The nuts and bolts of a fallout shelter

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If you are worried about protecting your family from a tornado, hurricane, wildfire or worse — radioactive particles from a nuclear explosion — a fallout shelter may be the answer.

Paul Seyfried, co-owner of Utah Shelter Systems, specializes in making fallout shelters and other structures to protect people in such doomsday scenarios. “Most of our clients are simply Americans who want to improve the safety and security of their families in tumultuous times,” he says.

Installing a fallout shelter is similar to improving any other structure on a homeowner’s property, Seyfried says. Depending on the builder, the shelter could be made of corrugated steel, concrete or even fiberglass.

But like any other home improvement, it’s important to select a builder who’s familiar with the products and knows what it takes to protect your home, he says. Homeowners also should make sure they understand all the costs, follow local building rules and stock the structure properly.

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Priced like a well-equipped truck

Seyfried says underground structures at Utah Shelter Systems range in size from about 256 to 500 square feet, and they come with ventilation systems, wood-based flooring, bunk beds and a wiring system with light fixtures.

Lights run off of batteries that last two to three weeks, hopefully long enough to get through the worst of a calamity. If the batteries run out, a home generator could be used to recharge them, and generators cost about $1,000.

The cost starts at about $51,800. “We want the price to be about that of a new, well-equipped truck,” Seyfried says. “It sounds like a lot of money, but you sure see a lot of pickup trucks driving around on America’s roads.”

Other options, such as additional bunk beds, dehydrated food and other items to stock the room can be purchased separately, he says.

Consumers generally pay 50 percent of the shelter’s cost upfront to purchase materials, Seyfried says. It takes about six weeks for a fallout shelter to be built, and at about that point, the client pays the remainder of the money, he says.

At Hardened Structures in Virginia Beach, Va., a typical reinforced underground shelter is made of concrete. “That cost will run anywhere from $300 to $600 per square foot,” says Brian Camden, the company’s president.

The factors influencing the cost are how thick the walls are, the extent of shielding from electromagnetic pulse, and the difficulty of hitting certain underground conditions such as rock or water, he says.

Another issue is privacy. Some clients are willing to pay more to bring in subcontractors from out of state to keep the installation project discreet, he says.

In addition to paying for the design and construction of the shelters off-site, clients also have to hire their own general contractor to transport and install the shelter on their property. That can add thousands of dollars to the total bill, depending on the shelter’s requirements, Seyfried says.

Set money aside

Customers arrange their own funding. “We don’t do financing, and we don’t take credit cards,” Seyfried says.

Obviously, the best option to pay for these large projects is to have money set aside just for this purpose, says Rob Seltzer, a CPA in Los Angeles.

But if you don’t have the cash on hand and are considering taking out a loan to pay for the shelter, talk to an adviser about your financial situation before signing an agreement with any builder, he says.

Owners who have equity in their homes may be able to refinance their mortgage to pay for the structure, and that can have tax advantages over other loan options. But owners have to make sure they can handle the extra expense, Seltzer says. “Scrutinize your budget first,” he says.

Finding a builder

An online search will reveal many niche companies that can build a fallout shelter for your family, but it’s important to find a company that knows the industry, Camden says.

“You can’t go and hire an engineer who designed the shopping center down the street,” he says. “You need special engineers who know Department of Defense requirements, blast requirements and ballistics requirements.”

In addition, the builders will need to make sure they have the necessary permits from your local jurisdiction to make an improvement on your property, just as with any other home project, Camden says.

Location, location, location

For protection in a true doomsday scenario, you’d want your bomb shelter to be in a place that’s easy for you and your family to get to in the event of a catastrophe, Seyfried says. “Most of the shelters go into the backyard,” he says.

Shelters are buried underground, with generally at least 8 feet of earth covering the structure to help protect against the threat of any radiation danger, he says.

“You also want to site these shelters where heavy rain will drain away from the shelter site, not toward it,” Seyfried says.

Once installed, the fallout shelter should remain with the property. Don’t expect to pick it up and bring it with you if you decide to move, he says.

If paying for a separate structure isn’t appealing, many builders also will give homeowners the option to reinforce their existing property with ballistic- and fire-resistant exteriors, Camden says.

“You try to fit the best shelter for what the client’s threat-event scenario is,” he says. “We could fortify the entire house.”