Making it hail is no easy task - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Making it hail is no easy task

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RICHBURG, S.C. (FOX 13) -

Never mind the fair skies outside Wednesday; a storm was roaring inside.

Famous for ripping down full-sized homes in full-force hurricane demonstrations, weather researchers at the Institute for Building and Home Safety turned to another costly menace: Hail.

"People don't think of hail as a life safety issue," said IBHS president Julie Rochman.

Wednesday's brief test, flinging thousands of man-made ice balls from a height of 60 feet, pounded a full-scale home and a car. Rochman said the test, the first of its kind, greatly improves on previous simulations that employed steel balls in place of hail.

"It doesn't rain steel balls," Rochman said. "We want hailstones."

IBHS said the goal of the test, which sent the hailstones flying as fast as 76 mph, is to learn more about how hail impacts property.

"It's all about building better," said Lynne McChristian with the Insurance Information Institute, which supports IBHS. McChristian said hail causes $1-billion in insured damage yearly.

"And it's hard to predict," McChristian added.

According to the National Weather Service, hail rained down on the United States 7,031 times in 2012. Florida recorded 73 hail events, from the Panhandle all the way to the Keys.

Making the hailstones, which IBHS dubbed "Mother Nature's Million Dollar Babies," was a challenge. Meteorologist Tanya Brown turned the simple task of freezing water into an exact science.

"We spent a lot of time making the hailstones look more realistic," said Brown, a Ph.D.

Brown joined a team that has spent two years both chasing thunderstorms and doing lab work to develop hailstones of the correct size, shape, weight, and density.

Brown's hailstone nursery, located just behind the lab's towering wind tunnel, includes some odd tools: A row of freezers, a snow cone maker, and an ice cream maker. The secret weapon is a specialized mold – a pink ice cube tray filled with a blend of tap water and seltzer water.

Brown acknowledged the bizarre recipe, but said it was important to remain as creative as possible to accurately mimic the layered composition of elusive natural hail.

"You really want to make sure you're getting the testing correct," Brown added.

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