TODAY   |  February 20, 2013

Insurance Institute makes its own hail, for tests

According to the insurance industry, hail causes $1 billion in property and crop damage every year. In an effort to learn how to protect homes from extensive damage, the Insurance Institute is using air cannons to pelt a test house with balls of ice. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

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>>> back now at 7:49. tom costello is in richburg, south carolina this morning, getting ready for hail season. tom, good morning.

>> reporter: good morning, david. we are 60 feet off in the catwalk. below me is a house, test house that they are going to pound with hail. 10,000 pieces of hail, some of it two inches in diameter, coming from air canons, 72 of them. in a minute, tanya brown will give the order. tanya, go ahead.

>> all right, ian, three, two, one. fire!

>> reporter: this is the biggest test ever of what hail can do to a house. we've seen them blast homes with hurricane force winds. we've seen them re-create wildfires with flying embers. now at this massive test chamber in south carolina , it's hail. two-inch balls of ice, loaded and fired from high-powered air canons. within seconds, they're gouging the siding and punching holes in the roof, to replicate actual hail, that can contain bubbles of oxygen, they use regular water and seltzer water . the rest is a determination of size, mass, terminal velocity , speed and air drag . insurance industry says hail causes $1 billion worth of property and crop damage each year. colorado and wyoming are known as hail alley because they receive the biggest hail. but in texas, hail is the number one cause of homeowners' insurance losses.

>> sidings shouldn't be scraped bare when it hails. it's unacceptable we are spending so much time, money and energy to replace and repair building materials that should be able to withstand an inch or inch and a half hailstone.

>> reporter: which is why the insurance institute is firing volley after volley of hail at this test house. after the hail, the wind and rain start. slow at first. then building to a major storm. when it stops, the how has been pelted, punched, ripped and soaked.

>> damage we produced was very representative of what you would see in the field. if you actually go on the roof and look at the impact marks, they're very similar to what you find in a field study .

>> reporter: how much of this could be prevented in the future with newer, more robust building materials ? hail can vary in size from pea size to golf ball to softball. the question insurance adjusters often ask is whether the damage to a home is cosmetic or serious enough to let in the rain and wind.

>> we want to make sure we understand the difference between real damage and something that just looks bad.

>> reporter: because in the end all of us pay for hail damage with higher and higher premiums. but they hope to learn from this is what building materials hold up best. david?