That is a curious result that happens. Someone finally invests some serious money in upgrading their kitchen (or bathroom), installing beautiful cabinetry, gorgeous ceiling lights, and finally get the attractive and bright kitchen (or comfortable bathroom) that they always wanted. The following winter, an ice dam forms. The following year, the ice dam gets worse and the ceiling starts to leak after every thaw. What’s going on?
Roof stripping, that is. This is the process of getting rid of the old roof covering material, down to the deck. In the process, if done correctly, you’ll learn a lot of things about what worked on your roof and what didn’t. As all things that are good for you, there are costs and inconveniences involved, aspects which are exploited by those contractors who don’t have your best interests at heart.
What are some of the typical reasons you’re given why leaving your old roof on and going over is/are acceptable? They include:
- You’re saving money.
- It’s more ecological (no landfill waste!).
- It’s more secure.
- It provides another layer of protection to your roof.
- It’s recommended by the manufacturer.
- There’s much less residual mess to clean up.
So many great reasons why you should just leave the old roof on, and go over! And yet, pretty much all of these are false, based on the homeowner’s lack of knowledge of how the roof system is supposed to work, and compounded by the contractor’s desire to get the job done as fast as possible, get paid, and move on. If you are presented with the suggestion that leaving your old roof on is an acceptable strategy, there are a number of things you should be aware of before you agree to this.
When you look up various web sites advocating consumer help or protection, you often get the advice to ask for three quotes. The idea is that by getting these quotes, you are protecting yourself from contractors that are going to overcharge you, or from contractors who are undercharging because they are unqualified. This is excellent advice, but it usually doesn’t go far enough. As always, the really important stuff is in the details (the fine print). Let’s examine the issues.
Frost can be beautiful. One of the benefits of poorly insulated windows, at least for small children, is the beautiful lace shapes that form – so delicate and yet so enchanting.
Despite this beauty, there are plenty of places where in a home you do NOT want to see frost forming. Certainly, when found on windows, it is a clear sign that the window is not very good at insulating. Another place where you don’t want to see frost, is inside your attic.
You were happy to have the roof done a few years ago and you were delighted when the roofer told you he saved you money. Except that now your gyproc is showing signs of water damage, and the last roof lasted 15 years without any leaks in that location. What should you do?
The quick answer is:
- Diagnose the problem
- Identify the probable cause
- Assemble your evidence
- Notify the party responsible in writing
- Give adequate time for the party responsible to respond and correct
- If no acceptable solution is reached, escalate
The long form of the answer follows below. (Disclaimer: I am not giving legal advice in this post. The following discussion is only one of the ways such issues can be resolved, and there may be other mechanisms available to you that are not covered in this post).
Condensation plays the same role in “modern” roofing practice as “bad spirits” did in medieval times. If something went wrong, you blamed the bad spirits. Nowadays, if a roofing system is not working, it’s due to “condensation”. So let’s get into it and understand what condensation is, when can it appear in a roof system, and what corrective action you can and should take if condensation is really the cause of an apparent leakage.
Compared to (most) asphalt shingle roofs, (most) metal roofs last much longer and perform much better, as long as they are properly installed.
Metal roofs are considered to be more ecological than asphalt roofs, as their longevity usually means that the metal roof is the last roof the home will need. This longevity also means that fewer manufacturing resources are needed to produce this roof, compared to the resources needed for asphalt shingles over the life of the house.
However, this longevity of product may not be enjoyed by the homeowners, if the installation was not properly done. Even if the installers followed the manufacturer’s recommended installation practice, a roof may fail prematurely IF the roof covering was not properly integrated with the rest of the house structure.
So let’s look at what “should” be taken into account when considering a roofing solution.
Because, it’s not supposed to, silly. We want our stuff to work until the novelty wears off, and then we want it to fail so that we can replace it without any guilt, for the next new thing. This certainly applies to our electronic gadgets, much of our clothing, and even to our household furnishings and decorations.
So what’s wrong with wanting new stuff? This approach is not limited to the small things, it can also be seen in our attitude to more expensive stuff, like cars, houses, and relationships. We can accommodate this desire for novelty when the item is relatively cheap. This desire, however, clashes with our desire for security (or risk-avoidance). Cheap cars that broke down often and in fact were dangerous, have been replaced by cars that last longer, work better and are much safer. People are now holding on to their cars an average of about 7 years, whereas in the past, this used to be as short as two years.
When it comes to homes, the older pattern of staying in the house for 20-30 years, has changed so that people now change their homes on the average once every 7-8 years. Part of that appears to be due to increased workplace mobility, part of it is due to trading up, but there is also the aspect that people are using their home equity to finance their lifestyles and entertainment (as can be seen in the dramatic rise in home-equity loans and lines of credit).
This shortened time of residence has in encouraged people to think less of “long-term investment” in their property, and more about saleability (curb-side appeal, selling points like kitchens and bathrooms). On the flip side, the amount of effort spent on ensuring the asset’s long-term value (ie, maintenance and upgrading of the fundamentals), has decreased, so that when things do start going wrong, they require much more effort to fix. That in turn, prompts some people to sell, to avoid having to invest in major repairs, and leaving the expense to be new buyers.
Of course, the new buyers did not know the history of the home, and probably did not know what the true underlying state of the property actually is. Home inspections go only so far in ferreting out the hidden defects. This is one of the factors that prompted the Quebec government to institute a 10-year “hidden defect” law, allowing the new owners to sue the previous owners if a hidden defect (ie, a defect not disclosed in the sales documents) is found within 10 years of sale. (check the links under the Links tab on the main menu).
Hidden defects can arise in a number of ways. For instance, necessary regular maintenance may have been skipped, leading to a deterioration in the structure. Alternatively, various changes and “improvements” may have been made without taking into account the way the house system does or should work, resulting in a defective operation of the system. In other cases, hidden defects arise from the pattern of short-cuts taken by homeowners (and the contractors they hired) in carrying out essential work.
Returning to the starting theme of this post, a source of “hidden defects” is the performance of the roofing materials that are commonly installed. Based on marketing and other influencers, homeowners often expect a product that is sold with a multi-year warranty to last the length of the warranty. For example, many people believe that roofing shingles covered by a 30-year warranty will actually last 30 years. There are other products that are sold with 50-year or “life-time” warranties, with the implication that once installed, this will be the last roof that the home will need. (for links to the warranties of popular shingles sold in Quebec, check the links under the Links tab on the main menu).
The reality is somewhat different. For various reasons, it is common to see roofs needing replacement in as little as 10-12 years. It is certainly uncommon (in our experience) to see a roof made from asphalt shingles that has lasted more than 18 years. Other materials are also not immune from premature need for replacement. In the case of metal roofs, the primary material is usually long-lasting, but the failure comes from the lack of attention to key details during the installation.
Since homeowners are usually not expecting premature failure, they often fail to carry out routine annual inspections that would reveal the performance (or lack of) the materials installed. This results in deterioration that is “hidden” in the underlying structure. The primary “effect” of deterioration we need to be concerned about is the infiltration of water into the interior of the roof. This contributes to rot, delamination of plies (if covering is plywood), disintegration of the material (if non-exterior OSB), as well as support for mold.
In addition to the materials not lasting as long as the buyers expect, another aspect to reducing the longevity of roofing installations are the typical short-cuts that are taken to keep the price of the roof “affordable”. It takes time to do a proper roof preparation, and to build in all the little details that ensure a long-lasting roof assembly. Of course, the preparation and the details are not visible when the final covering goes on, so it’s hard to verify after-the-fact whether there were short-cuts taken. Given how many roofing contracts are written, there usually is no mention of these preparations or details, and what IS written is related mostly to the visible exterior part.
So whether it is intentional or not, the end result is that our roofs, for the most part, are going to fail much before we expect them to. Because these failures occur over time, for the most part, they are not perceived as urgent. These failures undermine the value of our most important investment, our home, and also incur ongoing liabilities in the event that we choose to sell. They diminish our security and well-being, increase our operating costs and can potentially undermine our health. It doesn’t have to be this way.
To make informed decisions, it takes knowledge of how things actually work, and experience to project what the consequences will be of the decisions taken. Protecting yourself by obtaining the facts about your actual situation is the first step. Identifying the issues, whether actual or potential, and prioritizing them, is the second step. Finding a company that has the knowledge, experience, and track record to do the right things in correcting the issues identified, is the third step. Choosing the appropriate materials installation process and determining an appropriate budget is the fourth step. Monitoring the performance of the work to ensure that no short-cuts are taken, is the fifth step. And of course, once the remediation work is completed, following up with annual inspection and doing the required maintenance is the final step of ensuring you get the maximum use of your investment.
We can help with each of the six steps identified above. This help isn’t “free” (we charge for our consultations), but given the potential consequences of not knowing, it’s an investment in making good decisions. If you are interested in ensuring that you know the facts, use the contact form to contact us and set up an appointment.
© 2014 Paul Grizenko
“If others tell us something we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.”
― Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
We can’t live without them. That’s just a fact of modern life. We can’t possibly fact-check everything we come across, or hear, or read. So as a convenient short-cut, we make assumptions that allow us to move onto whatever it is we’re trying to do. If those assumptions were wrong, then most of the time, it’s usually not a big issue, as we probably didn’t make life-altering decisions based on those wrong assumptions.
Assumptions are the ground upon which we build the structure of our thinking. Just as most times you don’t probe the ground in front of you before taking a step, you don’t check every bit of information about something before thinking about it, or making a decision, or taking an action. Most of the time, that’s perfectly fine, because we’re usually in familiar territory and we’ve passed this way and that way many a time without any negative consequences.
When we venture into new areas, we need to be a bit more careful. Unfamiliar territory “may” be just like what we already know, or it may not. If it is not, then how will you make sure that it is safe, or that you are making the right decisions? How do you know that the “rules” in this new place are the same that you are familiar with elsewhere? The reality is that you don’t know. And making the wrong assumptions can start having serious consequences.
What does all this have to do with roofing? Lots, as it turns out. Roofing is a field of expertise that is alien to most homeowners. Dealing with contractors, especially if you’re doing it the first time, is also a form of altered reality. When we get called to figure out a problem, we start by finding out the situation beforehand, what was requested in the contract, what was delivered, and how the result differed from expectations. As we peel away the various layers, we almost always find that at the base, the problem started with the wrong assumptions being made, which then allowed the wrong decisions, and wrong actions. We have traced unsatisfactory results to assumptions made by homeowners, by the contractors, and by the workers. Even inspectors are not immune to this type of fault.
What are the assumptions that lead us astray? There are, unfortunately, many. The ones below are probably among the more common, however the list is definitely not exhaustive.
A. Assumption: Buying a roof (or renovation) is just like buying a product like a car or a fridge.
Ah. A very common assumption, which could be true IF all homes were constructed in the same way, had the same history, had the same environment, were used in the same way, and were installed to the same standard. However, the roof is not ON the house, but is PART OF the house, and interacts with various elements in the structure. Since every home is somewhat different, the way the roof needs to be built and integrated with the rest of the structure is different for each situation. When you add to this the differences in the performance expectations that the homeowners may have, then it should be obvious that doing a re-roofing project is much more involved than just replacing the roof covering.
Another common fallacy is that the specs are sufficient to make a decision. When you compare products, you usually get the specs and compare them – what’s the performance, fuel efficiency of energy efficiency, operating costs, capacity, etc. However, the specs for a reroofing project are usually much more poorly defined. If you are relying on contractors to tell you what needs to be done (as part of the “free estimate”), you actually have no clue about what they will actually deliver, and if they have determined what needs to be done in a thorough and correct manner. If you don’t know which questions to ask, then you also do not know if your needs expectations (whether expressed or not) will be met.
It’s should therefore not be a huge surprise that the estimates can vary all over the place – and the assumptions made by the contractors are also not explicitly identified, so the “real” scope of work that will be done is very variable. In fact, when comparing estimates, we often find that the price for doing the visible part of the work (putting on the roof covering, for instance), is very close, but there is wide variation in the preparation and detail work.
If you DO want to make the comparison of quotes consistent, then YOU have to give the bidders a comprehensive spec which identifies the work to be done in detail, and references the products and quantities that are to be used. This spec is known as a “Request for Quotations” document, and identifies exactly what your expectations are. This is common for commercial work, but unusual for residential installations. And yet, without this kind of information, how do you know what you are buying?
B. Assumption: The marketing information is accurate.
We all love poring through the nice shiny advertising brochures, looking at the attractive models and locations, and imagining ourselves having some of that good fortune. Of course, there’s a little game being played here – we’re being invited to project ourselves enjoying the benefits of the services or products. To help us in this fantasy, to allow us to rationalize it to ourselves, the advertisers list the various attributes that should allow us to agree that this product or service will deliver. This is known as marketing copy. It is, if done properly, very seductive and persuasive.
However, we all know that in real life, we don’t usually get only the benefit. There are trade-offs, side-effects, compromises, and other consequences that don’t get mentioned in advertising copy. Where do we find out about those? That’s where the hard work of research has to come in. Some of the ways to verify advertising claims include:
- Reading the warranty or guarantee information, and most importantly, the exclusions,
- If test results are being quoted, then looking up the tests done, and understanding under which conditions the test results are applicable,
- Checking reviews by (hopefully) independent sources,
- Seeing actual performance of products over time.
In other words, we need to find out under which conditions the marketing claims have the possibility of being realistic. Otherwise, we’re just buying into a really nice fairy-tale, and expecting the “living-happily-ever-after” to happen to us.
C. Assumption: The warranty is there to protect me.
Or course it is. That’s why it’s written by lawyers hired by the company supplying the product or service. That’s why it’s written in easy-to-read fine print, and in easy-to-understand legal language. That why there are clauses saying that the warranty is in effect only if the product is used as intended by the manufacturer. And of course you will ONLY use it in the way it was intended, and ONLY under the conditions under which it is warranted.
Warranties, when referenced by advertising, are in fact marketing documents. They also are a legal limitation of liability by the company, intended to keep their obligation to the consumer/user of the product at a minimum level. They can’t totally escape all obligations – our various laws prevent for the most part that kind of escape, but they can limit the consequences to themselves.
There is a class of warranties that are wonderful to read in the scope of benefit they promise. However, keep in mind that the warranty is in effect only as long as the specific entity that issues the warranty exists. Therefore the most generous warranties are written with the expectation by the issuer that they won’t be in business when the warranty claims start pouring in. Those companies that DO stand behind their warranties are usually very careful to limit their liability to ensure that they can deliver on the promises made.
However, stuff sometimes happens even to the best companies. When those companies disappear, or get bought out, the warranty promises evaporate. It turns out that the best warranty is the knowledge that the product or service is well built or delivered, and that there is no need for a warranty claim in the future. When it comes to roofing, the best warranty is a contractor who knows what he or she is doing. Which brings us to the next assumption.
D. Assumption: The contractor knows what he or she is doing.
This is a natural and normal assumption. After all, the company wouldn’t be in business if they didn’t know their trade, right? That’s true for the good contractors. However, the fact that they are in business doesn’t mean they are good, just as the fact that a person is breathing and alive doesn’t make them a “good” person.
So how do you know if a contractor knows what he or she is doing? There are ways to find out. I’ve covered much of this in the article “How to choose a Contractor (in Quebec)”. However, it is also important to know that the workers or subcontractors also know their trade, and that is where most people fail to dig deeply enough.
Another aspect of this assumption, is that the contractor also has a degree in mind-reading, and knows what your expectations are even if these are not voiced or written down. If the expectations ARE fully expressed, it is an assumption that he or she will understand exactly the same thing you are meaning (if you doubt that, then you were never married or had a close partner).
Therefore, when the work is under way, it is very important to check in periodically with the contractor, or the crew chief, or the foreman to verify that what is being done DOES conform to your expectations. If they know what they are doing, they’ll have no problem explaining what, how, and why they are doing something. If they can’t or won’t explain, then that’s a big red flag.
E. Assumption: The contract doesn’t have to cover every detail, because it’s obvious what has to be done.
As was noted in the previous section, what is obvious to you may not be obvious to the contractor, and vise versa. A good contract should clearly identify all the work to be done, and just as importantly, put limits on the work being done. This is to avoid “mission creep” when the original project morphs into something else. This is a particular problem with longer projects, and it can be both very expensive, and very frustrating to all concerned.
We notice that the preparation and repair work often gets a minimum of discussion, if at all, and yet this is where the biggest discrepancies often are found, between what is done, and what should have been done. On some projects, the prep work can be equal to or even more than the cost of the “main” work. Since good preparation is the foundation on which the rest of the project is built, skimping on it almost always leads to unsatisfactory results. And yet, it almost never gets properly discussed and described in the contract.
F. Assumption: The building structure is fine. We checked one part and it should be the same everywhere.
If the original inspection was done in a cursory manner, then this assumption can wreak havoc on schedules costs, and effectiveness of the result. As noted earlier, a re-roofing project is the blending of the old with the new. If the insulation is good in one area, but poor in another, you can’t use the same approach in both. How this gets resolved depends partly on the type of contractor you have. The good ones will bring the “surprise” discovery to your attention, and propose one or more ways to change the scope of work to accommodate this discovery (at additional cost, of course). The unscrupulous ones may either use this as an excuse to really jack up the price (especially if they won with a very low bid), or they can pretend that there was no surprise, and work as if it wasn’t there. In the latter case, you’ll have the surprise down the road, when things aren’t working as they should.
This comes back to the point, that the best way to prevent this kind of surprise is to do a thorough inspection before starting the project. If there are areas that are hidden, they should be opened up and explored, especially if those areas have been linked to problems.
It has been said, that wisdom to make good choices comes from experience, and experience comes from bad choices. The smart person learns from the bad choices of others. So, be smart, hire us to help you define what needs to be done, and put together a plan to make it happen.
© 2014 Paul Grizenko
A fundamental activity in assessing the status of a roof is a thorough inspection. Unfortunately, too often, it is not done, or done poorly by the roofing salesman, or the roofing representative or an inspector. This is partly due to lack of knowledge/training, and partly due to attitude. So, what should you expect to see or learn from a proper roof inspection?
The first thing to consider is that the roof is part of the house’s external envelope, and as such interacts with the rest of the house. The house construction depends partly on the time when the house was built, and the building codes in effect at the time, and partly on the design/construction choices that were made. Many older homes have also had renovations and “improvements” done to them, not always by qualified people, and not always taking into account the way these changes affect the rest of the house.
Other factors that affect the way the overall system functions include the living habits and lifestyles, the location of the house relative to its environment, the current prevailing climate, and the degree and type of vegetation around the property.
Inspections therefore serve to reveal the “ground truth” of a home’s construction, quantify to a degree how the various components interact, and reveal the deficiencies and weaknesses. With this information in hand, it is then possible to determine which changes are necessary, and to prioritize them if they cannot all be done at the same time.
Why isn’t this done all the time? Homeowners usually don’t do this because they lack the knowledge, experience and (sometimes) the ability to conduct an inspection. Home inspectors (particularly the ones who give a checklist inspection at very little cost) usually are generalists, and are focused on the current state of the home, and not necessarily on the cause-and-effect. Salesmen often don’t do this because it can be dirty work, they don’t have the knowledge about the things that can go wrong, and in any case, their job is to make a sale of product or service, not to play consultant.
What should you expect from a good inspection? While the answer depends on the house, the objectives of the inspection, and the intended use of the inspection information, the list below covers some of the aspects:
- Assessment of the roof covering, penetrations, seals and flashings,
- Assessment of the decking/sheathing condition and structure,
- Assessment of the insulation type, distribution, effectiveness and condition,
- Assessment of the ventilation function, quantity, distribution and effectiveness
- Determination of the way the snow behaves on the roof in winter
- Determination of the way the water run-off works,
- Assessment of the effectiveness of the vapour barriers
- Determination of issues of condensation, inappropriate venting, and insufficient sealing against air movement
As part of the above list of areas to cover during the inspection, it is also necessary to understand what one is seeing. When is 12″ of insulation more than adequate, and when is it grossly insufficient? Why is having lots of large Maximum vents not always the perfect solution to ventilation issues? When is a roof with curling shingles in better shape than one with the shingles all lying flat? When is an ice-dam a reason to worry, and when can you safely ignore it? What is the significance of rusty-looking nails protruding through the sheathing? It is relatively common to find overlapping deficiencies that amplify the effects.
Sometimes, it is not possible to access all parts of the roof system, and it becomes necessary to do “exploratory surgery” to establish the facts of the physical reality. This is often the case when a problematic portion of the roof is hidden due to the way it was constructed, or because it was sealed off to prevent a careful inspection. The latter is a red flag. I remember one particular situation when I was hired by a young couple to check the state of the roof of their newly-purchased home in an older part of town. The renovations done by the previous owner did not allow access to the attic or any cold spaces. When we succeeded in gaining access, we discovered the insulation completely covered in black mold. Upon getting our report, the owners did some further investigation (removal of portion of a gyproc wall in their newborn daughter’s bedroom) and found the entire wall space covered with mold. It turned out that the history of the building was not disclosed to the buyers and the seller was “flipping” the property after acquiring it for almost nothing. The new owners had to move out and pursue redress through the courts.
Other types of issues we’ve seen during inspections, is the problems that putting in additions or extensions without fully understanding the operation of the “system” can cause. Typically, when a cold space is converted into a heated, four-season space, there is not enough thought put into how the insulation, ventilation and vapour barriers will interact. This results in appearance of condensation in places it was never present before, in the transfer of heat to the roof that was not a problem in the original structure, and in various other symptoms. When the new owners are trying to rectify the surprising deficiencies, they often find that the money spent on the repairs is wasted, as the root causes of the deficiencies were not addressed.
Most people buying an older home do not have an unlimited budget to rebuild it to meet all the current requirements. Therefore, having a good inspection is important to allow effective evaluation of which issues are critical, which are important, and which can be lived with. From this assessment, it is then possible to develop a phased approach to addressing the issues in a systematic manner.
Why can’t you get the inspection done as part of a “free estimate” advertised by many companies? You might get lucky and get a knowledgeable roofer (not a salesman!) who will take the time to understand your situation. Chances are however more likely that you will get a “consultant” or “representative” who is there to sell you a roof. Their first, second, and third priority is to make the sale, and to use whatever justification they can find to win your trust and persuade you to agree. Since most companies have a “primary advantage” of some kind over the competition, that becomes their solution to any issue you may have (when all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail). Their solution may address part of the problem, but not necessarily all the aspects.
Doing a good inspection is necessary to establish the cause-and-effect, the weaknesses, scope of work, the priorities, and the sequence in which the work should be done. It usually requires much more than a 15 minute walk around of the property. Everything that the inspector sees or notes, should be documented with photographs, and quantified by measurement. For instance, in a recent consulting engagement, the homeowners were told by an inspector that the insulation was “good”. After my inspections, we were able to determine that:
- The insulation varied from 8-10 inches of cellulose fill over old fiberglass insulation in one part of the roof (the client had contracted for 12″ of fill over the vapour barrier),
- The insulation was blown into the soffit cavity (thereby obstructing the air intake from the soffits)
- The insulation in another part of the roof was equivalent to only 6″ of fiberglass (giving at best about R18, instead of the desired R40), and the insulation in that part was not packed effectively, severely reducing the effectiveness of the insulation that was there.
- The quantity and quality of insulation in a newish extension was unknown as that entire area was not accessible, but suspect from the quantity of ice damming occurring.
After the inspection, the inspector should be able to show the images of deficiencies found, and explain what should be the desired state, and how much of a discrepancy is shown between that state and the actual state.
If you’re in the greater Montreal area and want to have us do an inspection for you, please use the contact page to send us a request for such a consultation. If you’re further afield, but want to have a detailed check list, use the contact form to give us your contact coordinates. I’ll then call you to determine if we can help you, and if so, which form this help can take.
I’d love to hear of your experiences with inspections. Use the comment link to make the comments on this page.
(c) 2014 Paul Grizenko