Maintenance for your roof

There are several aspects to maintenance.  Preventive activities look for possible weaknesses and starting signs of deterioration.  Remedial activities repair or remediate things that started to fail.  Replacement activities are appropriate when incremental repairs don’t do the job any more.  Some of these activities can be easily done by the homeowners, others should be done by professionals.  Let’s have a look at this in more detail.

A.    Preventive activities

1.     Inspections

At the top of the list of preventive actions to take, are periodic inspections.  Every homeowner should know what to look for, and how to carry these out.  Let’s start with the attic.

Winter attic inspections will show you some of the following problems:

  • Condensation on the underside of the decking, and hanging off nails penetrating the wood sheathing,
  • Accumulation of ice at or near leak areas,
  • Dampness or wetness of the decking along the eaves if there is ice-damming.

Summer attic inspections will show you:

  • Wet areas and water trails if there are obvious leakages,
  • Water marks down plumbing vents, chimneys, brick and stone walls, etc. if the flashings are no longer keeping the water out.
  • The amount of heat build-up in the attic.

At any time:

  • Discoloration or deterioration of wood or sheathing,
  • Quantity, type, and integrity of the insulation,
  • Effectiveness of ventilation,
  • The integrity of any conduits, vent pipes or other plumbing/piping passing through the attic area.

Outside, there are five areas to look at:  The roof covering itself, the various roof features and penetrations, the eavestroughs (gutters) the state of the soffits, and the way the snow or ice is accumulating on your roof.  Of course, keep in mind safety first whenever you are thinking of climbing up and inspecting the roof.

The roof covering is what everyone thinks of when they think about the “roof”.  In reality, it’s just one component of a much larger system.  The features you need to look for depends on the type of roof covering you have, but for the purpose of this post, let’s assume that the roof covering is made from asphalt shingles, as this is still the most common covering on residential sloped roofs.

On asphalt shingle roofs, the typical things one looks for are:

  • Granule loss  (a little is normal, a lot is not)
  • Cracking or splitting of the shingle mat (shows either a defect, or a loss of plasticity of the mat material)
  • Shrinkage of the shingle mat (almost always a sign of advanced wear)
  • Degree of adhesion of the layers of shingles (the shingles should be well bonded to each other, otherwise wind can lift the edges and break them off)
  • Curling or clawing of the shingles (another sign of advanced wear)
  • Exposed nails or other fasteners (usually poor installation practice, or caused by extreme shingle shrinkage)
  • Physical damage to the shingles (can be caused by hail, branches, or misguided de-icing efforts, among other causes)

The features and penetrations are usually protected by metal flashings and/or caulk.  There is a certain science to the type of flashings that are used in specific locations and for specific purposes.  The uninformed may know of the valley, the drip-edge, and the counterflashing.  However, there are also transition flashings, end-wall/side-wall flashings, starter flashings, gable-end/rake flashings, ridge and hip flashings, base flashings, and other more specialized forms that are used to ensure protection of the roof.  The type of flashing used should be determined by the specific challenges that the particular roof has to deal with.  A good, experienced roofer will “read” the situation and install the right flashing to deal with each challenge or danger that they see may happen.  What the homeowner should be on the outlook for is whether the caulking that seals some of them is beginning to crack or come away from the vertical surface, whether any of the flashings appear to be loose, and whether there are gaps appearing in places that should have any gaps.

Caulking is the usual way to hold down shingles at perimeters and edges, and to seal the various flashing elements.  Depending on the caulk used, the seal may last only as long as five years, even if properly installed.  Therefore, it is very useful to inspect all the caulked joints to see if there is any change (cracking, splitting, hardening) that compromises the ability of the caulked joint to keep out the water.

Most plumbing vents are waterproofed using either plastic or rubber sleeves around the plumbing pipe itself.  Since plastic and rubber are affected by the sun’s rays, periodic verification of the integrity of the seal should be made.  If the vents are made of higher-quality metal, then periodic verification that the metal is not rusted should be done.

The eavestroughs (gutters) are not usually thought of as being part of the roof system, but they are.  They should be checked to ensure that they are not blocked, are not pooling water, and are not filled with debris.  Depending on how they were installed, they should also be checked for leakage of joints, and for the way they are anchored to the fascia boards.  Well-installed gutters should not have spaces between them and the fascia through which the water can fall.  As well, if the roof is suffering from ice-damming, the gutters are usually the ones dealing with excessive ice weight, and may be displaced or loose.

The soffits (the underside of the eaves on most homes) can be either ventilated or unventilated.  Older homes typically have problems with the soffits as ventilated soffits started to appear once the building codes started to require attic ventilation, and homes built before this tended to have solid wood soffits.  A common problem we see is the presence of ventilated soffits which were installed over solid wood.  If you can’t see the daylight of the soffits from the attic, this usually means that the soffits, even if of the ventilated type, are not actually working.  Good intake from the soffits is a key element of good attic ventilation.  At the same time, the soffits serve to keep animals and insects out of the attic space, so they should be checked periodically to ensure that they are still solidly installed.

Finally, looking at your roof in winter can be a very educational experience.  If the roof sports a snow cap without any icicles or ice formation on the perimeter, then pat yourself on the back and enjoy the knowledge that your roof is working well as far as the insulation and ventilation are concerned.  If, on the other hand, you have lots of bare, wet roofing, then you are looking at heat loss that is melting the snow off your roof (and most likely, refreezing at the eaves, making an ice dam).

We like to do roof inspections in winter, as they allow us to see how the snow behaves on the roof.  Combined with our observations from the attic inspections, we are usually able to figure out the issues that the roof has.  The weaknesses of poorly insulated/ventilated additions such as bay windows, skylights, and extensions, are often revealed by the way the snow acts in vicinity of these features.

It is often possible to see if the outlet vents are working when the snow is in the roof.  If there are low-profile vents (or ridge vents) on the roof and they are not visible under the snow, then that’s a clear sign that they are not working.

There are some important parts of the roof system that you cannot inspect directly – the state of the membranes, underlayments, and the base flashings that are hidden by the roof and wall coverings.  These, unfortunately, get to be inspected only after they fail to work, and usually only as part of a reroofing or repair operation.  Therefore, it is best to have these inspected very carefully DURING the roof construction or reroofing.

 2.     Roof system maintenance:

There are two types of maintenance required – in winter, and during the other seasons.

Winter maintenance is concerned about keeping the snow cover at a “manageable” level, to ensure that the snow buildup does not present a danger in terms of weight, or as potential fuel for the ice-dam formation.  On some metal roofs, the snow mass can slide off, so making sure that the “fall zones” are clearly marked and kept free of people and things that can get damaged, becomes very important.  If the outlet vents are blocked by the snow, it may be necessary to remove the snow around them to allow the ventilation to work.

The other maintenance that can be easily done (assuming the roof is accessible), is to ensure that all the places that are caulked continue to work, that the flashings continue to do their job.  If shingles are starting to lift/curl, but otherwise are in reasonable shape, it may help to use some roofing cement to glue them down.

Periodic gutter-cleaning is also a roofing maintenance job, as this ensures that there is no backup of water that could otherwise get under the shingles and behind the fascia.

 3.     Summary:

If your roof is working well, then doing the inspection once a year will probably be all that you need to do to make sure nothing changes.  If your roof performance is marginal, then doing more frequent inspections, and periodic maintenance, will allow you to get the maximum value and longevity.  If, on the other hand, too many things start to need to be repaired, it may be time to consider a reroofing project.  And this time, especially if the last time you went with the lowest bidder, look carefully at the entire roof system and see what fundamental deficiencies need to be corrected to get a better result.  If you’re not sure, give us a call.  We can do the analysis of the roof system and determine which changes/improvements are worth it.  After that, you’ll be in a much better place to ask for quotations, because you will know what the real issues are.

 B.    Repair/replacement

If it is clear that the roof, or parts of it, will need to be repaired or replaced, it is a useful exercise to determine what the causes were for the premature failure of the roof.  We often see so-called “30-year” roofs fail in as little as ten years.  We sometimes see “lifetime” metal roof systems needing to be replaced due to unresolved installation defects, or poor design.  Occasionally, we see short-cuts taken during the original construction ending up in undermining the integrity of the whole system.  We have also seen buildings that have had additions and extensions put on that were not well thought out, and have resulted in unexpected side-effects and deficiencies.  This often happens when an exterior space becomes converted into a three-season space, and then into a four-season heated environment.

If you think you’re ready to discuss replacement of your roof, you may want to review my post of December 14, 2013, and the article “How to get a good quote for your roof”.  There’s also the article called “How to Choose a Contractor (in Quebec)”.

© 2013 Paul Grizenko

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