RI lab recreates forces of nature to prevent property damage

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GLOCESTER, R.I. (WPRI) — Tucked away in the northwest corner of Rhode Island, in the woods of West Glocester, there is a very unique facility — FM Global’s Natural Hazards Laboratory.

According to Katherine Klosowski, FM Global project manager, it is the only property insurance company that has a research campus like this.  Here, workers study how natural disasters could impact property.  They conduct the research mainly for their corporate clients, but the same principles can be applied to homeowners.

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Klosowski said, “FM Global focuses on loss prevention. so we work very closely with our clients to understand the cause of loss, and we work with them to engineer solutions so that they don’t experience those losses.  We’re focused very strongly on preventing those losses.  We don’t want our client to suffer a disaster, but we work with them to keep any event a minor distraction instead.”

The sprawling campus off Reynolds Road in Glocester, Rhode Island is home to many buildings including the Natural Hazards Laboratory.  Here, engineers recreate forces of nature. 

Eyewitness News saw how strong winds and hail can affect the structural integrity of buildings.

The first demonstration we saw was with FM Global’s Hail Launcher.  Researchers make their own hailstones in three separate stages to simulate how a real hailstone is created.  An engineer loaded the two-inch hailstone into the hail launcher and fired it at a slate roof. 

Klosowski said they do this test to see “what roofing systems are going to be able to withstand hail falling out of the sky.  We launch a piece of hail at various roofing materials to see which ones are going to be able to withstand that impact.”

In the demonstration we saw, the hailstone shattered in all directions, and the slate roof was damaged with cracks around where the stone hit.

After the hail demonstration, we were guided into a vast room filled with many different weather-simulating-devices including two cannons, one larger than the other, near the entrance.  These two cannons simulate flying debris in a hurricane.

“We know that hurricanes hit Rhode Island, and we’ve had some in recent years.  With hurricane winds, strong winds, we know they are going to pick up debris, whether it’s a fallen tree limb or a stop sign that’s blown over, and we know that debris is going to get thrown into buildings,” said Klosowski.

The larger cannon replicates the force of 110-mile-per-hour winds which is what a strong Category 2 hurricane could bring.  Hurricane Bob brought similar winds when it hit Rhode Island in 1991. 

After loading a 2-by-4 board into the cannon, an engineer pressurized the device.  After a small pause, he yelled out, “fire”, and the board came shooting straight out toward a piece of plywood.

“We know that many people put up plywood (ahead of storms).  Well, we want to know, is a half inch piece of plywood enough? Or, does it need to be 3/4″ or one inch?”

The board went right through the half inch piece of plywood, simulating what a piece of debris would do when launched into plywood covering a window. 

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Another board was shot at a one-inch-thick piece of plywood.  The result was fascinating.  The 2-by-4 bounced right off the thicker plywood.  FM Global researchers found that anything thicker than 3/4″ plywood is sufficient to protect windows from flying debris in a Category 2 storm.

These are the kinds of tests which have been done for decades by the company. In the early 1800s, a Rhode Island textile owner, Zachariah Allen, decided to make property improvements designed to minimize the chance of fire loss.  According to FMGlobal.com, Allen asked his insurance company for a reduced premium but was turned down.  He then recruited other mill owners who liked his idea of loss prevention.  They created their own insurance company that would insure only ‘good risk’ factories.  The group became known as Factory Mutuals.  Today, the company is known as FM Global, and it still employs that same loss-prevention philosophy.

“FM Global insures about one-third of the Fortune 1000 companies,” Klosowski said.  “Mainly manufacturing, power generations, we do insure some commercial properties, hotel, retail, universities, hospitals as well.”

We saw one more test during our three-hour visit to the laboratory. A smaller cannon launched small, metal balls into a window, simulating gravel being picked up and thrown into panes of glass.  What engineers wanted to know is how water could be prevented from entering a building once a window is compromised.  The metal balls were shot at two different windows–one with a film and one without.

“In the first test, we saw that the window shatters, and it completely opens up the structure to the elements. In the second test, we saw that the film behind the glass actually held the glass in place. So even though it shatters, it didn’t allow the elements of the storm inside the structure.  So that’s what we’re trying to do…minimize the amount of damage,” said Klosowski.

In addition to wind and hail, tests are also done with controlled fires and earthquake simulators. 

“People often underestimate damage that mother nature can cause …we know it’s real because we test it,” said Klosowski proudly.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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