Parker M. Willard Jr. likes to joke that Mother Nature does a better job of selling lightning rods than he does at Boston Lightning Rod Co. Inc. When lightning strikes a home, creating an electrical surge or even a fire, his Dedham office phone starts ringing as worried neighbors react. “People get really nervous about what happened nearby,” says Willard. While the probability of getting hit by lightning in New England is slight, the 150-year-old company continues to install storm protection equipment in residences as well as landmark buildings like the Prudential tower, and at places such as the MIT and Harvard campuses, and Logan airport. Willard is the fifth generation to carry on this family business, which started when his great-great grandfather, a blacksmith by trade, was asked to make a lightning rod to install in a barn. The lightning rod became ubiquitous on houses and barns, and even turned into something of a status symbol. While Willard admits that the company doesn’t install nearly as many residential lightning rods as it did a century ago, today’s expensive electronics make surge protection crucial. The Globe spoke with him about peddling lightning rods in the 21st century.
“Ultimately, it’s just good or bad luck whether your house gets struck by lightning. There’s no predictability. You can go on websites like lightning.org and do a risk assessment, but at the end of the day, if the storm doesn’t pass right overhead, your home may never get hit. Boston isn’t like the Greater Tampa Bay area, which is the lightning capital of the U.S. and takes 14 to 16 strikes per square kilometer a year. Here, it’s one or two strikes per square kilometer, but the average town still may get hit five to 20 times a year, especially less developed areas. We’ve also seen an uptick in the severity of storms in the last five years.
“The first thing I want to say to any homeowner is that lightning protection is not a do-it-yourself project. You don’t just go to Home Depot, pick up cable and give it a shot. Our installers have been working in this field for decades. We start on the roof and bring the system down to the ground, making sure that the installation is inconspicuous and in keeping with the home’s aesthetics. It shouldn’t look like an erector set on your roof. Actually, a lightning rod is just a little bigger than a number two pencil, about 10 inches log and three-eighth’s of an inch wide. We install about 200 systems a year on homes in the area — most of the work lies in the commercial side now. High-end homes on the Cape, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, as well as Cape Ann, will install lightning rods as well. We’ve also done a hunting shed in New Hampshire and just re-conditioned the system on the [former] Hancock tower.
“It’s a common misconception that lightning rods attract lighting; they actually provide a safe path to the ground, even if the structure is hit. Trust me, I’ve gotten phone calls blaming our lightning rods for bringing lightning to the neighborhood. Another myth is that lightning doesn’t strike the same object twice. You can bet that it will and it does — if there’s anything left standing.
“There’s a watercolor print of Ben Franklin hanging above our drafting table, an ode to the inventor of the lightning rod. Of course, I’m a big fan of his. And if you ask me, have I ever been struck by lightning? No. Do I have a lightning rod on my own home? Right now I’m a very bad example. We had to take the lightning rod off because we just re-roofed the house. But we will put it back on.”