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The Solar Storm Threat | Part 2: Basic Steps You Can Take To Protect Your Business

Tue, 10/23/2012 - 10:42am
Keith Erwood, Vice President & Principal Consultant, Continuity Co., LLC

In Part 1 I wrote about the threats posed by solar storms, how they are measured and, from a high level, how they can impact your business. In Part 2 I’ll discuss ways you can protect your business from these threats.

When solar and geomagnetic storms occur they travel in waves (measured in frequency) and cause damage to electronic systems, circuits and even connected transmission lines by overloading the components with electrical and magnetic energy. This energy is far greater than the components can handle, causing them to short-circuit, fry or overload. In most cases these overloads result in permanent damage.

Solar flare hitting Earth

Any electronic equipment left in the open is considered unshielded and vulnerable to the effects of a geomagnetic storm. Studies have shown that you can protect unshielded pieces of equipment by simply turning them off[1]. Additional protection can be achieved by unplugging the device to prevent a surge coming from power lines and removing any unnecessary cords, antennas, and other projections capable of conducting electromagnetic energy. Finally, when in use electrical equipment should be plugged into double-conversion uninterruptible power supplies.

While taking these steps will afford you some protection, they are not foolproof. In fact, if your equipment is undamaged in the after the solar event it is still possible to sustain damage from charges remaining in damaged equipment or power lines.

The most effective way to protect equipment is by shielding it from the electric and magnetic fields generated by the solar storm. Shielding is accomplished through the use of a Faraday cage. A perfect Faraday cage is a completely sealed space with no seams or holes; think of a metal cube. Of course any Faraday cage you use would actually be imperfect since it must have a door, hatch, or lid so that the internal space can be accessed.

Faraday cages “block” electric fields due to the fact that one side of the cage becomes more positive with respect to the opposite side, allowing the charge to pass along the outside of the conductive surface of the cage. Since the charge passes along the outside of the conductive material of the cage, and with the redistribution of the electrons at the surface of the conductive material, it allows for a net electric field within the Faraday cage to become essentially zero. This is why the electronics inside the Faraday cage remain unaffected by the external field currents.

There are two professional-grade methods to apply Faraday cages or shielded protection: You can either purchase a professional grade shielded room in which to place unused equipment or purchase specially produced cages and equipment to shield equipment that is in use. This is the best way of ensuing you have the right type of shielding for your needs, but it is extremely expensive. The high cost of shielded protection is the reason much of our infrastructure remains unprotected.

For smaller businesses with somewhat compact pieces of vital equipment -- such as servers -- it might be viable to use readily available materials to create your own Faraday cage. Examples of these materials are: ammo cans, microwave ovens, foil box, composting cans (metal), garbage cans (metal), garbage cans with aluminum or copper tape or taped garbage cans with static bags.[2]

The shielding effectiveness (SE) of each of these items varies and is dependent on a number of factors including the frequency of the electrical wave, the tightness or snugness of the lid or enclosure, and any gaps or holes compromising the Faraday cage. The SE is defined as the ratio of the electric (or magnetic) fields seen outside a structure to that seen inside and is usually represented using values measured in decibels (dB). Represented in their correct format a value of 20 dB corresponds to a reduction in field levels by a factor of 10; a value of 40 dB corresponds to a reduction factor of 100; 60 dB corresponds to a reduction factor of 1,000.[3] One rule of thumb advises a SE goal of 50 dB for frequencies ranging from 100 kHz to 1 GHz.[4]

Before we get to the effectiveness of each type of shielding it is important to note that there is a lot of misinformation and myth about Faraday cages and shielding including what works, how they work, what doesn’t work and proper shielding methods.

Recently, however, a friend and colleague named Arthur T. Bradley, Ph.D. conducted scientific research on the SE of numerous home-made or poor-man’s Faraday cages. The results are quite surprising and you can read the complete results in the book I cite in this article.

I have permission to include some of those results in the table below. While not 100 percent effective you can gain some protection from a fire safe or static bag. If you combine them, you will gain slightly more protection. Even a simple foil box that you can make in an hour or so will provide a good amount of protection from most frequencies. If you are willing to spend a small amount of money you can gain significantly more protection from metal compost cans and garbage cans with the most effective being a garbage can with a static bag and sealed with aluminum or copper tape.

Table: Shielding Effectiveness Of Various Enclosures (Measured In dB)[5]

Frequency

Fire Safe

Static Bag

Foil Box

Compost Can

Taped Garbage Can W/Static Bag

100 kHz

35

40

>50

>50

>50

500 kHz

39

37

>50

>50

>50

1 MHz

37

41

>50

>50

>50

5 MHz

32

22

>50

>50

>50

10 MHz

33

19

>50

>50

>50

50 MHz

23

22

>50

>50

>50

100 MHz

23

15

>50

>50

>50

250 MHz

16

17

>50

>50

>50

500 MHz

15

18

21

40

>50

1 GHz

6

18

19

13

>50

Of course, nothing will beat a professional-grade shielded room and hardening. The information above is aimed at smaller businesses that may not have the funding to purchase this type of protection. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that protection from the types of electromagnetic interference caused by geomagnetic storms is equally effective against an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) attacks. Faraday cages or hardening will protect against all of these hazards.



[1]   Congressional Research Service, The Library if Congress. Report for Congress. High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM) Devices: Threat Assessments (2008, August) Retrieved October 4, 2012 from American Federation of American Scientists. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL32544.pdf

[2]  Bradley, A. T. Ph. D. (2012) Disaster preparedness for EMP attacks and solar storms. USA: Bradley p. 70

[3] Bradley, A. T. Ph. D. (2012) Disaster preparedness for EMP attacks and solar storms. USA: Bradley p. 66

[4] Bradley, A. T. Ph. D. (2012) Disaster preparedness for EMP attacks and solar storms. USA: Bradley p. 66

[5]  Bradley, A. T. Ph. D. (2012) Disaster preparedness for EMP attacks and solar storms. USA: Bradley p. 70

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