High Energy Prices Affect the Roofing Industry

Dec. 16, 2005

We get reminded each time we pull up to the gas pump, but the higher price of energy surrounds us in many less obvious ways.

Since this is a roofing column, let's look at what is ahead in the roofing industry and the basic cost of petroleum (yes, gasoline is one component). But heating oil, coal, and natural gas are equally affected by the unbalance of availability and demand. For a roofing contractor, this means rising costs are going to be a bigger factor, both for the materials shipped and fleet operation.

Asphalt is a petroleum derivative, but as prices go higher, a modern refinery might opt to burn the asphalt as a fuel (it is similar to bunker
C fuel oil) rather than fuss with it as a finished product. In the oil boycott of 1973-74, the quality of asphalt suddenly became suspect because of aggressive bidding on petroleum products at sea. One day a refinery might get product from the Middle East, the next from Venezuela, and next from Alaska.  This variability required changes in process conditions on a daily basis, and contractors noticed different behavior from batch to batch. (The roofing industry partially solved this problem by developing application guidelines for hot asphalt based upon flow properties [Equiviscous Temperature]).

Another concern of the roofing industry is the cost of petroleum solvents, used in coatings, mastics, and primers. In addition, most of the raw materials for bituminous and single-ply systems also are derived from petroleum.

As a result of this, building owners need to recognize that their carefully generated 5-year budgets for roofing repair and maintenance may no longer be realistic. Total tear-offs may no longer be affordable, so expect to hobble along with what you have for years to come. While the government would like everyone to upgrade to thermal insulation at the time of re-roof, delaying this may be the only choice. The basic equation for insulation payback is that the first thickness (R-value) has the major return on investment, and that each unit after that is on a flatter part of the savings curve. Meanwhile, cost goes up linearly for every unit thickness, so the crossover is your optimum design point. So, if energy costs double, doubling the insulation will not break even.

Q: What is cost effective with today’s escalating material costs?
A: Limp along as long as you can with what you have. How? Do a visual inspection at once. Take a hard look at the equipment up on the roof. Are the flashings okay? Not sure? Take a hose and wet down the suspect areas. In fact, start at the base where the membrane is penetrated (if you are certain there are no leaks) and then work the hose all the way to the top of the units. Many so-called roof leaks are actually duct and sheet-metal leaks.
If you and your staff lack training, affiliate with the Roof Consultants Institute. Attend roofing programs at the University of Wisconsin Extension Division. Contact your local roofing contractor’s association and get meeting and tradeshow schedules.

Make a paper copy of a roof plan, and mark on it all problems and suspect areas. Bring a trash bag along on this survey, and pick up all the junk that is blocking drains. If you find holes or active leaks, fix them - at least temporarily. On a bituminous roof, fibrated asphalt mastic and woven scrim work fine. For a single-ply roof, duct tape will hold for weeks or months. If you have a spray foam roof, pump compatible caulk in the hole and feather out. (What is compatible? Use acrylic on acrylic membranes, polyurethane on urethane, and silicone on silicone).

For a metal roof, repairs may be a little more complicated. Where movement of the metal is causing elongated holes at fasteners, you may want to use a seal tester to see if they leak air. If they do, just tighten the fasteners or remove them and use new fasteners with weather-resistant EPDM washers. If flashings are tearing themselves apart due to movement, you may need to rebuild the flashing with details that accommodate relative movement. If corrosion is the problem, there are primers, coatings, and scrim reinforcements that may help. If penetrations are blocking drainage, use diverters on the high side, or shift penetration location to the flat portion of the roof pan (penetrations should never go through a vertical or trapezoidal panel lap).

Some building owners have discovered very cost-effective maintenance systems. One uses patches of modified bitumen membrane, generally torched onto a degravelled BUR membrane or onto distressed flashings.

Another is to degravel BURs, make necessary patches with polyester mat laid in hot asphalt or mastic, and then cover the entire roof with a single layer of polyester laid in hot asphalt. So far, this is not considered by code officials to be a new roof - just a resurfacing. Another alternative is to patch the roof and coat it with an elastomeric roof coating - perhaps reinforced with scrim or glass mat.

For some elastomeric membranes, adhesion is the problem. Weathered rubber may require scrubbing and application of a suitable primer. Self-adhering tapes work well for EPDM, and probably would work on old Neoprene and Hypalon™ roofs, at least for a while. PVC roofs may still be weldable even at an advanced age, which is a real advantage. In most cases, when PVC eventually fails, it is due to embrittlement - surface treatments will not help. If your PVC roof has extruded polystyrene beneath it, it may be possible to reuse the insulation and even get a warranty on its thermal performance.

Until supply and demand again come into balance, let’s keep those existing roofs in service. Remember, if you re-roof more that 25 percent of a roof in a single year, you may be required to upgrade the entire roof to current code requirements, including new seismic, structural, plumbing, thermal insulation, wind, and coating standards.

Q: Where do I go to get some help?
A: Visit (www.NRCA.net) to get a copy of a joint publication of NRCA/ARMA and SPRI’s Roof Inspection and Repair Manual. A new textbook, Manual of Low-Slope Roof Systems, 4th edition, is due out from McGraw-Hill in December 2005.

If you are concerned about wet insulation and the potential for mold, independent survey firms can conduct non-destructive tests to pinpoint potential wet spots. In many cases, it is cost effective to just remove the wet areas and patch back into the surrounding membrane.

Professional roofing consultants can step in, do the surveys, estimate costs, and give you a plan. As inflation drives the costs of roofing materials higher and higher, labor and such services become cheap.

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