Lab Simulates Hurricanes, Wildfires to Test Structural Designs

By Conan Milner
Conan Milner
Conan Milner
Conan Milner is a health reporter for the Epoch Times. He graduated from Wayne State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and is a member of the American Herbalist Guild.
August 27, 2010 Updated: August 27, 2010

The Institute for Business and Home Safety’s research center timelapseCategory 3 hurricanes, hailstorms, and wildfires will soon be found inside a new research facility in South Carolina. The nearly completed center is designed to accurately create severe weather conditions to demonstrate and test the structural integrity of homes and buildings.

The Institute for Business and Home Safety’s (IBHS) research center will conduct tests in an effort to provide scientific evidence that they hope will influence residential and commercial structural design and construction improvements. With disaster related losses totaling over $25 billion across the United States in 2008 alone, researchers say that findings generated at the new facility will provide a reliable guide toward better built structures.

According to its website, IBHS says that its tests and studies will not only lead to more durable, sustainable communities, but also “provide an objective, sound foundation for development of solid public policy (such as enhanced building codes).”

While the goal of the IBHS research center is to produce useful data for designers and builders, its ability to produce severe weather conditions indoors is what makes the facility unique.

IBHS is planning a grand opening on Oct. 19 to demonstrate their unique laboratory in action. Researchers will conduct a full-scale wind test using 105 individually controlled fans, each nearly 6 ft. in diameter, to produce extreme yet life-like gusts of about 100 mph.

These laboratory-produced high winds will be inflicted on two 1,300 sq. ft., two-story homes inside the research center’s largest test chamber—a space big enough to accommodate nine 2,300 square foot homes.

But this demonstration will only reveal a fraction of the laboratory’s weather-creating potential. The facility is capable of producing winds of up to 140 mph, and researchers say that they will one day be able to produce 175 mph gusts. Meanwhile, an elaborate sprinkler system allows researchers to create accurate, appropriate patterns of various sized rain droplets equivalent to a rainfall rate of up to 8 inches per hour.

IBHS put a lot of effort into recreating the details of mother nature at her most extreme. To mimic the real-world hailstones, which naturally come in various sizes, IBHS staff create hailstones of several weights and sizes by freezing water in different molds. The lab generated hailstones are distributed through machines and released so that they reach terminal velocity before striking the test building.

Recreating wildfire conditions presented a different set of challenges, involving more than merely setting the facility ablaze. Researchers wanted to study two important aspects of the potential building hazards: ember attack and torch vegetation.

IBHS describes an ember attack as small, wind-driven burning embers that penetrate attic vents and other openings in the home, or collect on complex roof surfaces. After entering a home, these smoldering fire starters can initially go undetected, but eventually they can cause a structure to burn from the inside out.

The IBHS facility has a long, deep trench in the test chamber, in front of the fan inlet area with mulch burning equipment nearby to create embers typical of a wildfire. These embers are sent into the wind stream to “create realistic, windy conditions surrounding a structure when a wildfire passes through a community.”

Another consequence of wildfires, torch vegetation, refers to a tree or shrub next to a structure that catches fire and ignites the adjacent building. IBHS staff installed natural gas lines and burners just outside the test chamber and then add wind to the mix. This set up allows researchers to create conditions seen in real life wildfires.

Of course, the researchers themselves are not subjected to these imitation forces of nature. The test chamber can be safely observed from a nearby observation room protected by 18-foot-tall, impact-resistant windows.

Conan Milner
Conan Milner is a health reporter for the Epoch Times. He graduated from Wayne State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and is a member of the American Herbalist Guild.