What to Know Before Buying a Storm Shelter

Meg Scanlon
Written by Meg Scanlon
Updated November 5, 2021
A father sweeping water from patio with two young children
Photo: Freemixervia / E+ / Getty Images

Having a storm shelter in your home brings peace of mind year-round

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Storm shelters help keep you and your family safe during tornadoes and hurricanes. If you live in a region with these frequent weather concerns, buying a storm shelter can give you peace of mind and keep you safe in case of an emergency. Read on to learn what type of storm shelter will meet you and your family’s needs.

What Is a Storm Shelter?

A storm shelter is a structure designed to protect people from tornados, hurricanes, strong winds, and airborne debris. The term “safe room” is often used when describing the specifics of a storm shelter intended to withstand tornadoes or hurricanes. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has specific criteria that safe rooms need to meet to protect you from harm. Before buying your storm shelter, you’ll want to make sure that it meets these guidelines. 

The main criteria centers on performance requirements:

  • Must be able to resist impact from airborne debris coming into contact with the shelter due to high-speed winds.

  • Needs structural integrity to withstand pressure from high-speed winds induced. The structure should remain intact and not collapse.

Underground Storm Shelters vs. Above-Ground—What’s Better?

Open door to storm cellar
Photo: Noel / Adobe Stock

When buying a storm shelter, you’ll need to choose between an underground or above-ground. You should base your decision on the needs of your family, your home, and yard. 

Underground Storm Shelters

These shelters can be very safe and effective. Your home may have an existing cellar door that can be turned into a storm shelter with a few modifications. 

The pros of underground storm shelters are:

  • Excellent protection from high-speed winds

  • Excellent protection from flying debris

The cons of underground storm shelters are:

  • Not easily accessible for people using wheelchairs, people with mobility issues, and older adults

  • Depending on the severity of the storm and how quickly it comes on, having to leave your home to go outside to access the doors can be a safety concern

  • Animals like mice and rats may be able to enter these types of shelters. You do not want to see these unwelcome visitors in case of emergency

Experts do not recommend underground shelters for homes in regions where flooding is common or have high groundwater tables. Underground storm shelters can leak at times as well. 

Before having an underground shelter installed, you need to call 811 to check that there are no utilities present in the area where you would need to excavate.

Above-Ground Storm Shelters

You can install storm shelters above ground in the basement, closet, garage, or storage room of your home. It can fit inconspicuously in a corner of your home. 

The pros of above-ground storm shelters are:

  • Easier to get to in times of dangerous weather

  • No exposure to the elements (if inside your home)

  • More accessible for people using wheelchairs or with mobility issues

The cons of above-ground shelters are:

  • You lose some square footage of your home or garage

Storm shelter walls are made of steel, able to withstand high winds, and designed to resist denting from debris that may come in contact with it at high speeds. Above-ground shelters need to be securely anchored to a steel-reinforced concrete slab with bolts. It is possible to install above-ground shelters outdoors, but it is safer and more efficient to install them inside your home or garage.

Prebuilt shelters can also be a great option since they can be attached to your home (most commonly on the side of the house). A pro can securely anchor the shelter to the foundation of your house. 

What Size Storm Shelter Should You Buy?

When buying a storm shelter, you’ll need to consider the size and needs of your family to ensure everyone can safely fit inside. 

FEMA recommends calculating a minimum of square feet per person to determine the size of the residential shelter based on the following factors:

  • Storm shelter guidelines for one- and two-family dwellings: 3 sq. ft. per person for tornados and 7 sq. ft. for hurricanes

  • Storm shelter guidelines for other residential dwellings: 5 sq. ft. per person for tornados and 10 sq. ft. for hurricanes

  • Storm shelter guidelines for people who use a wheelchair: 10 sq. ft. per person for tornados and 20 sq. ft. for hurricanes

The minimum floor space per person for a safe room is greater for a hurricane safe room than for a tornado safe room because you will need to shelter for a longer period of time for a hurricane. 

A battery-operated unit can assist with proper ventilation, air filtration, and lighting during use. You want to be as comfortable as possible when using the shelter.

Essential Supplies to Stock in Your Storm Shelter

When preparing for a hurricane or tornado, you should save room in your storm shelter for essential emergency supplies. These include items such as:

  • First aid kit

  • Bottled water

  • Canned and nonperishable foods

  • Radio

  • Flashlight

  • Batteries

  • Anything to assist you in an emergency

Can You DIY Your Storm Shelter?

It is possible to build a homemade storm shelter yourself, but it requires equipment, skills, and experience that typical homeowners don’t often possess. Because of the criteria and specificity of the project, building a storm shelter is best left to professionals. An underground shelter would require you to excavate and build a below-ground room. 

An above-ground shelter is constructed from high-grade steel. Both of these shelter installations are very technical, require expertise on the subject, and need to meet all local codes and FEMA criteria. A prefabricated above-ground storm shelter is the more DIY-friendly option.

This is why in most cases, it’s best to buy a storm shelter from a reputable company or have one made by an expert who knows the proper guidelines to ensure it keeps you and your family safe from the elements.

Register Your Storm Shelter

Once your storm shelter has been installed by a pro, you’ll want to register it with your local emergency management department or storm shelter registry. This will allow emergency services to locate you and assist you if the door is blocked or if you cannot safely come out of your storm shelter on your own. 

Taking these preventative steps can help you feel prepared for any inclement weather coming your way. An added bonus to either type of storm shelter installation is that it can add value to your home. 

Find a professional near you who can install the best storm shelter to meet your needs.

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