It's no secret the weather this year has been anything but typical for much of the nation. From heat in Texas, to flooding in the Midwest, to a hurricane on the East Coast, Mother Nature seems angry. And she unleashed her greatest fury this spring with killer tornadoes ravaging much of the South.
That means the storm shelter business this year has been anything but typical for Barger and Sons. The family-owned, fifth-generation precast producer in Kingston, Tenn., has manufactured a record 175 precast storm shelters in 2011, compared to a typical 100.
Sales continued as August ended. “This season has run longer than most,” says company vice president Eric Barger. “We're still selling storm shelters, and that's pretty odd. We should have stopped selling these two months ago.” Ironically, it was the producer's own close call that prompted it to enter the storm shelter business. One of the worst tornadoes in Tennessee history struck the tiny town of Mossy Grove in November 2002, only a few miles from Barger and Sons' office.
“We bought half a shelter form in 2001, but we never did anything with it. We never made one.” Barger says. “Then when the tornado came, we got serious about designing the door and getting the engineering done. We sold our first one in 2003, a year to the day of the tornado.”
Thanks to the awful 2011 season, the public is getting serious about tornadoes and how to survive them. “Everyone is experiencing quite a surge right now,” says Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA), based at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where Kiesling also is a professor of civil engineering. He believes most precast producers have experienced increases similar to Barger's.
“It's been a phenomenal season and each time there is an event, there is a surge in interest,” explains Kiesling. “Unfortunately, it subsides rather quickly after the event. But the intensities of tornadoes this year and the death tolls have been unusual and have stimulated unusual interest in residential and community shelters.”
Many manufacturers cannot keep up with demand, with some customers waiting three and four months for shelters after placing orders. That has never happened before, Kiesling says.
There are other materials, especially steel and fiberglass, competing for the shelter business. Precast concrete's big advantage is that those competitors must be installed completely underground. This is an advantage for concrete, because the aboveground version is gaining momentum.
Steel is preferred if a shelter is being installed within an existing structure, such as a garage or basement. Some modular steel shelters come in kits which can be carried in pieces downstairs to a basement.
Barger and Sons uses a 5000 psi, self-consolidating concrete mix for its steel-reinforced precast storm shelters. Its best seller, a partial underground shelter, is 126 inches long, 66 inches wide, and 80 inches tall. Half of it, or 40 inches, is buried underground. Deflector plates cover vent openings to prevent wind-whipped debris from penetrating.
At 7 feet wide, 7 feet deep, and 104 inches tall, the aboveground version weighs 24,800 pounds and can hold up to 12 people. “All we have to do is set it on the ground,” says Barger. “They require no anchoring. They weigh so much and have such a small footprint, the wind would have to get underneath it to lift it. They're so heavy, even if you put a 250 mph wind on it in one corner, it's not going to budge.”
Aboveground shelters have withstood EF2 tornado winds of 111 to 135 mph. “It will go through an EF5 (winds more than 200 mph) with no problems,” Barger adds.
Barger and Sons' aboveground version is gaining popularity. With the population aging, it's much easier to walk right into it quickly. They also are handicap-accessable and can accommodate wheelchairs. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are expressing more interest.
“They can walk into or be ushered in a wheelchair into an aboveground shelter,” says Barger. “They're not as pretty, but you don't want to skimp.” The belowground version is much easier to beautify or hide with landscaping.
The partial underground version costs $3000 for local delivery. But after the customer pays for excavation and installation, the cost is similar to the $5400 for the aboveground version, which is free-standing and requires no installation.
Barger strongly suggests precast producers who are interested in manufacturing storm shelters should join the NSSA. “It takes a lot of the liability off of the producer,” he says. “We use that as a selling point.”
The producer's door already successfully went through the Texas Tech Wind Science and Engineering Research Center testing. This requires a shelter's door to withstand being struck by a 2x4 traveling 100 mph.
“We got our door certified through Texas Tech and we still didn't feel it was enough,” Barger says. “NSSA brought things to our attention. We went through a second engineering review. It gives us peace of mind.”
Thanks to increased awareness, Barger sees this niche segment growing. If a tornado does not directly impact a homeowner, he sees coverage of their fury on TV more than ever thanks to 24-hour news and weather channels, storm chasers, and videos of almost every storm.
The NSSA's Kiesling says people generally become complacent and “interest and inquiries subside rather quickly after a storm. But there will be more lingering interest than usual because of the seriousness of the situation this year.”
The South was hit especially hard in 2011, giving credence to talk of a “southern tornado alley” or “new tornado alley.” “These states are getting more and more tornadoes and nobody is prepared,” Barger says. “We had one five minutes from our house and I don't even have a shelter. We all think it's never going to happen to us, and it will.”
For more on the producer in this story, visit www.bargerandsons.com.Here, you can watch the Texas Tech 100 mph impact test video. For more on the National Storm Shelter Association, visit its website at www.nssa.cc.
For More Information...
There are two main resources for information on storm shelter construction standards. Ernst Kiesling, executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA), calls the differences “modest.” The International Code Council (ICC) standard has processes and procedures for testing and debris impact. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) document stresses flood protection. For example, it does not permit shelters to be installed in flood zones.
Published jointly by the NSSA and the ICC, the “ICC/NSSA Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters” provides minimum design and construction requirements for storm shelters that provide a safe refuge from storms that produce high winds, such as hurricanes and tornadoes. ICC 500 is a national consensus standard. It is included in the International Building Code and the International Residential Code. The NSSA requires its members to meet this standard. For more, visit the NSSA's website at www.nssa.cc and click on the link in the Library section.
FEMA 320, “Taking Shelter From the Storm, Building a Safe Room For Your Home or Small Business,” provides designs for basement, belowground, and aboveground safe rooms. Any shelter that receives FEMA funding must meet these guidelines. For more information, visit www.fema.gov/plan/prevent/saferoom/fema320.shtm.