How to Optimize Roof Performance with Timely Repairs

worker on roof

Fall weather got a little strange in some parts of the country, and with everything else that’s been going on, the roof preventive maintenance might have slipped down the schedule. But don’t despair. While most major commercial roofing work occurs in the spring and fall, the winter can still be a good time to begin evaluating and planning on breathing new life into an existing roof without having to undergo the expense of a brand new one. While each type of roofing system has its own lifespan and repairability, there are common steps that facility managers can take to determine how to keep a roof as close to new condition as possible.

Best practice calls for facility managers to have roof systems evaluated by a knowledgeable person each year at the change of major seasons, says David Hawn, member of SPRI and president of Dedicated Roof and Hydro Solutions. Because conditions in winter months, for many locations, restrict the ability to make a quality roof repair, both spring and fall rooftop evaluations are advised.

“The fall evaluation to prepare for winter, is best performed near the time of the first hard freeze allowing for most tree-leaf drop to occur,” Hawn says. “That timing allows for leaf and debris removal, not just relocation, to assure the roof will drain properly.”

The first thing for the fall evaluation should be to check all drainage points (drains, scuppers, gutters, overflows) to ensure they are not blocked with any debris. If checked in early winter, accessing the roof safely might not yet be an issue due to weather, says Chadwick Collins, Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association technical director.

After checking that the roof can drain properly, look for any signs of ponding water away from the draining areas. An obvious sign of trouble is usually a discoloration ring to indicate regular and repeating ponding occurrences.

Next, while making sure to observe necessary safety guidelines, walking the roof can help to identify “soft spots” in the roof. These “soft spots” may indicate a breakdown of material under the roof, which could be related to water intrusion through the roof assembly.

“It is a best practice to note the location of these spots and correlate them with the building interior to determine if they correspond to any signs of water entry,” Collins says. “With the caveat that the roof covering itself is still in good condition, a focused repair (removal of damaged material and replaced with like materials) on the areas in question are all that would likely be needed for these areas.”

In addition to inspections for moisture or debris-related issues, wind-related wear or damage can often be identified and repaired. Hawn recommends checking the perimeter and flashings utilized when possible to determine if securement remains intact. These junctures between the roof and vertical surfaces are crucial to the successful water-shedding performance of the roofing system, Collins says. Check for loose coping or fascia, loose or missing splice plates, opened seams, and look for vacant fastener holes. Gutter and downspout straps which are loose or detached should be identified.

“Maintenance items such as exposed caulk or sealant on term bars or flashings should also all be reviewed for UV deterioration. These items often serve as the first line of defense from wind or driven rain in preventing damage to larger areas of your system,” Hawn says.

In addition, during this walk, observing the condition of the surface of the roof covering is key to assessing the overall roof assembly. “Regardless if the roof is single-ply or asphaltic, if the reinforcement fibers of the roof covering are visible, the roof is likely approaching the end of its useful life cycle,” Collins says. In this case, roof replacement or roof recover rather than repair is likely the best path forward.

Another important item to consider is the local building code. Some building codes have language that if a repair is large enough (in terms of area of the whole roof – e.g. 25 percent), the code requires bringing the entire roof into compliance with all requirements of the code. Understanding the local code is necessary to determine if the scope of a repair is actually large enough to justify approaching a re-roofing solution instead.

Hiring a roof consultant, preferably a Registered Roof Consultant (RRC), for these evaluation efforts often adds value. That’s because a knowledge of materials, systems, warranties, and both repair and preventive measures can be determined without bias for specific material or methods.

Once a facility manager determines repair work needs to be done, there are certain steps to take without actually having to rip the whole thing off and start over.

One important step that many building owners and managers overlook is conferring with the manufacturer of the existing roofing system, says Chadwick Collins, Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association technical director. Many manufacturers have ready-made solutions to repair or extend the life of their roof systems.

As for returning a system to “like-new,” the process best starts with establishing a proper maintenance plan when the roof is first installed. “Even if a maintenance plan isn’t in place and the roof is in need of attention, the first step in roof restoration is referring to the manufacturer’s instructions on what preparation is needed given the type of roof is currently installed before installing any other products,” Collins says.

Some level of preparation is likely required whether pursuing repairs that are going to tie into the existing roof, a roof re-cover to be installed over the existing roof, or a coating system to be installed directly over the existing system. Even if it is determined to remove the existing roof and install a new system, that new system’s manufacturer will have requirements to confirm supporting elements such as the roof deck.

David Hawn, member of SPRI and president of Dedicated Roof and Hydro Solutions, stresses the importance of obtaining an unbiased evaluation, including non-destructive testing, of a roof and the extent of damage as well as options available.

“Once the extent of roof work, and the best option is selected, the required work can be bid,” Hawn says. “Typically, multiple contractors can be requested to bid the work required with choices for multiple manufacturers of materials that will provide best performance. This procedure works well whether that be for a repair, roof recovery, roof restoration, or roof replacement.”

Unfortunately, some facility managers allow repairs to be made by an unlicensed contractor or even perform the repairs on their own. Sean Hinton, project manager at Facility Engineering Associates, says that if the roof is new or less than two years old, the facility manager needs to call the roofing manufacturer to record the damage. The manufacturer will, in turn, call the roofing contractor that installed it and the contractor will respond within 48 hours.

“After the two years is up the manager will still need to call the manufacturer and report the leak,” Hinton says. “The manufacturer will call the contractor and schedule a service team to respond within 48 hours.”

In addition, Hinton advises that built-up roofs are difficult to repair correctly and the most challenging to bring back to “like new” standards. “In addition, hot asphalt type roofs are becoming roofs of the past with the high cost per square foot and the workforce to repair and install them is limited due to the industry shifting to single-ply membranes,” Hinton says.

Mistakes to avoid

The most common mistake made when evaluating roofing conditions is failing to confirm that the repair material being used is compatible with the existing roofing system. Any product that is being suggested for a repair should include clear written instructions on applying the repair material to the existing roof material. In addition, selecting a roofing professional with experience working with both the repair material and the existing roof material is paramount.

“The real challenge arises when a roof is on the cusp between repairable and needing to be replaced,” Collins says. “There are times when, unfortunately, preparing a roof for repair, additional damage or other conditions are discovered and it becomes clear that a roof replacement is the best path forward.” Some clear examples include failure of the patch material to bond to the existing roof, or when the usage rate of material is excessive. This is why it is important to closely monitor repair projects early in the process to avoid spending resources on a solution that won’t work.

Tom Hutchinson, who works for the EPDM Roofing Association (ERA) as a technical and design consultant and is a principal at Hutchinson Design Group, Ltd., says the most common mistake he sees is trying to do it alone and soliciting proposals from contractors who may and may not be qualified without a defined scope of work.

“Contractors know that the price is what counts and will often offer the lowest common denominator, which results in less than expected results,” Hutchinson says. “The saying ‘spending good money after bad’ is then applicable.” Hutchinson also sees establishing insufficient budgets as well as not determining both a short-term versus long-term vision as common errors. In addition, not having maintenance performed yearly and having a program of reactive roof repairs is another mistake, as is thinking that repairs will result in an “as new” roof.

Indeed, without proper evaluation and ongoing maintenance, periodic repairs rarely turn a poor roof into a good roof, Hawn says. “The good news is most roofs are quite easy to maintain in a ‘like new’ condition for a longer period,” he says. “A warranty does not mean an owner will not have to spend any money for the term of the warranty. In fact, most warranties either encourage, or require, periodic maintenance during the term of a warranty.  The best way to keep that ‘like new’ condition of a roof is with regular evaluations and preventive maintenance.”

Maura Keller is a Twin Cities-based writer and editor.