IBHS Hail Research Program
By Ian Giammanco
It’s amazing to think it’s been 10 years since the IBHS Research Center opened. Over that decade we’ve done some incredible things, particularly with our hail research program.
Our industry knows too well the financial toll hailstorms take, not just in the United States, but globally. Annual losses routinely exceed $10 billion, and damage from a single hailstorm hitting a big city can easily reach $1 billion. But let’s rewind the clock back to 2010.
You, our Members, helped guide us toward our “Core Four” perils to focus our efforts: wind, wind-driven rain, hail, and wildfire. Hail losses had only begun to rapidly increase following the Great Recession. Seemingly a worst-case confluence of weather, suburban sprawl, outdated building materials, human factors, and just plain old bad luck showed us how serious the hail problem was becoming. As we began to map out what a hail research program would look like, we quickly realized hail science had mired in obscurity since the early 1980s. Impact test standards were stuck using science from the 1930s, and no one had touched hailstone fall speeds and energies since the 1960s. There was little growth in research and wide foundational science gaps. Where did we fit? What could we do? What did our Members need to combat losses? We began to explore how to answer those questions and ultimately how we could take scientific results and get them into meaningful real-world action. What was in front of us was certainly a daunting task, but if there is one thing you should know about us at IBHS, is that “it’s too hard” is not in our vocabulary.
Many of you know, much of the work we have done in our hail research program culminated last year with the release of a new hail impact test standard and the first ratings scorecard. By the first update to the scorecard, we’d seen manufacturers remove poor performing products, improve existing ones, and launch new, better ones. This speaks volumes about the dedicated research we’ve completed, which bridged foundational science gaps to deliver actionable guidance for your policyholders. It also speaks to the influence our industry can have in changing the path toward building stronger homes and businesses. The road to success we’ve seen today certainly had ups and downs. We know a lot of things that didn’t work, and a few that did. We’ve had a lot of scientific firsts. IBHS researchers were the first to measure the strength of hail, first to create a full-scale indoor hailstorm simulation, and the first to 3D scan and print a hailstone, and we also have the only fleet of deployable hail impact sensors. But I’d like to share a few things that maybe you didn’t know:
- In 2010, the current hail lab at the Research Center looked more like an empty gymnasium than a state-of-the-art test center. When we began the hail research program we didn’t even have a freezer or a sink.
- When we started making more realistic hail in the lab we may have purchased every bottle of seltzer water between Rock Hill and Richburg, SC.
- Toothbrush bristles were used in the first barrel design for the full-scale hail delivery system.
- We had to rent a screw compressor powered by a diesel engine to supply enough air for the first indoor hailstorm in the large test chamber. (Side note, since we can now see how many hailstones fall in real hailstorms, that was a mild one.) We only had enough ice to test the full system once before the demonstration, which was live on NBC’s Today Show (yeah, that added some gray hairs).
- The first hailstone ever tested for strength was 1.6 inches in diameter and it took 22 pounds of force to fracture. It was collected from a storm near Grand Island, Nebraska, on May 27, 2012, the third day of our first field study mission.
- One of our eureka science moments took place on November 16, 2015, when we first realized we had the ability with our custom-built hail machine to duplicate the structure of natural hail. Our real reaction was more like “hey, that’s weird.”
- IBHS has verified two state record hailstones with our 3D laser scanner (Alabama and Colorado). A 3D print of the Alabama state record hailstone is on display at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.
- The concept for the hail impact disdrometers came from Dr. Tanya Brown-Giammanco continually breaking our Wii Rock Band drum kit. Drum hit – hail hit, of course they are similar!
- Since 2012, our hail field study team has spent 72 days on the road, collected samples from 62 different thunderstorms, measured 4,145 hailstones, eaten at McDonald’s 42 times, made 302 disdrometer deployments, 3D scanned 151 hailstones, made 89 U-turns (yes, verified by GPS), and changed hail science for the better! And yes, we stayed at a Holiday Inn Express®!
The washed-up baseball player in me would love to use the quote from the movie “Major League” that the character Willie Mays Hayes says after the Indians won their division, “Not bad for a has-been and a couple of never will be’s.” But that’s not good enough, nor speaks to the drive and dedication of those who made this happen. When we began, no one knew who we were, much less thought about, IBHS when hail was discussed. Now, there is rarely a conversation about hail that doesn’t include us. All this would not be possible without the support from you, our Members, and the belief that we can do big things.
Over these 10 years, we’ve seen a surge in new hail research, the first U.S. workshop on hail and hailstorms was held, and we’ve seen rapid changes from shingle manufacturers. There is now a growing respect for a hazard that used to be considered the “Rodney Dangerfield” of perils, or the hazard that gets no respect. Today, across the science community, 3D printed hailstones are being printed and put in vertical wind tunnels, hailstones are now grown in computer models, plans are in the works to drop instrumented hailstones into thunderstorms like the hurricane hunters drop into hurricanes, hailstone records have been verified by 3D scans, shingles are finally turning the corner and getting better, and there is a consideration for a multi-institution, multi-agency field project to comprehensively study all aspects of hailstorms. This is IBHS. There are still plenty of materials to test, lots of questions still to be answered, and knowledge to be gained. We have been right there leading the way and will be as we head into the next decade. Thank you, our members. Together we are IBHS and we hope you enjoy looking back at some of the memorable moments from the past ten years of the IBHS Research Center.
Ian Giammanco, PhD
Lead Research Meteorologist & Sr. Director for Product Design