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5 Common Winter Roofing Mistakes

Harsh winter weather is a nightmare for roofs. Avoid these mistakes to give your roof the best shot for a long and happy life

“It’s probably fine.” Those famous last words are the last thing a facility manager should assume when it comes to the roof. As long as there isn’t water pouring onto someone’s desk, it’s sometimes easy to forget the roof is perhaps the most critical exterior asset of a building. That’s a huge mistake.

Especially as fall turns to winter, it’s high time to make sure the roof is in good enough shape to prevent major problems through the extreme winter weather. We recommend facility managers develop a winter roof management plan that incorporates inspections, maintenance actions, and repair procedures that take effect before and after winter storm events. A properly executed winter roof management plan can eliminate costly roof repairs and extend the service life of the existing roof system.

But every year, as managers collect their thoughts in the spring, they wonder if there were things they could’ve done better, or at least differently to prevent the worst effects of winter weather. At the very least, Facility Managers want to avoid these five roofing mistakes before the rough winter season.

1. Skipping the autumn inspection

Giving the roof the best shot to make it through the long, cold winter starts with the autumn inspection. But when facility managers are busy putting out daily fires, dealing with occupant concerns, and answering the CEO’s questions about the temperature in his office, the roofing inspection can be one thing that falls by the wayside. This is a huge mistake.

Roofing experts recommend twice-annual inspections, once in the fall and once in the spring. The fall inspection is the time to ensure that laps and seams are still flush and fastened, flashings around roof penetrations and at the edges are secure, and there are no loose items strewn about the roof surface.

The autumn inspection is really the time to make sure the roof is in tip-top shape.

Make sure the roof drains, scuppers and gutters are free of leaves and debris for proper water drainage. While checking for deficiencies such as deterioration, failing older repairs, small slices or punctures, or deteriorated caulking. Ensure that all HVAC rooftop equipment doors are secured.

The most important thing, however, is to take action on any problems the roofing inspection reveals.

2. Assuming a new roof doesn’t need maintenance

The facility just spent tens of thousands of dollars on a shiny new roof. As winter approaches, this is when “it’s probably fine” becomes more tempting than any other time.

A common mistake is to assume that because a roof is new it doesn’t need to be maintained for the first few years. The best way to prolong the life of a roof is to put a preventive maintenance plan in place right away, especially because most manufacturers give incentives for properly maintaining the roof, with many extending the life of the warranty for up to 10 years.

Just because a roof is new, doesn’t mean FMs shouldn’t do the fall inspection and also the required preventive maintenance – cleaning, drain clearing, and the rest. High winds in winter can create issues at laps and seams for even the most well-installed roofs. But, if a roof is new, and there was any sort of installation mistake – even a slight one, like not installing a flashing around a vent pipe correctly – this will certainly manifest as a bigger problem over the course of the winter. Better to catch it now, and have the contractor fix it than having to fix a much bigger problem in the spring.

3. Assuming a small problem isn’t a bigger problem

A sometimes-overlooked component of a roofing inspection is examining the ceiling and interior walls on the top floor for any signs of water intrusion or water damage. Often, just by walking the roof, it won’t be obvious if water is finding its way into a building. Any water infiltrating the building is a sure sign of a bigger problem – or at least a problem that is going to get a lot worse if left uncorrected.

When problems are caught before irreversible damage sets in, the cost factor significantly decreases in the long-term. Oftentimes a large problem is beyond the budget constraints of the facility manager, which makes it even more critical to identify any issues as fast as possible. It is also important to remember that structural damage caused by unaddressed issues on the roof, depending on the weather, age of the roof, and current condition, may further compound an already existing problem.

Hoping a problem will resolve itself on its own is not a solid preventive maintenance plan. Especially when it comes to the roof, always assume that a small problem is either a sign of a bigger one, or a bigger one to come soon.

4. Not planning for freeze/thaw and ice dams (for sloped roofs)

The freeze/thaw cycle is one of the biggest enemies of any type of roof. It causes materials – especially metal flashing – to expand and contract, and any movement at all in roofing material is not a good thing. Blisters in the membrane, loss of attachment, and other issues result from all the components of the roof expanding and contracting at their own rate. This is called differential movement. The freeze/thaw cycle can also cause water to pond on a roof, water to force its way under a membrane, and a litany of other issues. The best strategy is simply to keep on top of any issues. If there are huge temperature swings, take a quick walk on the roof to inspect for any problems.

Ice dams are more of an issue on sloped roofs, when water thaws, but then refreezes in the gutters and backs up underneath the roofing material. It’s critical to make sure the gutters are completely free of leaves or debris. Heat trace cables can be installed and placed within the gutters or near the edge of the roof eaves to help melt any snow or ice accumulation.

One final issue to keep an eye on is the weight of snow after a huge snowstorm. Of course, facility managers don’t want to have to make it a habit of shoveling the roof, but in the case of unusual amounts of snow, the sheer weight of the snow can be enough to cause huge problems.

5. Skipping the spring inspection

Unless managers are lucky, or the winter was extremely mild, chances are there are going to be issues come spring. As soon as the snow melts, and it’s safe, it’s important to get back up on that roof and assess what sort of work will be required.

It is important to recognize that, unfortunately, not all roofs are in good enough condition for preventive maintenance. Some roofs may be in a condition that precludes preventive work and may need replacement. If budgets do not permit replacement, there may be specific repairs that will stabilize the roof and extend its life until budgets permit the necessary replacement.

The most important strategy, though, is not to wait. The longer one waits to make repairs, the bigger – and much more expensive – the problem can be.

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