Roofs, on average, last half of their designed lifetime. Most roofs have a designed lifetime of 20 years, while most buildings are designed to last 50 years. These statements mean the average roof will last less than a quarter the life span of the building. Here are four major reasons why a commercial roof fails to go the distance.
When you think of reasons why your roof needs to be replaced, hail and wind are probably the first things that come to mind. Because these events are called acts of nature, we think there is not much that can be done to prevent damage from hail or high winds. The truth is quite different. While no roofing system is “hail proof”, you can make your roof “hail resistant”. Insist on using a high density coverboard when replacing or building a new roof. Insulation is soft and easily penetrated: think of foam board. But coverboard adds a rigidity beneath the membrane that minimizes the impact of hail. We have seen roofs that survived 3”-4” hail when coverboard was installed. Wind damage most commonly occurs at the edges of a roof and can be minimized by using the right materials and installation techniques.
Roofs are becoming more and more cluttered with mechanical equipment, solar panels, and skylights. The real threat to roofs are the technicians who service this equipment. From the HVAC technician replacing a filter or repairing a unit, to the maintenance worker who squeegees the solar panels, a roof can get damaged because service people treat it as a work surface. They drop tools, they drop covers, they roll carts across the roof. Even a simple thing like not properly securing an access panel means that a high wind can take that loose panel and turn it into a knife cartwheeling across the roof and slicing tears into the membrane.
Three simple things will reduce the impact of technicians: install walkways and install them in a direct line to equipment so they will be used; add walk pads around HVAC equipment to protect the roof from a service technician’s tools; use coverboard to provide a hard surface beneath the membrane.
Lack of Regular Maintenance
Have your roof professionally inspected on a regular basis. Catch small problems before they become expensive repairs. Keep roofs clean from dirt, debris, and unnecessary equipment. If enough dirt and debris build up on a roof surface, the owners can find themselves with an unintended rooftop garden on their hands, and roots can cause damage to roofing materials. (And yes, we have seen this situation multiple times). Keep nearby trees trimmed: branches can tear off and damage the roof, or leaves may accumulate in gutters or clog downspouts causing water to backup and stay on the roof. Remove unwanted materials, cinder blocks, and old AC equipment. Our rule is “If it doesn’t belong up there, it shouldn’t stay up there.”
Twenty to twenty-five percent of water intrusion problems on roofs are caused by design issues. Some of these can only be addressed when doing a full roof replacement. However, many smaller issues can be corrected. Any penetration (for example, an HVAC unit or a skylight) that is at least four feet across and parallel to the roof edge, should have a cricket installed on the backside so that water flows around the penetration instead of being trapped behind the penetration. Flashing details where the roof meets a wall, expansion joints on larger roofs, and some edging details are all areas that can be improved short of replacing the entire roof.
The Bottom Line
Because of design issues, installation techniques, and lack of proper maintenance, the average roof lasts one quarter of the designed lifetime of a building. However, understanding and addressing the underlying issues that prevent your roof from achieving its designed lifespan can add years to the life of the roofing system.
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