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October 24, 2011

Richburg research center mastering weather

The Chester County weather research center is marking its one-year anniversary. The testing will focus on ways to make homes safer, as well as ways to reduce replacement costs.

Scientist and engineer Tim Reid knew what the research center in Richburg should accomplish.

In theory, the 105 fans - which suck enough power to light 9,000 homes and produce an air flow 20 times greater than the water cascading at Niagara Falls - should spin fast enough to create a devastating indoor hurricane. The result should shatter even the stoutest conventionally built home.

But it was not until the wind blew in the front door of a full-size test house - destroying it in four seconds - that Reid knew, without a doubt, that the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety's research center was a winner.

"It was just amazing. I didn't think it would go that fast," said Reid, the center's senior vice president for research and its chief engineer.

The center later replicated the test for television cameras from the Weather Channel and major news networks, as well as for radio and print media. When the fans reached 96 mph, a home with its front door open broke free of its foundation, shattering. Pieces flew out the center's back door and littered the Chester County countryside.

After the media left, Reid and others spent the better part of the center's inaugural year doing less dramatic - but not less important -testing. They essentially calibrated the giant lab, which is as tall as a six-story building and capable of holding nine full-size homes.

Making sure the lab could repeatedly create the same weather conditions and accurately and consistently record the weather's effects on buildings - with both data and video - was crucial.

"We had to make sure the science was absolutely right," Reid said.

As the center enters its second year, the testing will focus on ways to make homes safer, as well as ways to reduce replacement costs, one of the biggest expenses of the insurance industry.

Some of the fixes they've tested so far - such as whether a home's outer doors open inward or outward - can greatly affect whether it will fly open during a hurricane. Once the door opens, the change in pressure can destroy a house.

Other inexpensive fixes include tapping the joints between roof sheeting to prevent water from leaking into a home after high winds tear off shingles.

The fixes, if done during construction, can often be done inexpensively.

Attention is turning to roof shingles. Insurance companies buy lots of roof shingles for policy holders, and they are always trying to reduce that cost.

Specifically, the center is evaluating the grades given to shingles. The ratings correspond to the speed of wind a shingle should survive. Grade F shingles are rated for 110 miles per hour, grade H for 150 mph.

But initial testing shows that some F or H shingles fail at lower wind speeds.

Currently, the accepted testing method is to take an 8-foot square panel of shingles and expose them to a wind machine. Another test rates how much wind force it takes to pop a shingle from a roof.

The center will do its testing on a full-scale house with sensors underneath the shingles. They will also be testing new and old shingles. Typically, the rating tests are done on new shingles.

The center, however, won't forego entirely the dramatic man-made weather that has gained it notoriety.

They created a home-destroying hurricane. They burned a house with a firestorm of embers.

Now, they are working on a manmade hail. Typically, steel balls are used to simulate hail during tests. But steel balls are usually denser than hail, and they drop and impact - like steel balls.

The center is experimenting with various combinations of tap water and soda water. The combinations are frozen, creating various layers and leaving bubbles - just like a real piece of hail.

In addition to creating hail, the center has to develop sensors to measure the impact and damage caused by the manmade concoctions.

Hail testing is tentatively scheduled for March or April.

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