Anyone who has ever lived in a hurricane-prone area is familiar with the process of boarding up your windows to protect against the effects of nature’s fury. More importantly, anyone with firsthand experience of this process knows the absolute worst time to start thinking about it is when everyone else is doing the same, and plywood is suddenly worth its weight in gold.
If you don’t already have, or can’t afford purpose-designed storm shutters, properly applied sheets of plywood are your next best option to protect your windows and your home’s interior from serious damage. In addition to covering your windows and protecting them from flying debris, they can also increase your home’s security should you be forced to evacuate and leave it uninhabited for a period of time.
Like all things related to disaster preparedness, the sooner you start to address the process of boarding up your home, the better prepared you’re going to be. In this case, however, the advantages of early action are pretty compelling.
Haves And Have-Nots
One obvious advantage of planning now is simple availability of materials. When a storm is already on its way and everyone is frantically trying to prepare, the normal supply system is quickly overloaded. You may not be quick enough to buy the materials you need, you may not get enough material to do the job properly and, quite possibly, you may end up paying far more than the standard price.
Taking the time to start buying plywood now offers many advantages: you can spread your purchases out to make them more affordable and convenient, take advantage of any lumberyard sales, and ensure that, if you don’t already own a pickup truck or similar vehicle, you can borrow one to transport your materials. Obviously, it also ensures that you can actually get the materials you need.
Buying ahead also means that you can work ahead. One of the many effects of major storms (and other potential disasters) is their effect on electrical power. And since the operative word in “power tool” is power, cutting plywood to fit your windows properly is a task best done well in advance of a disaster.
First of all, you should understand that preparing for a hurricane is different than keeping looters out of your house. The winds and flying debris associated with hurricanes are tremendously powerful and destructive, so you need to prepare accordingly. The best solution is to install actual hurricane shutters that are approved by the building code in your area. Plywood shutters will always be second best to purpose-designed ones, but they are better than nothing.
To make plywood hurricane shutters, first make sure that you buy exterior-grade plywood that is at least 5/8″ thick. Then, take a close look at the windows of your home and determine the best way to install the shutters. If you’re lucky, the windows will be set in from the surface of the exterior wall at least 2″. If so, you can cut your shutters to fit inside the window recess. This keeps the high winds from getting under the edges of the plywood and tearing it off the house.
To cut your plywood to fit, measure both the top and bottom and both sides of the window recess and check the corners with a carpenter’s square. Most windows are not perfectly square, so adjust accordingly to replicate its actual shape. Transfer that shape to your plywood and cut it out with a table saw or jigsaw.
With the panel cut to size, the next step is to install barrel bolts (the latch hardware that operates like the bolt of a rifle) about every 18″ around each panel. The ends of the bolts should be flush with the edges and the protruding end of the bolt facing outboard. Place the panel in the window, mark the spots where the barrel bolts touch the window recess, and then drill holes into the recess to allow the bolts to extend into them. If the wall around your window is brick, concrete, or stucco, you’ll need a masonry bit to do this — and a fair amount of time. That’s another reason to start now.
If you don’t have recessed windows, you’ll have to mount your plywood shutters flush to the surface of the outer wall. You’ll also have to anchor them very securely into the framework of the wall to keep them from being torn off by the wind. To do this, it’s best to cut the panels at least 8″ larger than the size of the window so you’ll have 4″ overlap on all four sides. Drill a series of holes 2″ from every edge about 18″ apart. Then, center the shutter over the window and mark through the holes onto the wall. With those marks as guides, drill holes into the wall to receive lag bolts. For windows 3×4′ or smaller installed on a wood frame house, use 1/4″ lag bolts and plastic-coated permanent anchors. The lag bolts must penetrate the siding and frame surrounding the window at least 1-3/4″. For larger windows, use 3/8″ lag bolts that penetrate the wall and surrounding frame at least 2-1/2″.
To finish your panel, drill four small holes in the center of the panel to equalize air pressure and, if necessary, attach handles to it to make it easier to maneuver. You’ll also want to waterproof it with exterior paint or weatherproof sealant. Finally, do a basic sketch of your house and number every window that receives a shutter. Then, as you complete each panel, number them to match to prevent confusion when installing them.
If you don’t live in a hurricane-prone area, shutters may still be a viable and desirable addition to your home security. During normal circumstances, the standard level of physical security of your home should be adequate to prevent intrusion. However, if a disaster or emergency situation arises, normal may cease to exist and you may choose to harden your home to eliminate possible avenues of forcible entry. For example, if you have a typical, well-prepared home, your doors are all high quality and properly reinforced. Your ground-level windows are also secured by means of an appropriate alarm system that detects glass breakage or open windows. If a window is breached, the alarm gives you the time to react and get to safety and summons the cavalry.
In a disaster scenario, the cavalry won’t be coming, so you’ll need to fend for yourself. And the better prepared your resources are within your home, the more attractive they may become to scavengers, looters, and other miscreants outside your home.
The process of securing your windows against this type of threat can be very similar to the process described above for the threat of a hurricane. The difference is that you’ll be less concerned about wind and water and more concerned about bad guys with tools and weapons. With that in mind, shutters secured by barrel bolts alone are not a good idea. If someone wants in, they can easily remove the shutters without even needing tools.
For security purposes, flush-mounted shutters are a better choice. They should be made as described above and still anchored securely into the framework around your windows, but they should also have the benefit of tamper-resistant screw heads. Rather than conventional hex-head lag bolts, use 3″ deck screws with Torx, square-drive, or some other specialty screw head. That will make it more challenging for the average thug with a screwdriver to remove the screws to get inside.
You should also use a flat washer with every screw to spread the force of the screw head over a larger area of the plywood. That will make it more difficult to pry the plywood away from the house over the screw heads.
Kiss My Axe
When I was a kid in Chicago, our neighborhood had a rash of garage burglaries. Since our lots had unattached garages located far from the houses, thieves would target the side doors of the garages with a fire axe. A couple of chops would usually go unheard, yet be enough to break the door panel to reach through and open the lock. Once inside, it was an easy process of gathering tools, loading them in a waiting car, and driving away.
I clearly remember spending a long summer day with my Dad sheathing our garage door with Masonite. Glued and screwed over a wood door, Masonite provides a hard outer shell that literally causes axes and similar tools to bounce off. If you’re the overachieving type, you might consider adding a layer of Masonite to your plywood security panels.
As described earlier, once your security shutters are complete, number them for easy reference and coordination with the correct windows. You’ll also want to make sure that you keep your cordless drill charged and maybe get an extra battery. That way if the power goes out when the balloon goes up, you’ll still have enough juice to install your shutters. As a backup, get one of the “Yankee-style” push-driven screwdrivers or remember that an ordinary socket wrench with a 1/4″ socket will accept 1/4″ drive bits, making it a very useful, improvised power screwdriver.
If the idea of boarding up your house from the outside doesn’t appeal to you — or if your house design makes it impractical — you may want to consider window inserts that can be installed from the inside. These are basically plywood panels that fit into the window wells on the interior of your home. The outer edge of the panel is supported by a simple wooden frame that allows you to secure it into the frame around the window with deck screws.
The advantages of interior window panels are that they don’t expose any exploitable screws or edges to the bad guys, you don’t have to go outside to install them, and they can be embellished to provide additional benefits. Their down sides are that they are larger, heavier, and harder to store and they do nothing to protect your window glass.
To make a window insert, measure the window well top and bottom and both sides and check if the corners are square. Most aren’t, so invest in a carpenter’s bevel to measure and replicate the corner angles on your plywood. Cut the plywood panel to fit and then add a 2×4 frame around the perimeter of it. Secure the panel to the frame with wood screws or, if you’re an overachiever like me, with glue and wood screws.
Test fit the assembled panel in the window and sand or plane as necessary to get a proper fit. Then, pre-drill a series of holes through the 2x4s for the deck screws that would secure it into the window frame, number it to match the window, and mark the top for easy orientation.
The basic panel provides a formidable barrier against intrusion. If you’re concerned about giving up your ability to visually monitor that area of your home perimeter, get a fisheye peephole and install it as you would in a door. In cold climates, consider adding a panel of Styrofoam insulation to conserve the heat in your home. And, if you’d like to add some ballistic protection, save up some old phone books, thick catalogs, or even hardcover books. Tape the edges so they will stand on end and use them to line the inside of your window insert. If necessary, add a retaining panel to keep them in place. While not perfect, books offer pretty substantial ballistic protection and are certainly better than nothing.
With some inexpensive materials, a few simple tools, and — most importantly — a good head start, you can significantly improve your home’s safety and security in a disaster situation. So what are you waiting for?
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