protect against.


Suppose that a lightning protection system to provide LPL IV, designed using the
rolling sphere method, would use air-terminals placed using a rolling sphere radius
of 60 m.
These air-terminals would be positioned such that they would capture all lightning
flashes of 16 kA or greater, thus offering protection to at least 84% of the
lightning (the term at least is used to indicate that the percentage of lightning
captured might be greater, since smaller lightning flashes could be captured if
they were closer to the air-terminal).


To offer a greater lightning protection level (e.g. LPL I, II or III) a smaller rolling
sphere radius would be used. This would result in a reduced spacing between air-
terminals (more air-terminals), thus positioning the air-terminals to capture
smaller lightning flashes, and increasing the total percentage of lightning flashes

1.3 The Rolling Sphere Method Protection Applications

The rolling sphere methods can be used for the following applications:

1. Rolling sphere method with rod air-terminations,

2. Rolling sphere method and mesh/catenary conductors,
3. Rolling sphere method and Tall structures.
1.3.1 Rolling Sphere Method With Rod Air-Terminations

When rods are to be used as the air-termination for the protection of plane surfaces
(see Fig.3), the following formula can be used:

d = 2 (2rh h2)


d = distance between two rods (m)

r = radius of the rolling sphere (m)
h = height of the rods (m)

Fig.3: Rolling Sphere Method With Rod Air-Terminations

The following Table#2 shows some examples of rolling sphere protection distance
(distance between Air terminals) according to the Air terminals height and the
Rolling Sphere Radius according to lightning protection level LPL.

When rods are to be used as the air-termination for protection of roof top
items/structures (see Fig.4) and The arrangement of the air-termination rods, over
which no cable is normally spanned, means that the sphere does not roll on rails
but sits deeper instead, thus increasing the penetration depth () of the sphere. In
this case the following formula of sphere penetration distance can be used:

p = r (r2 d2/4)


p = penetration distance (m)( part of the sphere below the horizontal lines between
top of air terminals)
r = radius of the rolling sphere (m)
d = Distance between two air-termination rods or two parallel air-termination
conductors (m)
Fig.4: Penetration distance of rolling sphere

The following Table#3 shows Rolling sphere penetration distance according to the
distance between Air rods and the Rolling Sphere Radius according to lightning
protection level LPL.


The height of the air-termination rods h should always be greater than the value of
the penetration depth p determined to ensure that the rolling sphere does not
touch the structure to be protected.
1.3.2 Rolling Sphere Method And Mesh/Catenary Conductors

Where the rolling sphere method is to be used to evaluate the protection

provided by mesh conductors or network of catenary wires, the mesh must
be mounted at some distance above the roof (see Fig.5), to ensure the
rolling sphere does not touch its surface in a similar way to the catenary

Fig.5: Rolling Sphere Method And Mesh Conductors

Also, As with a free standing mast, catenary conductors can be used to keep
the rolling sphere away from the structure to be protected (see Fig.6). One
or more catenary conductors may be utilised to ensure that the sphere does
not come into contact with any part of the structures roof.
Fig.6: Rolling Sphere Method And Catenary Conductors

If the system is required to be isolated from the structure then a conductor

suspended between two free standing masts may be employed. This
arrangement is suitable for small sensitive structures such as explosive

In a non isolated system, a catenary conductor may be used to protect larger

items of roof mounted equipment from a direct strike (see Fig.7).
Fig.7: catenary conductors used to protect larger
items of roof mounted equipment

The two formulas in the case of rod air-terminations can be used also in case
of using mesh/catenary conductors. The distance/height of the
mesh/catenary replaces the rod distance/height. As in fig.4 Note that the
distance for penetration or protection distance is the diagonal of the grid
(distance between points A & B).

1.3.3 Rolling Sphere Method And Tall Structures

Research shows that it is the upper 20% of the Tall structure that is most
vulnerable to side strikes and potential damage (see Fig.8).

Fig.8: Rolling Sphere Method And Tall Structures

Case#1: Buildings Above 60 m High

In the IEC standards, for buildings above 60 m, protection is required to

the sides of the upper 20% of height. The same placement rules used for
roofs should apply to the sides of the building. While the mesh method is
preferable, particularly if using natural components, protection is
permitted using horizontal rods and rolling sphere method. However,
horizontal rods on most structures are impractical due to window washing
access equipment, etc.

Case#2: Buildings Less Than 60 m High

Note that for structures less than 60 m high the risk of flashes to the sides
of the building is low, and therefore protection is not required for the
vertical sides directly below protected areas.

Case#3: Buildings Taller Than 120 m High

For structures taller than 120 m, the standard recommends that all parts
above 120 m be protected. It is expected that due to the height and
nature of such a structure, it would require a design to LPL I or II (99% or
97% protection level). For tall buildings, the actual risk of flashes to the
side are estimated by the industry to be less than 2%, and typically these
would be the smaller lightning flashes, e.g., from branches of the
downward leader. Therefore, this recommendation would only be
appropriate for high risk locations or structures.

Note For Buildings Taller Than 30 m:

For buildings taller than 30 m, additional equipotential bonding of internal

conductive parts should occur at a height of 20 m and every further 20 m
of height. Live circuits should be bonded via SPDs.

1.4 How To Apply The Rolling Sphere Method for

Lightning Protection Design?

The basic concept of applying the rolling sphere to a structure is as follows:

Step#1: Scale The building / structure to be protected (e.g. on a scale of 1:100)

(see Fig.9) Depending on the location of the building under design, it is also
necessary to include the surrounding structures and objects with the same scale of
the building, since these could act as natural protective measures for the building
under design.
Fig.9: Scaled Building and Scaled Rolling Sphere of LPL I

Step#2: calculate The radius of the sphere which must be equal to the striking
distance associated with the minimum current level for the chosen lightning
protection level.

Step#3: Scale the radius r of the rolling sphere calculated from Step#2 with the
same scale of the building (see Fig.9). (For example, if the building with scale
1:100, from Table#1 for a lightning protection levels I, the rolling sphere radius
will be 20 cm and for LPL II will be 30 cm and for LPL III will be 45 cm).

Step#4: Make a circular path around the building under design with distance apart
equal to the scaled rolling sphere radius (see Fig.10). This circular path will
terminate on the corner of the building.
Fig.10: Circular path around the building

Step#5: Roll an imaginary sphere over the surface of the structure in all directions
(see Fig.11).
Fig.11: imaginary sphere rolled over the surface
of the structure in all directions

Note: the rolling process of the imaginary sphere is controlled by the distance
between Air terminals as given in part#3 in this Article i.e. each roll is far from the
previous one by the allowable distance between air terminals calculated from

Step#6: Where the sphere touches the building, A lightning protection would be
needed by placing Air Terminal. Using the same logic, the areas where the sphere
does not touch the Building (see shaded area in Fig.11) would be deemed to be
protected and would not require protection.

Note: Generally a lightning protection system is designed such that the rolling
sphere only touches the lightning protection system and not the structure i.e. The
air termination system is placed such that the sphere only touches the air-
terminations, and not the structure.