Why You Shouldn’t Build Your Own Storm Shelter

You might be thinking about building your own above-ground tornado shelter. It’s really not recommended unless you’re a professional contractor. If you don’t do it right, you probably won’t have a chance to try again.

A tornado shelter must be able to withstand storm-force winds (up to 250 mph) and provide protection from windborne debris. It’s not a do-it-yourself project.

Where to Find Guidance

Before thinking about building your own shelter, you should familiarize yourself with the following documents:

These two documents provide current guidelines and best practices for building and testing a residential storm shelter.

The designs found in FEMA 320 were developed at Texas Tech University on the basis of resistance to debris impacts. They are intended to survive extraordinary loads and protect the occupants from flying debris.


Your shelter must be close and easy to access during a storm. Some people have created an indoor safe room / storm shelter when building or renovating a house. Otherwise, you’ll have to find room or locate the shelter outside.


FEMA 320 provides three basic construction choices — poured concrete, reinforced concrete block, or wood with steel sheathing. But you would first need to pour reinforced concrete footers with tie-downs or rebar to connect to the shelter walls.


The entry door and doorframe must be able to withstand the impact of windborne debris. To test storm shelter doors, they shoot them with 2×4’s at 100 mph. Any door you buy at a home improvement store won’t pass this test.

Commercial storm shelter doors and doorframes are made of steel, readily able to withstand multiple impacts from windborne debris.


A pair of regular deadbolt locks isn’t sufficient. You need something more substantial, like a steel cross-bar. Even if the door takes a direct hit, the lock has to hold firm.

Commercial steel storm shelter door locks usually have multiple hardened steel pins operated by a single wheel or level.


How will you get out if the door is blocked by debris?

Some commercial storm shelters have emergency exits or removeable panels in case the door is blocked.


Sufficient holes must be provided to allow for ventilation, even if some are blocked by debris. Those holes must be shielded to prevent debris from entering the shelter,


If the power lines go down, how will you see? Flashlights and battery-powered LED lights are great options.


Think through any safety issues. Is there a risk of flooding where the shelter is located? What if the storm sparks a fire? Is there any risk of shock from electric wires?

Benefits of Buying a Prebuilt Shelter

Most people don’t have the skills needed to build a safe storm shelter. You might want to consider the benefits of a modern above ground shelter.

  • Prebuilt — You don’t have to manage anything. All the work is done for you.
  • Steel — Most shelters are manufactured from steel, which is far stronger than either wood or concrete,
  • Portable — Your new storm shelter will be delivered and installed for you. Some shelters are manufactured in sections that fit through residential doorways and can be assembled indoors — perhaps in your basement.
  • Affordable — Compared to the cost and aggravation of designing and building shelter from scratch, buying one may be a bargain.
  • Certified — Quality above-ground shelters will be designed and tested for compliance with the above standards.


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