Gusts from Wall of Wind facility promote hurricane-safe buildings

By on November 18, 2013

Replacing an intake cover on the Wall of Wind (Credit: Florida International University)

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew made landfall on South Florida with winds gusting up to 170 miles per hour. The storm inflicted $26.5 billion worth of damages in the state. Scientists responded by advocating for improved wind research to reveal what had happened and minimize such extensive damage in the future.

The key question: how can structures be designed to better survive hurricanes?

A team of engineers at Florida International University came together in the early 2000s to design a wind-generation system that could be used to study structure resiliency. Their initial prototype had two fans and propelled wind speed of 120 mph. Fast forward a decade and their original design has become the basis for what is today the Wall of Wind, a one-of-its-kind facility generating maximum wind speeds of 160 mph that is improving structure designs and answering other important questions in hurricane research.

The facility is similar to a wind tunnel in that flow conditions can be controlled and different wind profiles can be introduced.

“Natural winds have a profile and turbulence,” said Peter Irwin, professor of practice for the Wall of Wind. “We want to make sure that we impact whatever we’re testing with the right kind of wind.”

So triangular segments at the front end of the wall help curve wind where it needs to go. Turntables downwind support test structures so scientists can consider different wind impact angles.

The Wall of Wind at Florida International University (Credit: Florida International University)

The Wall of Wind, which was built in 2012, has blasted trees, roof tiles, solar panels, silos and bridge segments since it began operating. A variety of other structures have been scaled down or tested at full scale depending on research needs.

“Anyone who’s interested in the effects of wind, rain as well, to see how it infiltrates can use the Wall of Wind,” said Irwin.

Their findings are aided by sensors that pinpoint wind effects and dynamics. Pitot-static tubes help measure the wind velocity. Holes drilled within the structures themselves are connected to pressure transducer systems that measure wind pressures. Strain gauges also help track the wind’s toll.

Pressure sensors installed in test structures measure the wind’s effects (Credit: Florida International University)

“Load cells, which are kind of like little hockey pucks, are put on points in structures to measure the forces at that point,” said Irwin.

Other sensors include cobra probes, which are small sensors that instantly measure rapidly fluctuating wind velocity and direction. Accelerometers help record the vibrations in structures, which Irwin calls “test specimens.” Of course, there are video cameras to capture the destruction. The facility is also equipped with devices to measure displacement.

All the tech goes into making structures more efficient, Irwin says, and more likely to withstand a hurricane. Designing structures from the ground-up instead of retrofitting them makes them more stable and saves money over the long term.

“It’s a well-equipped facility, probably the fastest facility of its type. It’s open to testing to anybody,” said Irwin. “Our only goal is to allow everyone – society – to build more resilient structures.”

Top image: Replacing an intake cover on the Wall of Wind (Credit: Florida International University)

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