Massive Labs Prep Businesses For Acts Of God With Manmade Fires, Hurricanes, Hail

Professional pyromaniacs (fine, engineers) employed by the insurance industry are finding increasingly sophisticated ways to recreate horrific natural disasters—and their research is helping companies avoid millions in losses.

As wildfires rage through Texas and the U.S. braces for hailstorm season, engineer Tim Reinhold and his team at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety are intentionally burning down houses and preparing to pelt others with golfball-size hail.

It's the latest disaster simulation inside the IBHS's massive new laboratory in Richburg, S.C., a $40 million research center set on 90 acres that opened in October. It features a giant test chamber as tall as a six-story building that can hold up to nine 2,300-square-foot homes on a turntable. Researchers can blast the homes with tornado-strength winds generated by 105 giant fans. Drop in a half-million gallons of water or ice from the ceiling, and they can simulate hurricanes and hailstorms.

Reinhold is a leading natural-disaster researcher with the Tampa-based IBHS, and dreamed of such a lab for 20 years. After funding setbacks delayed progress, the facility finally opened last year, and is testing man-made hurricanes, windstorms, and wildfires, with an eye to creating safer structures, and saving the insurance industry—and its customers—money. Besides helping insurance companies with their bottom lines, the disaster recreations provide awesome video fodder. 

"We didn’t have a facility of this size," Reinhold, a former professor in civil engineering at Clemson University, tells Fast Company. "After Hurricane Andrew, we became interested in building a lab" of such magnitude to test building codes for insurers. Hurricane Andrew alone did $15.5 billion worth of damage in 1992, a huge blow to insurers.

Property and casualty insurers are looking to reduce their risk on the $9 trillion in insured U.S. property exposed to hurricanes from Texas to Maine. Insured catastrophic losses total around $8 billion annually, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York. IBHS aims to improve building codes and maintenance practices in disaster-prone regions. Insurers say such labs help reduce their exposure to catastrophic losses—even at a cost of $100,000 for each large hurricane simulation. Researchers carefully videotape what happens as powerful winds blow over structures. The solutions uncovered in such experi ments can be surprising (as well as inexpensive): Group spokesman Joseph King said they already discovered that adding a $20 metal strap to fasten floors to walls on a second story can prevent a home from blowing away in high wind conditions.

"We wrote it into our fortified building requirement," says King, though the idea hasn’t yet made its way to building codes. "We learned something new we didn’t know." He hopes this solution and others will have an influence on public policy related to mandatory building codes.

After some recent wildfire tests, King says "next on our list is hail." The group is bringing in experts on hail to recreate real-world hailstones instead of the steel balls, golf balls. or round, frozen ice balls that some research labs use. "We want to create real, jagged hail stones just like they appear when mother nature throws them at our houses," says King.

In the past, researchers depended on information from computer simulations, historical data, and rummaging through damage zones. They also photographed damage sites from helicopters. IBHS's new lab is one instance of the research-lab mania flooding the insurance and disaster-preparedness world in the last decade. 

The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives opened a $106 million facility in 2004 in Ammendale, Md., where it often burns buildings as part of arson investigations. Underwriters Laboratories Inc. in Northbrook, Ill., ignited parts of the World Trade Center flooring in a gas furnace after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to see how the flooring affected the building’s collapse.

FM Global spent $40 million in 2009 to add earthquake simulations to its own testing complex near West Glocester, R.I. There, it simulates fires, windstorms, earthquakes, and explosions. It’s also tested how fires impact a whisky-storage facility, a luxury yacht, and a storehouse of frozen meatballs. Its goal is to both blunt the impact of disasters and to find the most cost-effective way for property owners to reduce damage to buildings.

The company says the lab's findings have made a difference in real emergencies. The firm insured 500 sites, worth $42 billion, in the path of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The company said the 310 sites that followed FM Global’s engineering recommendations saw 85% less damage on average, saving $1.5 million in losses per property.

Disaster labs generally document and share findings with each other and the public in an open-source fashion. FM Global’s research campus staff of 125 makes its recommendations publicly available, and many are picked up by governments, standards organizations, and other companies world-wide. Labs in China are also springing up, adding to the body of research in disaster science.

In recent months, FM Global has been testing ethanol-processing facilities in its lab to understand how and when such facilities might burst into flames. "We created a worst-case scenario right under our roof," said Lou Gritzo, FM Global's vice president and research manager. Nathan Schock, a spokesman for South Dakota-based Poet, one of the nation's largest ethanol producers, said he can't recall a fire in the past four years in the relatively young industry. "Any outside knowledge and expertise that can help our industry operate more safely and efficiently is welcome," he says.

Julie Rochman, chief executive of IBHS, says the property-insurance industry got its start when cities burned after the Civil War. "In the 1960s to the 80s, we ramped up on the auto side and built labs to test motor vehicles," she tells us. After hurricane Andrew in the 1990s, "there was a strong demand to do on the property side what we did on the auto side." And that's to arm people with the right information.

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[Image from Flickr user Lou Agneli Digital; thumbnail image from Rossco (Image Focus Australia)]

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2 Comments

  • brent berkompas

    This video does a great job showing the vulnerabilities of conventional ventilation methods despite using finer 1/8" mesh. Great scientific confirmation that mesh alone is not the answer for flying embers and direct flame contact.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

    Options to conventional venting and screen mesh exist. Flame and ember resistant vents have been developed to improve the likelihood homes will survive a wildfire. Ventilation is a necessary function of a healthy home but screen mesh and conventional designs leave homes extremely vulnerable to wildfire and extreme weather. At least now good building science is showing were a homes weaknesses are and offering us safer solutions.

  • brent berkompas

    This video does a great job showing the vulnerabilities of conventional ventilation methods despite using finer 1/8" mesh. Great scientific confirmation that mesh alone is not the answer for flying embers and direct flame contact.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

    Options to conventional venting and screen mesh exist. Flame and ember resistant vents have been developed to improve the likelihood homes will survive a wildfire. Ventilation is a necessary function of a healthy home but screen mesh and conventional designs leave homes extremely vulnerable to wildfire and extreme weather. At least now good building science is showing were a homes weaknesses are and offering us safer solutions.