Surge Arrester or Lightning Arrester: Working, Types & Applications

In a world driven by technological advancements, the protection of electrical and electronic systems is of paramount importance. One of the most significant threats to these systems is the unpredictable force of lightning strikes. Lightning can cause substantial damage, leading to equipment failure, data loss, and even fire hazards. To mitigate such risks and ensure the safety of our infrastructure, surge arresters, also known as lightning arresters, play a vital role. This blog post aims to unravel the mysteries behind surge arresters, exploring their purpose, types, working principles, and their critical role in safeguarding our modern world.

What is a Surge Arrester?

A surge arrester, or lightning arrester, is an electrical device designed to protect electrical systems and equipment from transient overvoltages caused by lightning strikes or other voltage spikes. These overvoltages can be detrimental to sensitive electronics, appliances, and power distribution networks, making surge arresters an indispensable part of modern electrical infrastructure.

Surge Arrester or Lightning Arrester

The Importance of Surge Arresters

With the increasing reliance on electronic devices, electrical systems, and telecommunications, surge arresters serve as the first line of defense against lightning-induced damage. Understanding their significance helps us appreciate their role in protecting our homes, businesses, and public infrastructure.

Working Principle of Surge Arresters

The working principle of a Surge Arrester, also known as a lightning arrester, revolves around its ability to divert and dissipate overvoltages that occur during lightning strikes or voltage surges. These devices are designed to protect electrical and electronic equipment by providing a low-resistance path for excessive currents, thus preventing damage to the protected system. Here’s a detailed explanation of the working principle of a Surge Arrester:

  1. Voltage Response Characteristic:
    Surge arresters are constructed using materials that exhibit a nonlinear voltage-current characteristic. In particular, metal oxide varistors (MOVs) are commonly used for this purpose. When the voltage across the arrester terminals remains below a certain threshold, the MOV has a very high resistance, virtually appearing as an open circuit.
  2. Voltage Surge Occurrence:
    When a lightning strike or a transient overvoltage occurs in the electrical system, the voltage across the surge arrester increases rapidly. This increase is typically much higher than the normal operating voltage of the system. The surge arrester senses this abrupt voltage change.
  3. Triggering Point:
    As the voltage across the surge arrester reaches a critical value, known as the “sparkover voltage” or “clamping voltage,” the nonlinear characteristic of the MOV activates. At this point, the MOV switches from a high-resistance state to a low-resistance state almost instantly. The triggering point is predetermined based on the surge arrester’s specifications.
  4. Low-Impedance Path:
    Once the MOV switches to a low-resistance state, it provides an alternative and low-impedance path for the excess current caused by the lightning strike or voltage surge. The surge arrester essentially acts as a temporary conductor, diverting the current away from the protected equipment.
  5. Current Diversion and Dissipation:
    As the excess current is diverted through the surge arrester, it dissipates the energy generated by the transient overvoltage. This dissipation occurs as heat, and the surge arrester is designed to withstand this thermal stress during the surge event.
  6. Return to Normal State:
    Once the overvoltage event has passed, and the voltage across the surge arrester drops below the sparkover voltage, the MOV returns to its high-resistance state. The surge arrester resumes its function as an open circuit, ready to protect against the next surge event.

Types of Surge Arresters and Applications:

we will discuss the different types of surge arresters, each designed to address specific applications and voltage levels, providing a comprehensive understanding of the various options available.

Metal Oxide Varistor (MOV) Surge Arresters

Metal Oxide Varistors, or MOVs, are the most widely used type of surge arresters. Composed of a ceramic disc made from metal oxide materials, such as zinc oxide, sandwiched between two metal electrodes, MOVs are known for their nonlinear voltage-current characteristic. Under normal operating conditions, MOVs have high resistance, effectively acting as open circuits.

Working Principle:
When a voltage surge occurs, exceeding the predetermined sparkover voltage, the MOV’s resistance drops dramatically. It then diverts the surge current by providing a low-impedance path to the ground. Once the surge subsides, the MOV returns to its high-resistance state, ready to protect against subsequent surges.

MOV surge arresters find applications in low-voltage electrical systems, residential settings, electronic devices, and appliances.

Gas Discharge Tube (GDT) Surge Arresters

Gas Discharge Tubes, or GDTs, are surge arresters that utilize a small gas-filled chamber between two electrodes. In its normal state, the gas remains non-conductive. However, when a voltage surge surpasses the GDT’s sparkover voltage, the gas ionizes, forming a conductive path that diverts the surge current away from the protected system.

Working Principle:
When the voltage across the GDT reaches the sparkover voltage, the gas becomes ionized, significantly reducing the arrester’s resistance. This allows the GDT to provide a low-resistance path for the surge current. Once the voltage returns to normal levels, the gas regains its non-conductive state, and the GDT reverts to a high-resistance state.

GDT surge arresters are commonly used in telecommunications equipment, data centers, and industrial applications.

Silicon Avalanche Diode (SAD) Surge Arresters

Silicon Avalanche Diodes, or SADs, are semiconductor devices specifically designed for surge protection. They operate similarly to Zener diodes but are optimized for higher power handling capabilities.

Working Principle:
Under regular operating conditions, SADs act as high-resistance diodes. However, when a voltage surge exceeds the SAD’s breakdown voltage, it enters an avalanche breakdown state. In this state, the SAD rapidly reduces its resistance, providing a low-impedance path for the surge current.

SAD surge arresters are frequently used in electronic devices, telecommunications equipment, and sensitive electrical systems.

Hybrid Surge Arresters

Hybrid surge arresters combine different surge protection technologies to optimize performance across a broader range of surge conditions. They may incorporate a combination of MOVs, GDTs, and SADs to take advantage of each technology’s strengths.

Working Principle:
By integrating various materials and technologies, hybrid surge arresters can offer enhanced surge protection and higher surge current handling capabilities. This makes them suitable for protecting critical applications and high-voltage systems.

Hybrid surge arresters are often employed in power substations, high-voltage applications, and other critical infrastructure.


In conclusion, surge arresters, or lightning arresters, are essential devices that safeguard our electrical and electronic systems from the unpredictable forces of lightning strikes and transient overvoltages. Their role in protecting homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure cannot be overstated. As technology continues to evolve, surge arresters will also see advancements, adapting to the ever-changing landscape of electrical engineering. Understanding their principles, selecting the right type, and integrating them effectively into lightning protection systems will ensure a safer and more reliable electrical environment for our modern world.

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