It’s almost never cold enough for me these days. I’m at a particular stage in my life when my internal furnace is always set at boiling. So I was thrilled to get assigned a story at the Insurance Institute of Business and Home Safety. It’s a little like the crash test dummies car lab, but for buildings. That’s cool, but it wasn’t what I was excited about. Taking a left on bumpy rural road in Richburg, South Carolina, there it was -- a seven-story wall of gigantic fans. It just about sent shivers down my spine.
If you catch our story on the economics of severe weather you’ll see how the engineers at the IBHS create “Mother Nature in a Box,” as CEO Julie Rochman describes it. The box is a 21,000 square foot chamber of concrete; dead center is a railroad turntable large enough for a 2000 square foot home with all sorts of hoses are overhead. And on one side that 70-foot wall of fans with the power to create wind whipped chaos and catastrophe. They can crank it up to 130 miles per hour. That’s a Category 3 hurricane, like Irene in 2011.
They also make rainstorms – up to 8 inches of rain in an hour. Look up and you’ll see their gerry-rigged system that makes the world’s only indoor hailstorm, with 9000 homemade hailstones from seltzer water, plummeting at earth at 70 mph in just five minutes.
And there’s fire with that ice. The IBHS also created the only indoor wildfire -- lauded by fire chiefs for being as real as it gets.
CEO Rochman did confess just about everyone working there has a bit of an 8-year-old boy in them, a little bit of a destructive streak. I’m sure no one’s gonna say they’re cheering for the failures, but it’s a lot more fun to watch a house blow away or a roof collapse or an ember to catch a building on fire than it is to see something stand up to worst. I’m also just as certain they are all proud of the import of what they’re doing – showing the way to save property and lives.
With extreme weather hitting all regions of the country at increasing levels, they want to get the building and construction industry and policy makers to use better materials and better methods, to tighten codes and enforcement them better.
They’re hoping for the same effect that the automobile crash test dummies tests had on the automobile industry. No carmaker wants to be the one with the failing safety grade or the dead dummy. Perhaps watching a couple of homes turn into a real life scene from the Wizard of Oz will change an industry. Even small tweaks could save a home. Rochman showed us that using grooved nails for just a couple of hundred dollars more per house could keep the roof on in a hurricane.
What they’re doing is pretty cool, literally. They were kind enough to power up a few of those fans so we could get a feel for how strong they are. Each fan is 5 feet 6 inches in diameter with 350 horsepower at their peak. They’re like the fans used in the mining industry. With 105 of them all going at once, its like air conditioning 10,000 homes at once and is the same amount of power going to about 9000 homes. (They have their own electrical substation).
For us, they turned on just nine fans at a puny 45 miles per hour. They wouldn’t let us destroy anything on camera. What are we, babies? I thought. Whatever. As the fans rotated the cameraman asked me to stand in for our contributor, Shini Somara so that he could set his shots for her. He didn’t want her to get too cold. Ahh, I thought, this is going to be a menopausal woman’s dream.
Did I say the fans suck in the outside air? Which happened to be 33 degrees at 8AM that fine morning?
At first, it was heaven. The coolness enveloped me with a refreshing feel. I was getting a little buffeted by the force, but turning to it head on, I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio. As the seconds and minutes ticked by and Andrew kept resetting and resetting and resetting it was getting cold, horrifically cold. Watching the video (which I will have destroyed by the time of this writing) you can see how my face begins contorting, my body shivering uncontrollably. Can a human face actually look like that? It was literally bone-chilling cold. Finally he was set and Shini stepped in. I don’t know how she did it, but she did 6 takes in a row. I couldn’t tell you what she said. I had brain freeze.
Remember how I complained they wouldn’t let us destroy anything on camera? Well, I was destroyed for the rest of the day until we got back to our hotel. There I promptly cranked the heat to 85 degrees, took a hot shower and prayed for my next hot flash.