Should You Have a Safe Room in the House?

Safe rooms protect you and your family against severe weather and home invasions, but do you need one?

Growing up in Oklahoma, I experienced a lot of tornadoes. Everyone in the state knew the drill, repeated hundreds of times by television meteorologists: Get to the lowest part of your house; stay away from windows. If you think the lowest part of the house is the basement, well…not in Oklahoma. Most people don’t have them. I spent many a night crouching in the bathtub under a mattress.

Safe rooms sound like a better way to spend an evening, right? Have you thought about installing one? (I sure wish we had one when I was growing up!) Here’s what you need to know.

Types of Safe Rooms

The term “safe room” may bring to mind movies about break-ins and burglaries, and that is one type. But safe rooms provide a protected area for you and your family to shelter in place during all kinds of emergencies, including weather events.

Storm shelters

Safe rooms provide protection against wind-related weather events, particularly tornadoes and hurricanes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) publishes guidance for building and installing safe rooms, which offer “near-absolute protection” from deadly winds and debris from extreme wind events. Be aware that safe rooms do not protect you from floods, and should not be located underground in areas prone to flooding.

Storm shelter safe rooms can be residential or community, meaning installed in schools, hospitals and other public buildings, so that people can jointly shelter in place when an emergency occurs.

Home security

These safe rooms protect you and your family in the event of a home invasion or social unrest after a natural disaster. Wes Fox, founder and CEO of United Defense Tactical, says you only have seconds to react if someone’s breaking into your home. An accessible, reinforced safe room gives you a place to safely shelter until the coast is clear.

Wildfire protection

Safe rooms can also protect you from wildfire smoke and particulate matter. As we’ve seen with recent fires in Canada and the Western U.S., smoke can travel hundreds of miles from the actual “ground zero” of wildfire tragedies. (Always evacuate when told to do so. Safe rooms do not protect you from the fire itself.)

“It’s important to set up safe rooms during poor air quality events,” according to Glory Dolphin Hammes, a certified indoor environmentalist, licensed HVAC contractor and CEO of IQAir North America. “Safe rooms allow your family to have an indoor sanctuary without needing to wear an N95 mask.”

Best Locations for a Safe Room

An Old Storm Cellar or Tornado Shelter in Rural Oklahoma.Richard McMillin/Getty Images

The most important thing to consider when deciding where to put your safe room is how easy it will be to access during an emergency. If a tornado is bearing down, for example, you don’t want to have to run across the yard to your shelter. Likewise, a basement shelter is not ideal for people in wheelchairs.

FEMA separates locations for safe rooms into three general categories:

  • Above ground. These can be inside the house or outside. They are just as safe as below- or in-ground, if built to FEMA specs.
  • In-ground. These have all four walls enclosed by dirt. In-ground safe rooms are often pre-fabricated and installed in one piece.
  • Below ground, aka basement safe rooms. These are easy to build in existing homes but are not suitable for homes at risk for flooding.

For home security safe rooms, Fox likes below-ground options. “Typically, safe rooms and panic rooms are in basements,” Fox says. “That’s the ideal situation.” If you’re in an area that doesn’t have basements, a first-floor bedroom closet is a great alternative. Just like storm shelters, accessibility is key.

For wildfire smoke safe rooms, Hammes says to make your safe room the most comfortable room in your home, and the place where your family spends the most time. A source of clean air is key, as is a way to filter the contaminants. IQAir offers an online tool to help you get started.

Safe Room Essentials

Once you’re inside the safe room, you need to be able to stay there until it’s okay to emerge. That means it must have a source of fresh air and plenty of supplies. Depending on the length and nature of the emergency, here are some things you should stock in your safe room.

  • Food (non-perishable) and water for several days.
  • Medical supplies, including a first aid kit and essential medicines for extended stays.
  • Flashlight and extra batteries.
  • Battery-operated weather radio, and a hand-crank generator to charge phones and other devices.
  • Landline phone. Cell towers often go down during emergencies. Fox says installing a landline can keep you connected to the outside world.
  • Security camera and laptop computer, preferably connected via landline, so you can keep an eye on what’s happening outside the room.

Note: If you have any weapons that could be used against you, keep them locked up in your safe room. Never leave them where an intruder could find them.

Building a Safe Room

Inside dome shaped weather shelter in an unknown locationsshepard/Getty Images

You’re probably wondering if you can build these things yourself. You can, but for protection from extreme wind events, like tornadoes and hurricanes, it’s best to follow the engineering guidance of qualified professionals. FEMA, the International Code Council and the National Storm Shelter Association publish standards for building safe rooms with qualified contractors.

For home security safe rooms, you can build them yourself or have them custom-built. Converting a closet, or building a small room in your basement with concrete masonry units (CMU, aka concrete block) is a great DIY project that won’t break the bank.

“At minimum, you have to have a fortified door,” Fox says. Most people, even those with bad intentions, will use the door to any room rather than go get tools and try to break through a wall, even if it’s just drywall. “That would take a fair amount of time,” Fox says. It’s great to have steel-lined or cement walls, if possible, but Fox recognizes that may not be an option for everyone.

How Much Does a Safe Room Cost?

It depends. You can spend a few thousand dollars on reinforcing an existing closet or basement space, or $100,000 or more for a custom-designed vault with enhanced security features. Fox says there’s a wide range of safe room options — it’s really up to you and your budget.

FEMA puts the average 8-ft. by 8-ft. safe room cost at $9,400 to $13,100, while a 14-ft. by 14-ft. room costs between $18,900 and $25,500. Neither of these figures includes the door, which must be specially reinforced and is the most critical part of the installation (doors can easily run several thousand dollars). Pre-fab, in-ground rooms cost around $5,000 to $6,000, not including foundation or dirt work.

For security rooms, a DIY build could cost a few thousand up to $10K, says Fox. If you decide to go with a professional safe room company, you’re probably looking at a minimum of $20,000, depending on the size, features, location and other factors.

Ally Childress
Ally Childress is a licensed electrician and freelance writer living in Dallas, Texas.