ATLANTA - Spring storm season is approaching, and researchers are working on ways to reduce hail repair costs and keep insurance premiums
Severe Weather Team 2 chief meteorologist Glenn Burns got a front-row seat to a first-of-its-kind hail test.
Inside a large warehouse at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) in Richburg, Va. sat a one-room house. It was covered with several types of yellow siding. Half of the roof was shingled; the other half was covered with a bright blue metal roofing. It had several windows and skylights, all brought in from Miami, where windows are required to withstand hurricane force winds.
The area around the house looked like many homes in metro Atlanta, and several stories above, researchers were moving more than 9,000 hailstones into place. Most of the hailstones measured one inch in diameter, the others were an inch-and-a-half to two inches. Researchers spent several weeks making the stones, using water and seltzer to get just the right density.
In perfect synchronization, the researchers began loading the hailstones, one at a time, into 12 homemade pods. Each had six barrels, all aimed at the house and car below. When the team got the green light, they started firing.
At first just a few hailstones fell, but within seconds, came the hailstorm. Stone after stone pelted the house and car, knocking over one of the children's toys. Hailstones bounced off the roof and flew several feet to another part of the warehouse. Other stones hit the car's windshield and got lodged under the wipers.
After four minutes and 9,000 hailstones, the damage was done.
Spring storm season, which brings hailstorms such as the test storm simulated above, is coming soon in metro Atlanta. These storms generally bring heavy rain, thunder, lightning and damaging hail. One storm in Coweta County in March 2011 led to more than 400 claims for hail damage.
"It started knocking big limbs out of trees. You begin to hear portions of the roof come off. The cars that were sitting outside, a lot of the mirrors were knocked off," said storm victim Lee Woodruff.
Burns can track the hail using Storm Tracker HD Radar. He can tell viewers when it's coming, how large it is, and when to protect themselves. What radar can't do is show viewers how to protect their property. That was the purpose of the first-of-its-kind experiment.
"Unfortunately, we have about 8,000 reports of hail damage in America, somewhere between two and three thousand hail storms," said IBHS CEO Julie Rochman.
The experiment was Rochman's idea.
“The total cost of hail is upward of about a billion dollars. That's billion with a ‘b.’ And unfortunately, it's growing every year," Rochman told Burns.
After the test, Burns walked around until he found a one-inch hailstone on the ground. He said that sized hailstone will prompt the National Weather Service to issue a severe thunderstorm warning. He also said it’s the average size of hail that falls in metro Atlanta, although there have been reports of hailstones the size of baseballs.
Burns explained a one-inch hailstone falls at a speed of about 50 mph. A two-inch stone falls much more quickly, at 150 mph.
On the test house, the windows and skylights weren't damaged. The metal roof had several dings and divots in it, but stood up fairly well. On the shingles side, some of them cracked, which could lead to water damage inside the house.
The biggest surprise to IBHS researchers were the gutters. Many were smashed and flattened.
"To me that is the most surprising because it's a small target," said IBHS research scientist Ian Giammanco. "They got beat up pretty good."
Gutter damage also can lead to water damage inside a house.
The car also took a beating from the hail. There were divots all over the hood, roof and trunk. A large crack that started at the bottom of the windshield stretched like a spider web for several inches.
Insurance records show repairing a car with hail damage can cost up to $6,000. The average cost to repair hail damage on a house in Georgia is more than $8,000.
Researchers said the goal of the test was to lower those costs and keep insurance premiums down.
"We want to identify products that performed the best," Giammanco said. "We want to promote homeowners and builders to really start asking questions -- 'What materials can I use to stop some of this?' And that's going to help the insurance industry by reducing those losses."