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Tips to make buildings safe from disaster

Article-Tips to make buildings safe from disaster

Everyone wants their hog buildings to last a long time. But if you take shortcuts in building, forego recommended maintenance or cut corners when remodeling, your facilities will be set up for a fall. A natural disaster and/or accident could damage or completely destroy your buildings. The insurance investigators at Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Co. in Grinnell, Iowa, see it all the time.

Everyone wants their hog buildings to last a long time. But if you take shortcuts in building, forego recommended maintenance or cut corners when remodeling, your facilities will be set up for a fall. A natural disaster and/or accident could damage or completely destroy your buildings.

The insurance investigators at Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Co., Grinnell, Iowa, see it all the time. It's their job, of course, to distinguish whether a natural disaster, a poorly maintained building, or a combination of the two, led to the damage. This sometimes fine line must be settled before the company can decide if it must pay out on a claim.

As a reinsurance firm, Grinnell doesn't write insurance policies directly to pork producers. Gary Connelly, director of reinsurance for Grinnell, explains, "We write insurance for the insurance companies." Local farm mutual insurance companies can't always cover the total value of the farming operation. Grinnell picks up the difference - provided they believe the ag property is suitable to be insured, he adds.

That decision isn't made quickly. Building complexes are getting bigger and more expensive, putting added pressure on reinsurance companies to pick up part of the load. Sometimes it is just too risky and the firm passes on some large units, Grinnell officials admit.

When they do look into an ag property involving a major policy addition of several hundred thousand dollars, a rigorous inspection is conducted to ensure buildings and equipment inside meet National Electrical Code requirements and other building construction guidelines, says Larry Wyatt, Grinnell agricultural/safety engineer. He says often the company will insist the producer add some safety features to a facility before they will even consider insurance coverage.

Furthermore, he says, Grinnell highly recommends that the truss plans and the building plans be reviewed and stamped by a registered, professional engineer.

"That way, you are assured of at least some type of quality," notes Wyatt. For large building complexes, Grinnell is now asking for a letter of certification from the builder. For example, Lester Building Systems will provide a certification stating that their buildings will withstand a certain wind speed and roof snow load.

He declares: "Again, our philosophy is, if the company that built the building isn't willing to stand behind what they are building, why should we put our money at risk insuring it? We like to have the builders provide some assurance that the building has been built to meet some minimum standards."

To help you make the right building decisions, Wyatt strongly advises producers seek advice from their local extension agricultural engineer, or a consulting ag engineer, and their insurance company, before they make a move to build or remodel facilities.

Fire First Insurance Priority Grinnell's number one concern and insurance claim for farm buildings is fire. Major causes include malfunction of the electrical system, malfunction of the heating system and lightning damage, says Grinnell's Gary Downey, loss control manager for the southeast region.

Fire stops and/or fire walls are an important line of defense Grinnell looks for in barns.

"We want fire stops every 75 to 100 ft. in the attic space," says Grinnell's Connelly.

Fire stops can be made of sheetrock or some other dense, fire-resistive material. The fire stops should run from an imaginary line from roof eave to the roof peak, covering both sides of one truss and contacting the roof.

"It will prevent a fire from spreading through the attic space and save a building from going down completely if a fire were to start," he explains.

"Some of these hog units are stretching out 400-500 ft. and the owners are not wanting to put fire stops in them," continues Connelly. "We just simply cannot allow insurance coverage to be placed on those units because if a fire were to start and destroy the building, we would be looking at a value of $300,000 or more."

Fire walls also work, Downey says. They run from floor level to peak of the roof. The goal is to build a one-hour fire wall. That means, if you can contain the fire in one area for that amount of time, chances are it will burn itself through the roof, vent the fire, reduce the amount of heat and hopefully the fire department will arrive to stop the fire at that point.

Many of the larger hog units have gone from using sheetrock to building concrete block fire walls and extending them 2 ft. above the roofline, Downey says. The idea is once the fire burns through the roof, it cannot easily traverse the rest of the roofline and spread to the rest of the building.

He stresses it is a very good idea to invite the local fire department over to familiarize them with the layout of your hog operation, where electrical disconnects are located, and where flammable and combustible gases and liquids are located.

The dry hydrant concept is also worth considering. Pipe is laid in the ground to possibly a second-stage lagoon or pond. The opposite end features a connector that can be hooked into fire department hose lines. Once fire-fighting crews have exhausted water supplies, they can tap into the lagoon/pond water or another farm source to continue the fight, rather than having to endure a delay while fire trucks run for more water.

Electrical Wiring It's one of the major causes of farm building fires, says Downey. "Most of the problems we see are a result of a lack of maintenance or misapplication of the equipment," explains Downey.

Check equipment to make sure connections are cleaned and not corroded. If a fuse blows, don't overload the system by putting in a larger fuse.

If you start by having an electrical system properly installed that meets Article 547 of the National Electric Code (NEC), and properly maintain it, you may never have any electrical problems for the life of the building. Downey offers these additional electrical safety tips:

* Use only NEC-approved wiring in wet or corrosive environments, surface mount the wiring.

* If possible, install as much of the electrical system outside of the animal area, in an office or workroom. If the electrical service entrance panel is located in the animal rooms, make sure it is mounted in a moisture, dust and corrosive-resistant enclosure.

* All electrical connections should be made in sealed junction boxes.

* For the outlet and switch box, use a sealed box with gasket between the box and lid.

* Use water-tight globes on lights.

* Install ground-fault circuit interrupters. These have been standard on pressure washers since 1990. These life safety devices are designed for damp areas where electricity may be used.

"I have seen some electrocutions from pressure sprayer washers in the last five to six years," says Downey. Portable units are available if an interrupter isn't built into your sprayer.

* Electric motors should be totally enclosed to keep out moisture and dust.

Ag heaters are a second cause of fire. Make sure they are away from combustible materials. Heat lamps should be hung by chain or cable and not by an electrical cord, says Downey.

LP gas tanks should be properly installed, 10 ft. from buildings for 125-500 gal. tanks and 25 ft. away from barns for 501-2,000-gal. tanks.

Install a lightning surge arrestor at the electrical service entrance to the hog house to prevent an excess lightning charge coming in on the electrical lines, says Downey.

Building Integrity For building trusses, use framing hardware to connect the trusses to the sidewalls and add to its strength. Add proper "X" bracing stiffeners and knee braces for support. Roof snow load rating for trusses should be at least 80% of the expected ground snow load from a 50-year storm in your area, explains Grinnell's Wyatt. Trusses should be built to withstand at least an 80-mph. wind.

Buildings should be spaced at least 50-ft. apart to prevent spread of fire.

Consider installation of alarm systems to warn of temperature changes, power outages and/or unlawful entry to your facilities.