Weather Channel storm chasers were mere miles from a tornado near the Texas border last week when a much larger one near Oklahoma City suddenly popped up on their radar. They turned around and headed north.
"We could see it on our radar and knew it was bad," said meteorologist Daniel Dix. "We knew we were needed there." Within hours, the crew was in Moore, Okla., broadcasting from its SUV outfitted with specialized equipment, including a roof-mounted weather station made in Hayward.
"We use our 'Davis' to know the weather where we are, instead of relying on a station 10 miles away," Dix said.
The portable weather station, which measures weather stats like temperature, wind, humidity and dew point, is the product of Davis Instruments, a Hayward company founded in 1963 that now employs more than 100 people at its plant on Clawiter Drive. In business since 1969, when Stanford grads Bob Selig and Jim Acquistapace bought it, the company's first product was a plastic navigation sextant.
Davis Instruments' weather station has gained a reputation for its portability and affordability, said Russ Heilig, the company's vice president of business development. The device runs $395 to $595.
"We find our weather stations in interesting places," he said.
The Weather Channel's "2013 Tornado Hunt" is just one of the ways the company's portable wireless weather stations are being deployed. They also monitor weather at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, track wind on the Bay Bridge and check conditions for a daredevil's tightrope walks.
Dix and meteorologist Mike Bettes use the Davis station to send real-time weather readings in Tornado Alley via webcasts at www.weather.com. When they arrived in Moore on Monday, they drove to Brierwood Elementary School, one of the two hit by the EF5 storm, the strongest category of tornado. "It looked like a bomb had gone off," Dix said. The crew started broadcasting after catching an hour of sleep.
"We send out firsthand knowledge, and people trust that information," he said. The meteorologists also share their data with the National Weather Service, which uses it to monitor weather conditions.
"As meteorologists, we're a little bit crazy anyway. But we're fascinated by the science" of storms, Dix said. "And we teach people safety."
Last year, Davis stations provided weather data that Nik Wallenda's father used as he coached the tightrope walker across Niagara Falls. Davis Instruments stations also will be in place for Wallenda's June 23 walk across the Grand Canyon.
And a network of Davis stations on the Bay Bridge is tied into an automatic system that deploys baffles to deflect wind, Kohl said.
The weather station has even made its way into an art project.
Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya has created a fog installation called "Fog Bridge #72494" across a pedestrian bridge between Piers 15 and 17 at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Those on the bridge are immersed in mist and fog.
The weather station atop the museum feeds data to a computer, where it interfaces with a software program that controls how water is forced out of nozzles, said Marina McDougall, director of the Exploratorium's Center for Art & Inquiry. Tiny pins in the nozzles atomize the water into thousands of droplets.
"It gives people a sensual experience of fog. Depending on the weather, you might hold your hand out and you can't see your fingertips," McDougall said. "It changes every second, and it's always different."
The #72494 in the artwork's title comes from the name of the weather satellite closest to San Francisco, she said.
The science museum also uses the weather station in its Wired Pier installation, said Steve Tung, data curator at Exploratorium.
"We have a lot of different sensors around the bay that measure water quality, air quality and measure weather. Weather is something easy for people to relate to," he said.
Davis weather stations can be found in Antarctica, where one is being used for global warming research, Kohl said. The data from them is shared at www.weatherlink.com (go to the WeatherLink Station Map at upper right of page).
But the biggest user remains the home consumer.
One of those is Jim Tutor of Rio Vista, who was given a Davis weather station as a Christmas gift two years ago after leaving obvious hints around the house.
"I'm in construction, so knowing the weather tells me how many layers to wear," he said. "The Davis also tells me how windy it is."
At construction sites, the weather station helps operators know when it's safe to use lifts and cranes, Tutor said. "The last thing you want to do is be 75 feet up in the air on a man lift and have the wind blowing."