the ideal panic room
protection from a home invasion
Understand all the critical elements of battlespace preparation for your home coming under assault
The key factors for planning and building your panic room:
- Panic rooms are a last redoubt in case your home is overrun by malicious people.
- Once your home has been breached, the intruders have crossed a line and they must eliminate the possibility of being identified and caught.
- This makes them very dangerous. You must stop them, repel them, or seek refuge.
This article is a discussion on how to plan, build, and equip your safe space in this world.
Panic room, the movie
Released in 2002 , this very popular movie dominates the search term “panic room” to this day. Here is the trailer. Pay attention to the sliding door:
If you have not seen this movie, it’s worth your time. There are some plot holes and the laws of physics do not always apply, but this movie does get some things correct. It is also an effective illustration of how a panic room can save lives when home intruders come in hard. In this article, we will use it as a road map to provide understanding of how to plan, build, and equip an effective panic room.
The star of the movie
The panic room door steals the show. All of the important dialogue happens at this door. It is portrayed as being impenetrable. You are either inside or outside. The good guys and bad guys take turns on opposite sides of this door. This door makes this movie possible.
But we need to adjust some expectations about panic room doors. The “steel, thick steel, very thick steel” (movie quote) door flies open and shut with the push of a button. In reality, this door was probably hollow and operated with pneumatic linear actuators or a gaffer manually opening and shutting it off camera. Add in the “prison lockdown cell door slamming shut” sound effect and everyone wants this door on their panic room:
Steel has a weight of 0.283 pounds per cubic inch (7.9 grams per cubic centimetre). The door in the movie appeared to be a minimum of four inches (102 mm) thick. For a standard door size of 36 by 84 inches (about one meter by two meters), this is 3,423 pounds (1,553 kg) of mass. It appears to move about one meter in two seconds. Pneumatic linear actuators will move this rapidly, but they will not move this much mass. Hydraulics will move the mass of the door, but not that fast. And, they need a power supply that has to be turned on prior to the door being operated.
To meet building codes, powered sliding doors must have a leading edge safety switch. This is a strip that is on the front edge of the door that contains two continuous contacts for the entire height of the door – top to bottom, every inch of it. If there is an obstruction in the doorway that hits the switch, power is cut to the motor and brakes may be applied to the moving door. The door in the movie had two laser sensing proximity switches, one about chest height and the other at ankle height. Instead of every inch of the leading edge, there were only two points that would stop the door. Stick an arm through the doorway anywhere else and the door will crush it. This is illustrated when a bad guys gets some fingers crushed by the door and can’t reach the switch to open it (another code violation). Lasers look cool in the movies, but they do not cover the entire leading edge and subsequently, they do not meet standard building codes. A lot of building codes exist because stupid people exist. This one exists because even smart people can be caught off guard when walking through a doorway when someone else hits the switch.
What the movie gets right about the door
There are a couple of things:
- How important the door is to a panic room. Doors, hatches, and ventilation pipes are likely targets for malicious people trying to breach your safe space or smoke you out.
- How it is concealed. The sliding door in the movie was covered by a section of wall with a mirror on it that swung outward on hinges when pressed. It showed the (sliding steel) ballistic door behind this outward swinging hidden door. Ballistic on the inside and a disguised covering door on the outside is the correct way to protect and conceal a panic room door.
Now let’s see what a panic room door that works outside of a movie studio really looks like:
What is a reasonable expectation for a panic room door?
Let’s start with ballistic resistance. They are making rifles smaller and more concealable these days. You cannot plan on the malicious people to just have pistols. Rifle bullets are harder to stop than pistol rounds so if you do not allow rifle rounds to penetrate, pistol rounds need not apply.
A half inch of AR500 ballistic steel will stop all standard 30 caliber ball (7.62 mm) rifle rounds with a good margin of safety. The ballistic plate of a standard 36 by 84 inch (about one meter by two meters) door with two inches (55 mm) of overlap on both sides and the top will weigh 500 pounds (227 kg). That is just the plate, you also need a frame to hold it flat so it seals against the door frame correctly and hinges and latches. All of these things will add 200 pounds (91 kg). This brings the door leaf weight up to 700 pounds (317 kg). The walls must hold the door frame flat as the door swings open.
Composite ballistic panels made from fiberglass, Kevlar, or Spectra can lower the weight of the door slightly, but they are not resistant to the heat of a structural fire. Steel is the best material for a panic room door. It needs to be thick enough to stop all of the rifles that will likely be deployed against it. We can scale up the thickness and type of steel to stop 50 caliber armor piercing rounds, but at some point we are going to have diminishing returns on protection versus a reasonable door weight. 30 caliber rifle rounds like 7.62 NATO are the hardest hitting round that someone is likely to use against your panic room door at close range.
Sliding or swinging?
Now that we know the weight of the door, let’s discuss its operation. The pocket door shown in the movie slides back and forth on rails and has the cycle speed limitations outlined above. A swinging door that weighs 700 pounds is beyond what standard stud walls can hold. The door should be mounted on a reinforced concrete or structural steel wall. But you will not be able to have automatic operation with the speed shown in the movie without significant expense. Heavy duty door closers made for doors that weigh this much store energy as you open them and return it to close the door. They are much slower than a motivated (panicked) person pushing the door shut. But you still must overcome its static inertia and get it moving. A door like this can be made to close with the standard fire code of maximum allowable force of 30 (14 kg) pounds to set the door in motion, and 15 pounds to swing the door to the full-open position.
For manual operation, a swinging door is easier to operate and can be operated by people with less than average physical ability. A child or an elderly person can use their legs, hips, and back to push a swinging door shut. A sliding pocket door has to be pulled out of the pocket and then pushed to the closed position. Pulling and then pushing requires shifting your weight to get leverage in the opposite direction. An inward swinging door just needs to be pushed shut. An outward swinging door just needs to be pulled shut – one motion in one direction. When your adrenal glands dump their contents into your bloodstream, familiar movements are the only ones that your body will execute properly. Almost everyone practices closing a swinging door every day.
For our ideal panic room door, we are going with an inward swinging ballistic door. This will allow you to disguise the outside of the doorway with a hidden bookcase door or just a standard commercial steel fire door. This commercial door can be open and shut rapidly and can be set up to latch automatically. If you are being chased into your panic room, you can shut it behind you quickly and then close and latch the inward swinging ballistic door. The outward swinging door is a speed bump that buys you time to secure the inner panic room door. You can also use the outer door for access control of your panic room. The inner door stays open and the outer door can be locked. One reason for this is that nearly impenetrable panic rooms and rebellious teenagers do not mix well. We are discussing a panic room door that most fire departments would have a difficult time breaching.
Ballistic doors that feature a half inch of AR500 steel are not widely available. One option is to have a custom door made by a door manufacturer. The local fabrication (welding) shop is not recommended. You need an experience door manufacturer to make the shield you take refuge behind.
You can also source an off the shelf ballistic door. To stop rifle round, you are looking for a rating of UL 752 level 8 or NIJ level III. These ratings are for protection from 7.62 NATO military ball ammunition. This page has multiple charts showing the ballistic resistance ratings from various certifying agencies. A well-respected manufacturer of ballistic doors is Overly Door Company. If you need an entire panic room built in your existing home, Gaffco Ballistics has many years of experience building secure rooms. We do not receive any remuneration from these companies, but have worked with them previously without any issues.
The camera system
The movie shows a bank of monitors with views of many areas inside the home. This is one of the things that the movie gets correct. There needs to be a hard wired camera and microphone system with the monitoring station inside your panic room. The system linked below has eight cameras that are powered by the cords that go back to the DVR in the panic room. This means the power for the camera is supplied by a power source inside your panic room. You can add an uninterruptible power supply or a deep cycle battery and a transformer so if the breakers are shut off, you still have eyes on the bad guys. Below are links to these items on Amazon.
Full disclosure: as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. The convenient links below will take you directly to the items on Amazon and help support this website. Thank you very much!
- SMONET 8 camera wired home surveillance system
- APC uninterruptible power supply battery backup and surge protector
- Weize 12V 100AH deep cycle AGM SLA VRLA Battery
- Battery tender junior charger and maintainer, automatic 12 volt
- BESTEK 300 watt pure sine wave power inverter car adapter DC 12V to AC 110V with 4.2A dual smart USB ports
All the cameras that feed your panic room need to be well hidden, but they can be found and disabled. The most important camera is the one showing what is happening on the outside of the panic room door. This one is so important that we need a backup for it – two cameras covering the room outside your safe space. Cover the infrared emitters on one of these cameras in case the bad guys have infrared night vision equipment. The one that is still emitting infrared will have a video feed when the lights are off or the power has been cut.
Audio versus video
Humans have an instinct to identify and track threats with our eyes and ears. Threat detection and surveillance are separate requirements of your panic room. Threat detection is foundational. Without knowing there is a threat, you have to engage in endless surveillance. Imagine having a camera feed into your panic room without audio. You will have to constantly keep the monitor in your line of site. You cannot go to sleep without a lapse in threat detection. The author of this article had a cheap hard-wired camera system in his home many years ago. The cameras burned out, but the microphones were still working. Without cameras, it was not useful for documenting behavior of people. But the microphones were extremely effective at threat detection. Gunshots, cars driving by, and people in the driveway were all picked up by the microphones. If one had to choose between audio and video for threat detection, audio is the priority. For surveillance, video is the better.
In the movie, Meg (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are initially chased into the panic room with no possessions. The landline inside the panic room was on a different account that was not activated when the home was recently purchased. A cell phone was grabbed when Meg ran out of the panic room briefly, but the steel and concrete box they were in did not allow a signal to reach inside. There is a PA system for one-way communication from the panic room to the inside of the house. There was a small (about 4 inches or 100 mm) air pipe that goes directly to the outside with only an internal backdraft damper to keep wind gusts out. Sarah tries to signal a neighbor with a flashlight through this pipe. A pipe like this is a security threat. It’s direct access from the outside to the inside and can be attacked with guns, gas, or a water hose.
Panic rooms should have a hard wired intercom system with the outside. Three boxes are best – one in the panic room, one just outside the door of the panic room, and one outside of the home at the main entrance. They should also have an effective way of bringing attention to the home. Make some noise and flash a light. A universal cell phone booster will allow for data and Volte (voice over LTE) calls.
- Intercom Central 413 – home power-line intercom system, three stations set
- YaeCCC MS-390 siren, AC 110V 1.5A 125DB decibel security horn
- Cell phone signal booster/repeater for home and office
- Tracfone Alcatel MyFlip 4G prepaid flip phone
Remember, you need a phone inside the panic room at all times. Do not count on showing up with your cell phone. A pre-paid flip phone like the one in the link above is preferable to a smart phone because it boots up rapidly and has a battery life measured in days. In the movies, we need our heroes to be cut off from rescue so they have to fight back on their own. But this situation can happen to anyone. Panic rooms should be self-contained with everything required to communicate with the outside and defend your castle.
Any discussion of panic rooms is incomplete without addressing the air you breathe. In the movie, the bad guys find a way to introduce what appears to be propane into the ventilation duct feeding the panic room. Propane gas is denser than the atmosphere so it displaces air and sinks to the ground. The movie shows the gas from the “propane tank” floating at the top of the panic room. The four inch (100 mm) pipe to the outside is used to take turns buddy-breathing while addressing the “propane” that is floating at the top of the panic room.
Besides breaking of the laws of physics, there are some lessons to learn from this scene in the movie:
- Your air supply is vulnerable to attack.
- You need to hide and harden the ventilation pipes.
- You need the ability to shut down the ventilation pipes from inside the shelter. This will prevent malicious people from introducing combustible gases like propane, liquids like water, or gases that are difficult to remove from the air flow like carbon monoxide into your safe space.
We’ve covered air filtration for a several different kinds of shelters in other articles. We always recommend Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) air filtration systems. They are a wide spectrum air filter that removes particulates with HEPA air filtration and gases through adsorption by activated carbon. In addition to this, they bring in air from outside the home, filter it, and then blow it into the protected space with enough force to have “overpressure.” Overpressure is a term used for positive relative pressure: more pressure inside the protected space than outside of it. This ensures that if there are any leak points, the air inside moves outward. This keeps airborne toxins from seeping inside your panic room through the cracks. See the article on NBC air filtration systems for more information that includes recommendations and protocols.
The ventilation pipes
Air needs to be drawn in from the outside of the home. It is tempting to use the tempered air (heated or cooled) from the home heat pump. But this has several problems:
- Outside is where the oxygen is. Homes require mechanical ventilation, which requires electricity.
- Since you need an air supply from the outside, drawing from an inside duct will expose the ventilation system to attack. See the propane incident in the movie. The bad guys punched a hole in a thin metal duct and put a garden hose from the propane tank into it.
- The filtration system can draw enough air that the rest of the house has negative air pressure in relation to the outside. This will cause unfiltered air to be drawn into the house through any leak points. If this outside air has any toxins like radioactive fallout or vapors from a chemical spill in it, your home will accumulate these toxins in it. You do not want to use your panic room’s NBC air filtration system when there is a chemical leak nearby, only to emerge when you get the all clear to find your home full of toxins. A good example of a home in negative air pressure is turning on a high volume range hood in the kitchen when you start a fire in a woodstove in the living room. The smoke will be sucked out of the woodstove instead of going up the chimney. I’ve seen this happen and it’s rather dramatic.
Your ventilation pipes should be thick walled steel and disguised with a dryer vent hood as they terminate on an outside wall. Take air from the outside and return it to the outside. Your panic room should have positive air pressure and your home should have the same air pressure as the outside world.
Sealing your panic room shut
The last issue with ventilation pipes is the requirement of sealing them off from inside the panic room. If you are trapped inside by a structural fire, you do not want to run the air filtration system while your home is burning. Not only will you be bringing in hot air, it will be full of carbon monoxide that is created during incomplete combustion. Carbon monoxide is difficult to filter out of the air. That is why we convert it to carbon dioxide with a catalytic converter in our vehicles. We exhale carbon dioxide and in low concentrations, it is harmless. But it can accumulate in spaces without proper ventilation to a level that is lethal to humans. Removing carbon dioxide is a function of the air exchange rate. The article on bomb shelter airlocks has step by step instructions on how to calculate the air exchange rate of protected spaces. If your NBC filter does not come with blast valves that can be manually locked shut, you need to install butterfly valves so you can seal off the ventilation pipes from inside the panic room.
The shelter walls and ceiling
The movie shows the concrete and “three inches of steel” panic room on the second floor of an older home. This is not a reasonable place to put something that weighs more than 25 tons (22,680 kg). To support this weight on a second floor, you would have to drive pilings deep into the top soil or to the bedrock, construct the panic room on them, and then build the house around it. This would be both expensive and unnecessary. Let’s discuss what a panic room should be made from and where it should be placed:
In the article on the ideal wildfire shelter, we made this point:
Above ground, a concrete shelter makes more sense. Either formed and poured concrete or block walls on a concrete pad with a concrete top. The problem with above ground steel shelters is that they have a high level of heat transference from fires outside to the inside of the shelter. Eight inches (203 mm) of concrete will conduct heat to the inside, but not nearly as fast as a quarter inch (6.35 mm) of steel. Even if they are insulated, steel boxes become ovens in the hot sun or a wildfire. Insulation acts to slow heat transference, it does not stop it. It’s a speed bump that works both directions.
This is a persuasive argument for using steel reinforced concrete for a panic room located in a home or office. Concrete is fairly dense and you will get some heat transfer through it, but a steel shelter will be a literal oven if the home burned while somebody was trapped inside.
Eight inches (203 mm) of 4,000 PSI concrete that is reinforced with a matrix of number 5 rebar on six inch (152 mm) centers will stop rifle bullets with a significant safety margin. Once we have walls that provide ballistic protection, flying debris from severe weather events are mostly moot. The same goes for breaching attempts by malicious people. When presented with a solid concrete wall, most people will attack the door, hatch, or ventilation pipes. If you want to breach a concrete wall, it will require explosives or hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Either way, you will announce yourself to the occupants of the shelter (even if they were sleeping), and then they will interact with you. Our ideal panic room will have concrete walls, ceiling, and floor.
This will require that the panic room be placed on the ground floor or in the basement. Both have their advantages that we will look at shortly. A 10 foot (3 meter) by 10 foot by 10 foot safe room with eight inch concrete walls, floor, and ceiling will weigh 52,500 pounds (23,814 kg). Here is a small concrete room after a tornado:
“I was in there about 20 seconds when it hit,” he said. “The house is gone, everything but the safe room.”
Your ability to easily access your panic room is critically important. Most people spend at least eight hours a night in their bedroom. All predators know that we are the most vulnerable when we sleeping. For this reason, we need access to our panic room from our bedroom.
The best location for the panic room is adjacent to your bedroom, either next to it or below it. Next to is better than below because if you are awakened during the night, moving horizontally on the same level is safer. If the panic room is in the basement below the bedroom, we need a hatch with a ladder inside the panic room. Going down a ladder after being startled awake is not the best access, but if the best place in your home is below your bedroom, then cover the floor of your panic room with gym mats and put non-skid tape on your ladder rungs. Always be improving your fighting position.
A second way out
In the article on emergency egress options, we hammer home the importance of having a second way out of your shelter. If your panic room is in the basement with hatch access from your bedroom, you need a door that opens into the basement. If your shelter is on the ground floor, you need another door that opens to another room or a hatch that opens to the floor above or attic. Panic rooms are static locations that can protect you from outside hostilities and also trap you inside if you do not have some egress redundancy built into your design.
What to store in your panic room
We are going to throw a lot of things your way in this section. Below are links to examples of what we are discussing. In the movie, Meg and Sarah flee to the panic room with nothing. This is a possible real life scenario. Your panic room is a lifeboat, once the ship goes down, you either have what you need, or you go without.
With the right tools and the proper determination, any barrier can be breached given enough time. We need to plan on interacting with malicious people. Less than lethal weapons are useful even if you have firearms. Note that in enclosed spaces like your home, aerosolized pepper spray will likely incapacitate anyone that is not protecting their eyes, nose, and mouth. Wearing a full face respirator or a half mask and goggles will give you the ability to operate in this envirorment. Use this to your advantage. If your tribe has donned masks, you can make the intruders suffer greatly.
- Taser Pulse with 2 cartridges and LED laser
- VIPERTEK VTS-979 – rechargeable stun gun – with safety disable pin
- PepperBall LifeLite non-lethal personal defense launcher
- SABRE RED pepper gel (gel is safer) maximum police strength OC spray
Below are links to the respirators we discussed in the article on wildfire shelters and they will work well against panic room threats.
- 3M rugged comfort quick latch half facepiece Respirator 6503QL
- 3M particulate filter 6055 A2 for gas and vapour, 2 pairs
- 3M respirator filter retainer 501, 2 each set
- 3M 5925 P2 R particulate filter P2R, 2 pairs
- 3M Ultimate FX full facepiece respirator FF-402
Also in that article were links to items that also belong in a panic room: fire extinguishers, a carbon dioxide alarm, a smoke and carbon monoxide detector, a low oxygen sensor, and a radon meter.
- Amerex B500, 5lb class A,B,C dry chemical fire extinguisher (2 pack)
- Carbon dioxide/temperature/humidity air quality monitor
- First Alert smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector alarm
- KKmoon oxygen concentration meter with sound-light alarm
- Corentium Home Radon Detector by Airthings
These are the recommended life support instruments for shelters.
Water in, waste out
Even a short stay in your panic room may require relieving yourself. A flushing toilet connected to your home water supply and septic system is recommended, but the water can be shut off. Without water, toilets do not flush. A backup system for going to the bathroom is a good investment of your space and budget. This can be a simple bucket with a lid, but there are better solutions linked below.
- Container Distributing Emergency Bucket Toilet Seat
- Portable toilet – 5 gallon waste tank – durable, leak proof, flushable
- Camco TST ultra-concentrated, 8-pack RV toilet treatment
- VINGLI portable sink and toilet combo, 5 gal hand washing station and flushing toilet
And finally, here are some items that you probably already have that should be in your panic room:
- One complete change of clothes.
- Towels and toiletries.
- Required medications. Remember, in the movie, Sarah had low blood sugar and no insulin in the panic room. It was just a scene in a movie, but this happens. If you require certain medications, oxygen, or a CPAP machine, keep spares of these items in your panic room.
- Soap, water, and sanitary wipes. You will be in close quarters with other people.
These should be items that are dedicated to your panic room. Remember to rotate the medications.
When Meg and Sarah flee to the panic room with only the clothes they were wearing, that left the rest of the house under control of the bad guys. They ceded ground and retreated to a safe space in order to survive. Everyone needs a safe space in this world.
Next article: The ideal wildfire shelter
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