Irrigation Safety And Lightning

It’s summer, farming is in full swing — as are thunderstorms and lightning. For farmers who irrigate, Clemson Extension agents say spending a few extra bucks can help save a life or prevent permanent disabilities.

Lightning and thunderstorms typically occur during spring and summer months when farmers irrigate. Lightning can be deadly if they do not properly check their irrigation systems.

Chase Smoak, Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service horticulture agent for Lee and Sumter counties, reports a local farmer was checking his center pivot irrigation system when a storm blew in. The grower could have been electrocuted had he not spent a few seconds to take one important step.

“After the storm had passed, he noticed the pivot was not functioning correctly, so he used a voltage tester to test the pivot before opening the panel box,” Smoak said. “The pivot carried an electrical charge, and the outcome could have been life-threatening had the farmer not checked the system.”

Small Price To Pay

Voltage testers are used to check for voltage in wires or devices without users having to touch any electrical parts. Some testers cost less than $10. Charles Davis, Clemson Extension row crop agent for Calhoun and Richland counties, said this is small price to pay for such an important tool.

“Lightning can strike an area before, after and in the absence of rain, so it is good to get in the habit of using a tester to check a system each time before touching it,” Charles said. “Test before you touch. It could save your life.”

Clemson master’s student Shelley Lovern uses a voltage tester to test a center pivot irrigation system at the Clemson Piedmont REC’s Simpson Research Farm.

After a storm has passed, people should check their pivot irrigation systems with voltage testers to avoid injury or possible death. They should also ensure ground rods are correctly installed and securely connected to the system.

The Clemson Extension Ag Safety and Water Resources Program team is mailing noncontact voltage testers to a list of South Carolina farmers with center pivot irrigation systems. Water Resources team member Becky Davis said irrigators who don’t get a voltage tester can contact her at 803-245-2661 or and have their name added to the list.

“A voltage tester is an important tool everyone irrigating with center pivots should have on-hand,” Becky said. “But it’s a tool that can give you a false sense of security if not used properly. Always confirm the proper operation by first checking a known live circuit and by reading the manufacturer’s instructions to understand its limitations.”

Irrigation Professional’s View

Mark Davis, owner/operator of Broadwater Irrigation in St. Matthews, South Carolina, has been working with irrigation systems since he graduated from Clemson in agricultural mechanization and business in 2007. He said irrigation system operators must keep safety in mind.

“Operators shouldn’t get complacent,” he said. “They should always conduct safety checks, as well as use important safety measures when operating a system. This could mean the difference between life and death.”

Safety measures include checking to be sure the system is properly grounded and “backhanding” the pivots to prevent possible electrical shock.

“When checking a system, it is best to touch the pivot with the back of the hand,” Mark said. “Backhanding a system means brushing the back of the hand against any irrigation metal structure before grasping it with their palms.

“If a metal pivot is energized and a person grasps it with their palm, the electrical current can cause their hand to clamp around it and the person most likely will be electrocuted.”

Other tips when working with irrigation systems include not wearing jewelry and not working alone: Always have someone with you or let someone know where you’re going. Wear rubber-soled boots and don’t get on your knees to check something low.

“I always squat so that my rubber soles are touching the ground,” Mark said. “The ground can accept an infinite amount of electricity, whereas the human body can’t.”

For more research-based tips, follow the Clemson University Agricultural Safety Program on its blog, Clemson Agricultural Safety.

Clemson University Extension provided this information.

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