Local News
4:37 pm
Wed February 20, 2013

Hail Breaks Loose In Name Of Insurance Research

Hail causes about $1 billion in damage to U.S. property and crops each year. Insurers would like to minimize those losses. That's where the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety comes in. On Wednesday morning, the Institute created a full-scale hailstorm inside its laboratory in Richburg, South Carolina – about an hour from Charlotte. WFAE's Julie Rose sent this report:  

Tanya Brown has had a single obsession these past two years: how to make hail.

"The standard tests that are out there use distilled water or tap water or even steel balls and we tried to take it to the next level to make sure the density was as realistic as possible," says Brown, a research engineer and the lead engineer on the hail test project at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS). "We measured over 10,000 hailstones before we came up with the recipe that we use today."

Brown and other scientists from IBHS chased storms across the Midwest, weighing and crushing hail stones to see just how dense they were. Plain old frozen water turned out to be a bad match for the real deal, so Brown's team turned to a secret ingredient.

"The recipe is 80 percent seltzer, 20 percent tap water and we use that seltzer water to cause bubbles as the ice freezes, which helps us control the density to make it more realistic," explains Brown.

For months, they injected the concoction into molds with a syringe – by hand – and used a deep freezer to create perfectly round hail stones ranging from 1 to 2 inches. And now, Brown is 60 feet up in the rafters of this cavernous warehouse, ready to unleash hail. (The puns are irresistible at IBHS.) 

Engineer Ian Giammanco is over in the control room with his finger on the trigger of a weapon made just for this occasion.

"It's, it's uh almost a glorified potato gun," says Giammanco. "It's very similar."

There are about a dozen of them up in the rafters controlled with the click of Giammanco's mouse. Compressed air will fire some 9,000 handmade hailstones at speeds up to 80 miles per hour.

We watch through a glass window as a small, but still full-size house – turns slowly on a giant turntable. It's built with a patchwork of materials and techniques to test their resistance to hail. There's also a shiny black car, some patio furniture and a child's toy or two.

Out in the lab the cannon fire is deafening. Hail clatters off the roof, batters the rain gutter, shatters the car windshield. After four minutes of unrelenting ice fury. . . stillness.

Once the artificial hail storm is finished, media and IBHS staff wearing hard hats move in to inspect.

Dozens of executives from the insurance industry - which funds IBHS - have come to watch the test, too.  They are particularly interested in different types of building materials, how they hold up under extreme weather. And, of course, that plays into the kinds of coverage they offer.

"Really the only way to get a handle on insurance costs is to reduce the risk of loss," says My name is Bryan Cook with Amica Insurance.  "If we can do things through mitigation and strengthening our homes, we accomplish that task and it's better for everybody."

IBHS uses these experiments to back up their fight for stronger building codes and better construction materials. Previous tests at this South Carolina lab have simulated hurricanes, tornados and wildfire – funded entirely by the insurance industry. 

"We are the only multi-hazard lab of our kind," says IBHS CEO Julie Rochman. "We are obsessed equally with wind, water, fire and hail." 

Rochman estimates the hail storm cost about half a million dollars to pull off: "I think we figured out that each hailstone probably cost about $2,000."

Engineers will now detail every ding and dent in the house to figure out which types of shingles, siding and windows held up best. Age of the materials is another key factor they'll be testing with a series of roofs already sprouting up in a field just outside the test chamber.

Will those get the home-made hail treatment too?

"Hail, yes!" says Rochman, with a chuckle.