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Home / Technical Articles / What is the Ground Potential Rise in your home and why you should take it seriously

It’s not just “Ground is ground”

People familiar with electricity frequently accept the idea that “Ground is ground,” i.e., that in a house, especially with a grounding system that complies with the NEC or CEC, all points of the grounding system are at the same voltage.

What is the Ground Potential Rise and why you should take it seriously
What is the Ground Potential Rise and why you should take it seriously (photo credit: blakley.co.uk)

The NEC/CEC support this impression by requiring that no AC current pass through the ground wiring, except under narrowly defined exceptions: fault conditions (a line-ground short or leakage), or the action of surge protectors, sending the surge currents into the grounding system.

Without lightning, in a properly wired house, this impression is correct.

For the most common source of lightning damage shown in Figure 1 (as mode 1), with a good surge protector installed at the building entrance (Figure 2 below), indeed, major lightning currents are stopped at the service entrance.

However, with nearby lightning, or lightning which may attach to wires that come into the house via other paths (modes 2, 3, 4 of Figure 1), lightning can generate large currents in the house ground system.

How Lightning Creates Damaging Voltages Inside the Home
Figure 1 – How Lightning Creates Damaging Voltages Inside the Home. The most common source of damage is from strikes to power and communications lines, which then conduct the surges directly into the equipment. Direct strikes to the building, while rare, can damage the structure as well as the contents.

For the long grounding wires in many real installations (Figure 5 and Figure 6 below), the voltage drop in the wire can be much larger.

For the examples shown in Figures 5 and 6, with a 3,000 A surge (10% of a moderately strong lightning pulse), with a 3 µs rise time, and a 30 foot (~9 meter) long ground connection between A and B or C, the voltage developed in wire A–B is ~10,000 V!

This voltage difference between different points in the grounding system is called ground potential rise, abbreviated as GPR. It is inevitable whenever large lightning surge currents flow through the grounding system of the house.

Additional Protection Described by NEC
Figure 2 – Additional Protection Described by NEC. The NEC allows the addition of air terminals (“lightning rods”), bonded to the building ground, and additional AC protectors, coaxial protectors, and telecom protectors. The three ground electrodes and the bonds between them form the building ground electrode system.


Ground Potential Rise within a Building

Figures 5 and 6 show simplified circuits for TV sets connected to a CATV utility. The only protection required by the NEC/CEC is a grounding block that connects the cable sheath to ground, where the CATV cable enters the building. A similar diagram would be valid for small-dish satellite receivers.

If the grounding block were replaced by a telephone (primary) entrance protector (NID), the circuit would be valid for a fax machine, or a PC with modem.

In all these cases, the equipment (TV, satellite receiver, or fax machine) is referenced on the AC side to point B (via the branch circuit neutral and ground), but on the signal side, to point A (via the coax sheath). As stated above, during even a modest lightning strike to the signal cables, the voltage difference (GPR) between A and B can easily reach 10,000 V.

This is enough voltage difference to flash over most ordinary insulating barriers in the equipment. If this happens, the equipment will probably be severely damaged.

NOTE: If the NEC-required grounding is NOT present (i.e., if the entrance grounding block is connected only to an unbonded ground rod, water pipe, etc.), the situation is considerably worse, and may lead to fire or other damage in the house itself.

If the CATV, satellite, or phone cables do not enter the building near the service entrance, the only effective way of protecting the equipment is to use a multiport protector, as shown in Figure 1.

Multi-port surge protectors
Figure 3 – Multi-port surge protectors (photo credit: thewirecutter.com)

Multiport protectors (Figure 3) eliminate damage due to ground potential differences by using voltage limiting devices or a direct bond to reference together the signal wires and the AC wires when the voltage differences exceed safe levels, typically a few hundred volts.

Multi-port point-of-use protectors (also called plug-in protectors) normally consist of an AC protector and one or more signal-line protectors, in a single assembly, designed to be installed near equipment that connects to both AC and signal lines (Figure 4).

Basic Plug-in Multi-port Protector (Surge Reference Equalizer)
Figure 4 – Basic Plug-in Multi-port Protector (Surge Reference Equalizer). There is a protector for each port (cable), and the grounds for all the protectors are connected (bonded).

These protectors serve three purposes:

  1. The AC protectors normally have lower effective surge limiting voltage than the panel protectors and also might protect against sustained AC overvoltage.
  2. The signal line protectors normally have lower surge limiting voltage than the primary signal protectors and might also protect against voltages (such as AC voltages from accidental contact with power lines) which are be too small to be stopped at the primary signal protector.
  3. The grounds for all the protectors are connected (bonded) so that intersystem voltages are minimized.
    Under lightning conditions, large voltages can be developed between, e.g., phone, CATV and AC grounds, and these voltage differences are frequently the cause of lightning damage.

It is important to realize that the multiport protectors usually do not significantly reduce the GPR between point A and point B.

In most cases, the impedance of the signal wire to the equipment, plus the impedance of the AC wiring, is much greater than the bond impedance between A and B.

So the vast majority of the incoming lightning surge current flows through the A–B ground bond, and exits the house via the grounding electrode, as the NEC/CEC writers intended.

The multiport protector shown at the TV set can greatly decrease the voltage between the AC ground and the coax cable
Figure 5 – Even with coax cable grounding that meets code requirements, if the coaxial line enters far away from the building ground, the long grounding wire A–B can develop very large voltages which can damage the TV set. The multiport protector shown at the TV set can greatly decrease the voltage between the AC ground and the coax cable, preventing damage to the set.

If the voltage from A to B is 10 kV, and the voltage between the signal and AC connections at the equipment is only a few hundred volts, the remainder of the 10 kV must appear within the AC and signal cables, divided in proportion to their impedances.

So it is perfectly possible for an AC or signal wire to have 5 kV or more between its two ends, for the short time that the lightning current lasts.

Because of the short duration of the current, even small wires will usually not be damaged by these relatively small (a few hundred ampere) residual lightning currents. The action of the multiport protector, though, generates an additional GPR disturbance.

The voltage between the AC (green wire) ground at the equipment can be several kV different from the voltage at point B.

If the TV set is connected to other equipment that is independently connected to B by AC wiring, that voltage difference will appear across the other equipment, and may damage it.

Ground potential differences within a building under lightning strike conditions
Figure 6 – Ground potential differences within a building under lightning strike conditions

Fig. 6 explanationGround potential differences within a building under lightning strike conditions: How down-line TV sets get damaged.

With a 3,000A surge rising in 3 µs, and a 30 foot ground bond (A–C), ~10,000 V develops between A and C. Even with a multi-port protector (D) for TV1, the ground voltage at D is conveyed to TV2 by the coaxial cable, resulting in an 8,000 V potential across TV2, which will probably destroy it. A second multi-port protector as shown in Fig. 5 is required to protect TV2.

Figure 6 shows a very common improper use of multiport protectors that does not fully protect against lightning damage because of this effect. One (AC + Coax) multiport protector, D, has been used in an attempt to protect two TV sets.

The installer assumed that the coaxial protector in D would remove the lightning surge, and any TV sets downstream would be safe without further protection. That assumption has limited validity for the voltage difference between core and sheath of the coax cable.

But it is totally wrong in describing the ground potential differences!

If the protector and TV1 are near the cable entrance at point A, most of the GPR at point A will appear at the protector D and TV1. But with no protector on TV2, the full 8000 V potential at D is conducted to point E, the input of TV2. The 8000 V difference between point E and the voltage at B, the connection of TV2 to the service panel, will damage TV2. To protect TV2, a second multiport protector located at TV2 is required.

Full protection of equipment with multiple ports can only be accomplished by surge protection that protects all the incoming lines and interconnects (bonds) between the ports. This can be done at the main entrance if all the utilities (power, CATV, phone, etc.) are brought together and the surge protection devices are bonded to a common ground point.

If this is not done, equipment can only be protected by multiport protectors, located at the equipment being protected.

Surge protection alone is not sufficient to protect equipment. Inter-system bonding is also required.


Ground Potential Rise for Equipment Outside a Building

Equipment mounted outside a building is vulnerable to GPR damage because it is typically referenced to two grounds. Compressors, well pumps, spa and pool heaters, and other outdoor equipment are frequently mounted on concrete pads in contact with moist soil (see Figure 7).

In some cases, this pad can be a more effective ground than the building ground electrode. So the equipment ground is bonded to the pad ground, while the equipment line and neutral connections are referenced to the building ground.

During a lightning strike, even though the equipment ground is tied to the building ground (by the green equipment grounding wire) per the NEC, the wire still has the inductive impedance.

For fast-rising lightning surges, the inductance of the equipment ground wire prevents the voltage at the remote pad from following the voltage at the building ground.

So there can be differences of tens of thousands of volts between the building ground and the pad ground.

Ground Potential Rise for Equipment Outside a Building
Figure 7 – Ground Potential Rise for Equipment Outside a Building

Fig. 7 explanation – Equipment that has its own ground can be damaged by potential differences between two grounds. During a lightning surge into the ground electrode, the voltage rises by 750 kV for a 30 kA strike and 25 Ω ground.

The insulation between the motor coil and the frame/housing sees a significant fraction of the 750 kV  developed at the building ground, and may break down the insulation of the motor, controls, or wiring.

The voltage at the motor coils is referenced to the building ground, because initially no current flows through the line and neutral wires, so the voltage at the motor follows the voltage at the building ground. The ground potential difference between the building ground and the pad ground appears between the motor windings and the (grounded) motor frame, and will flash over the insulation.

The surge protector at the service panel can not remedy this problem. Only an appropriate protector, mounted at the equipment, bonding between all line wires, neutral, and ground, can prevent damage. This protector can also protect against damage from lightning striking to or near the equipment itself, as shown in mode 2 of Figure 1.

Lack of awareness of this cause of damage, and the remedy, is responsible for many cases of damage to outside equipment. The damage could be prevented by relatively simple additional surge protection, installed at the equipment.

Reference // IEEE Guide for Surge Protection of Equipment Connected to AC Power and Communication Circuits

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Edvard Csanyi

Electrical engineer, programmer and founder of EEP. Highly specialized for design of LV/MV switchgears and LV high power busbar trunking (<6300A) in power substations, commercial buildings and industry fascilities. Professional in AutoCAD programming. Present on

One Comment


  1. Warren Carlton
    May 03, 2018

    My family can relate to this topic as our house had a GPR issue when back in 2010, a lightning strike hit the maple tree in our back yard and sent a surge of current through the telephone cable that ran next to the tree underground. The result was the phone box on the exterior wall was completely destroyed w/ the cover being blown off an into the yard, the back of the box was pushed in towards the house side and broke the siding where the box was attached, the telephone multi-conductor cable was just a ball of spaghetti. Inside the house, our electric range although not connected to any phone jacks lost a burner control switch via a surge on the ground to the electrical panel, my computer that was connected to a phone jack and plugged in to a receptacle on the 1st floor, just above where the service entrance of everything is in the basement, was fried. Good thing I had backup data on disks at the time from the night before. Our GE Space Saver radio/CD player in the kitchen had some damage as the CD player would no longer play. And we lost a TV in the master bedroom on the 2nd floor, again located straight above the service entrance equipment in the basement. So, pretty much everything within 15′ of the phone entrance cable & the electrical service ground was toasted.

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