RICHBURG There was an eerie silence in the viewing area adjacent to the testing lab of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety in Richburg early Wednesday.
The room-capacity crowd of media, insurance experts and a handful of Chester County politicians, felt silent when the first-ever, large-scale testing of artificial hail started. Canons hung in the labs catwalks started firing hail stones varying from 1 to 2 inches in diameter.
Soon the silence was replaced with the deep ping as the hail stones crashed against metal, mostly a standing-seam roof that covered one-half of the single-story, residential-style structure.
A pong followed as the hail bounced off the roof, some stones traveling as far as 5 yards before they landed on the labs concrete floor. Even that force wasnt enough to shatter some of the stones.
The canons shot about 9,200 stones into the structure, a parked car and outside lawn furniture.
This is as good as you can do, in replicating a hail storm, said Eric Williford, a senior scientist with Weather Predict Consulting of Raleigh, N.C. The consulting firm studies natural hazards such as hail and analyzes the outcomes of such events.
Nationally, hail storms cause about $1 billion in damage annually. Trying to minimize that damage has been a high priority of the insurance companies that help fund the institute.
Many of the insurance experts who came to view Wednesdays test expected to see more damage such as a shredded patio umbrella. The umbrella withstood the test, but the windshield of the Toyota Camry sedan was cracked.
Portions of the aluminium gutter were managed and there was sections of roof and vinyl siding pitted. The structure was on a turntable which rotated with 360 degrees so that hail could hit it from various angles.
Representatives from various insurance companies walked around the structure looking at the damage. Some even used a lift to make a closer inspection of the roof. The traditional 3-tab shingles suffered more damage than the architectural shingles, said Julie Rochman, CEO and president of the institute. The portion of the standing-seam metal roof installed over sheathing, and not asphalt shingles, also fared better, she said.
This test may look easy, but its not, Rochman said. Four years of research went into Wednesdays test. Researchers studied real hail, created an artificial hail from a mixture of seltzer water and water, and then created the system of air canons to shoot the hail at the same velocity it falls in natural forms.
Rochman reminded the viewers that this was a real reality show. This is not scripted. We are learning without a net.
A brief technical glitch had unintended consequences as the delay resulted in the artificial ice slightly melting before the test.
This is where the impact meets the consumer, said John Doak, Oklahomas Insurance Commissioner, who traveled from Tulsa for Wednesdays test.
Doak said the lessons learned on how hail affects different building materials should help reduce consumer costs. Currently there are few impact resistance standards for building materials when it comes to hail.
Doak also said the results of Wednesdays tests will be discussed at an upcoming national tornado conference being hosted in Oklahoma.
Mark Pizzi, president and chief operating officer of Nationwide Insurance, said the he was most impressed with the science of Wednesdays test. The science will allow the lab to replicate the test on roof sections that have been aging in the South Carolina sun. Insurance companies need reliable data on the relationship between hail damage and the age of a roof, he said.
Wednesdays testing also demonstrated that there is a point when damage is more than cosmetic. That point matters to the consumer, he said.
Rochman, president of the research institute, said Wednesdays test was just a start.
With all we know, theres lots more to learn, she said.
Hail test attracts national media
Carlisle Roddey, Chesters county supervisor, and Karlissa Parker, Chester Countys economic developer, scanned the viewing gallery at the Insurance Institute during the test.
It was packed. There were television stations from Charlotte and Columbia, and as distant as Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Houston, Tulsa and Indianapolis. All told there were 18 television stations and that didnt include the networks and their shows.
The Today Show was on hand. So to was This Old House and its host Kevin OConnor and the Weather Channel and meteorologist Joe Cantore, who has been a frequent guest at the institute.
Representatives of various insurance companies and other guests packed the room.
After the institute finished the first-ever, full-scale, indoor artificial hail storm every TV and network reporter wanted to talk with institute researchers such as Tanya Brown, Anne Cope, Ian Giamannco, Tim Reinhold and Julie Rochman, CEO and president of the institute.
And with every interview, Roddey and Parker hoped the institute staff remembered to mention Richburg or Chester County.
You cant buy what this is doing for us, Roddey said.
The Chester politicians already know it works. This isnt the first time the institute has held full-scale testing for the media. They created hurricane-strength winds and blew a house into the Chester County countryside. Theyve held ember-test and caught a building fire and crushed a concrete-block commercial structure with tornado-strength winds.
At each of these tests there were plenty of television station and network cameras, each on-air personality mentioning Richburg or Chester County.
Parker said that was the countys intent from the start. They offered what we needed, she said, national exposure.
The institute invested $40 million into the Richburg lab and employs between 18 and 25 people. The institute looked at other sites, but was impressed with what Chester County had to offer.
When we showed them this site off S.C. 99, I looked at their faces and the heavens opened up, Parker said.
The institute built on 90 of 400 acres set aside for a business park. Its a great place for people doing research and development or needing mega power, Parker said. When the institutes lab cranks up its giant wind fans it uses lot of power. Having an uninterrupted power source was crucial, institute officials have said.
Parker said people interested in Chester County know of the institutes reputation as a world-class testing lab. She hopes that reputation will convince others to come to Chester County as well.