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Happy 2021! A new year is a time for new beginnings and hope for the future. We could all use a little of that! However, after 2020, our hopes, dreams and ambitions are likely taking second place to prioritizing personal safety for ourselves and the people we care about.
Most of us are spending far more time at home, a familiar, comfortable place for refuge and separation from the big bad world outside — a place where we should feel secure. The question is, do we feel safe at home?
Obviously, more people are thinking about this. Research company Freedonia says the market for smart home security locks and access controls is growing at an average of 24 percent each year and will reach $2 billion in 2025.
Faced with pandemics, climate change events and global political unrest, we choose to stay safely at home. We may be wondering if disaster movies and apocalyptic stories are now more real than fictional.
There has also been a sales increase and a much higher level of interest in mostly underground “doomsday bunkers,” according to the companies that have been building them for many years. New designs and vendors are also emerging, and this column will look at some of the technical aspects.
These structures come in many different configurations, including single-family pods within a community, single-family pods that you order and install on your land, elaborate custom underground mansions for the uber-rich, group bunkers for communities of ordinary citizens, group bunkers built by governments for a variety of disaster scenarios, and others.
Once you start researching bunkers online, you can become depressed.
One website lists some of the potential global catastrophes, which seem more plausible than ever before: nuclear war, terrorist nuclear strike, an electro-magnetic pulse which is a sort of domino-effect by-product of nuclear explosions, bioterrorism using chemical weapons, “conventional” terrorist attacks, economic collapse, widespread civil unrest, super-volcanoes, bigger earthquakes and tsunamis, a rapid shift in the earth’s poles, asteroids, solar flares, and other things from space smashing into the earth.
You could add cyberwars and assaults, more pandemics, droughts, ocean current disruption, a sudden ice age, deepening food and water shortages caused by climate change or accompanying one of the events already mentioned.
The people behind the companies that build and sell bunkers could cynically be described as merchants of fear, but after 2020, I’m more inclined to think of them as people who are preparing prudently for major calamities.
One mathematical calculation says there is a 50 percent chance of humanity becoming extinct in less than 800 years. Another says there is a 0.2 percent chance that the world will end in any given year, or put another way, a 500-to-1 chance. One newspaper reported this and pointed out that “Premier League champions Leicester City were marked as 5000/1 to reign supreme in the top flight of English football last season, but they came out on top.”
My personal feeling is that although major disasters are probably coming that will result in more widespread fatalities, living underground for years might not be better than taking my chances on the surface. I feel the same way about living indoors on Mars with Elon Musk, which is moot anyway because my invitation seems to have gotten lost in the mail.
Northeast Security Bunker
The government originally built one underground facility located in the northeastern United States during the cold war in the 1960s, when tensions between NATO allies and the Soviet Bloc were high and many feared nuclear conflict. I was fortunate to talk with two engineers who worked on a recent mechanical upgrade for the bunker. I’m not allowed to print some information because it is a highly secure facility still operating continuously, as it was during the entirety of an extensive retrofit project.
The complex is comprised of about 40 rooms totaling approximately 30,000 square feet. It includes advanced telecommunications, security, a data center, sleeping dormitories for up to about 45 people, a kitchen and so forth. Structurally, it is engineered to survive everything: earthquakes, floods, bombs, armed attacks and more.
Although we consider the pandemic a major disaster, this facility’s current use is often related to intense, perhaps shorter-term emergency events, bringing key personnel together with special equipment in a secure location. On a normal day without a “special event,” 25 to 30 people work there and are coming and going. Alternatively, it could accommodate possibly 10 times this number in an emergency, coming and going, and a smaller number under a lockdown scenario.
The original upgrade plan was to increase resiliency. Rather than replacing oil heating with gas, during the RFP process a cleaner approach was found with help from a company called Ecosystem, which prides itself on integrated engineering and construction, accurate modeling, and effective operational, financial and environmental outcomes.
Underground Clean Energy, High-Tech Systems
“We used an air-to-water heat pump system, installed in the exhaust plenum, rather than outside,” says Project Engineer Gauthier Collomb. “It’s always around 72 degrees in there, which means the heat pump is even more efficient because it is not affected by outdoor temperatures.”
Even without the innovative configuration, air-source heat pumps are 200 percent to 350 percent more efficient than gas-burning appliances. Energy savings after the retrofit were 67 percent.
“With the old system, everything was mostly running at 100 percent all the time,” he explains. “Ventilation was at 18,000 cfm; we were able to cut this by 75 percent sometimes. For example, in normal times, there might be only a few people in the complex during night hours.”
The upgrade also included a building automation system, zone shifting and heat recovery from the communications and data center equipment, upgraded fan motors and air-handling units, variable-frequency drives, additional dampers to convert volume mixing boxes to VAV mixing boxes, chilled water pumps for cooling, real-time system monitoring, a solar array and batteries for power.
The solar design was unique because the existence and location of the facility are deliberately under the radar. Vibration isolators allow the entire structure to absorb nuclear blasts and earthquakes by shifting several inches in any direction without coming apart.
The solar can remain connected to the grid during normal times, even reducing costs through net metering when generation exceeds power usage, but can switch quickly to off-grid operation when needed. On most days of the year, the solar array powers the heat pump, further greening the bunker.
The two main challenges of the upgrade were to undertake all construction while the facility continued normal operations and to ensure all functions had redundant backup — including plumbing, HVAC, fire, water, power, communications and so on. I’m not able to provide redundant system details for security reasons.
Other special features included robust filtration and disinfection if outside air becomes contaminated, with higher-powered fans to compensate for filtration system pressure losses and maintain the complex in positive pressure.
Where Will You Go When Disaster Hits?
Online you can find photos of stunningly beautiful, fully equipped underground homes for the uber-rich, who will fly in by helicopter with their families, key staffers, chefs, personal physicians and image consultants and take a manicure in the hot tub during the apocalypse.
These are not my friends yet, because I haven’t quite made my first billion, so if I decide to go subterranean, I’ll have to call someone like Dante Vicino, president of Vivos Global Shelter Network. He has spent many years building affordable residential pods and community-style complexes below the surface in Indiana, South Dakota, Germany and elsewhere.
They start at about $35,000 for membership in a group facility that holds 80 people, or he will sign you up for one of 575 private family bunkers at 2,200 square feet each in South Dakota.
The location was selected because it is within a 24-hour drive from anywhere in mainland USA at a high and dry altitude of about 3,800 feet above sea level, well inland from oceans and more than 100 miles from likely military targets.
Vicino says all his shelters have nuclear/biological/chemical (NBC) air filters to eliminate pathogens and radioactive particles before they can enter the underground space. The ventilation systems are standard, but heating and cooling are unnecessary; the geothermal effect plus several feet of concrete keep the temperature at around 60 degrees all year.
The shelters are connected to the grid but can go off-grid and use backup well water and diesel generator systems. One facility has a massive underground tank to store enough generator fuel for about one year for its inhabitants.
Vicino reports that in 2020, inquiries are up about 1,000 percent year over year, and sales are up more than 400 percent. “There are a lot of people who sense that all hell is about to break loose, and they want a life-assurance backup plan for their families,” he notes. “Our clientele is shifting from middle class to upper class. Everyone seems to be jumping off the fence and wanting an immediate survival solution.”
His German facility is a luxury apartment hotel built into the side of a mountain, with units selling for more than $2 million each.
Bunker in Your Backyard
Rising S Co. in Murchison, Texas, specializes in secret backyard bunkers made of welded steel with kitchen appliances, plumbing fixtures, water heaters, ultraviolet water filtration, bed frames, mattresses, sofa, dining table, storage, a solar charging battery system, TV, DVD player, surveillance cameras, and LED lighting.
They range from 96 square feet to about 6,000 square feet, and Rising S will ship and install them anywhere in the world. They use only their own pre-screened crew for installation rather than involving local contractors.
These bunkers also are fitted with NBC air filtration systems with elaborate hazard protection, described as follows: “Outside air is pulled into the ventilation duct and first enters the ultra-low penetration air (ULPA) filter. A ULPA filter can remove from the air at least 99.999 percent of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and any airborne particles with a size of 120 nanometers (0.12 micron) or larger.”
This includes nuclear fallout dust particles, and infection and contamination by airborne microorganisms such as molds and spores. The air then enters an activated charcoal filter containing 100 percent ASZM-TEDA carbon, a military-use impregnated carbon. It is also used in the industrial environment for first-responder masks designed to protect against cyanide, cyanogens chloride, and various other harmful gases.
“Air now enters your 12-volt ventilation blower,” the company reports. “We chose to use 12-volt DC power because it is considered more stable than our current electrical grid and will still offer you protection even when the grid is down, as well as offer quiet operation in enclosed spaces. Our standard system offers enough fresh air for up to 15 adult occupants.”
Thinking about COVID-19, I asked specifically about viruses and CEO Clyde Scott says that the “ULPA will capture viruses, and the water filtration does have a UV system to capture and kill living organisms as well.”
I don’t want to put a damper on your New Year, but Vicino points out that many governments around the world have huge underground military bunkers for their officials and the elite, and not for the rest of us. They have no plans to save you and me if extinction-level events unfold.
Maybe as a New Year project, we should start thinking about our hopes and dreams for the future, as well as our doomsday bunkers.