Wind Research Facility Takes on a $200 Million Foe: Local Storms

A one-of-a-kind research facility will address a $200 million wind issue for the insurance industry when it breaks ground late next year.

Dubbed the WindEEE project, the University of Western Ontario facility will experiment with wind tunnels that mimic the kind of small local storms that don’t appear threatening but actually cause 65% of storm damage in interior continental North America, says Horia Hangan, a professor at the university and the lead investigator on the WindEEE (Wind Engineering Energy and Environment Dome) project.

Smaller storms, major damage

Existing wind damage research uses tropical storm or hurricane wind speed statistics, but insurance industry research has shown that it’s local storms—like downbursts, tornadoes and low-level currents– that wreak the most havoc, Hangan said at an Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction forum November 13. “No one cares too much about them,” he said. “But they’re very damaging.”

Much of that damage affects smaller buildings, he added, noting that typical downbursts generally hit small buildings at roof level, “the most dangerous part of a building.” Industry research has shown that wind damage causes $200 million in annual storm losses in Canada.

To date, “there has been nothing done to test buildings for this kind [local] wind,” Hangan said.

Mimicking wind environment

Once the dome—the first of its kind anywhere– is built, it will hold a 25 metre hexagonal wind tunnel formed by small fans around its perimeter that can change direction and flow to create any kind of wind environment. It will be able to produce tornadoes at 1/100 scale  up to an F3 strength.

The dome project’s leaders have already created partnerships with Canadian energy companies, and are presently looking for members of the insurance industry to join its scientific advisory panel.

Hangan’s work builds on ongoing work at Western’s Insurance Research Lab for Better Homes,  which explores how wind and water damage affect construction. That facility—known as the Three Little Pigs (3LP) Facility– includes a full-scale house surrounded by a frame that uses air and moisture to test the home, its windows and glass panels.

At present, the project is slated to break ground late next year or in early 2011. A second phase will  later explore the effect of water and moisture.

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