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The View From the Roof

The snow is nearly melted here in Central Vermont. If you are responsible for the maintenance of those low-slope roofs under which we work and live in, this is a great time to get up on the roof and conduct a spring inspection. A simple walkover with an inspection checklist in hand can go a long way toward preventing costly problems in the future.

The National Roof Contractors Association strongly advocates proactive, planned maintenance. Why? In large part, because they have documented that a majority of new roofs develop serious problems within the first year! They know that finding these issues and dealing with them is a key to extending the life of the roof assembly.

We seem to tolerate leaks and just walk around them! When they stop, we all too often forget that there is still a problem “up there”—moisture trapped in the roof assembly.

We usually get very excited about a leak into a building because it makes a big mess. As I walked through the Philadelphia airport last week, for example, I noticed (again!) barricades and large plastic barrels in the middle of Terminal B to catch the drips. But once the leak is “fixed,” most building maintenance people forget about their roof.

It is not unusual for many buildings to suffer from leaks in the Spring that disappear in the Summer! When snow piles up against a parapet wall and then melts, it can find its way into the roof assembly and then into the building.

Plugged roof drains and a thunderstorm result in a flooded roof and all too often significant damage due to water backing up over the flashings. All this can be prevented with a simple visual inspection every spring and fall.

Summer, of course, brings other kinds of damage and leaks, often related to wind-driven rain or a thunderstorm’s deluge. A well-designed and maintained roof can easily handle a big summer storm, but if, for example, the drains are still plugged with debris from the previous winter, the roof may flood and back up over some of the flashings.

A simple visual inspection can help locate issues such as failed expansion joints, broken flashings or small areas of damage to the roof membrane. I’m always amazed at the things I find on a roof in the Spring—from baseballs and broken bottles to dead animals and small trees growing out of a split in the roof. I clearly remember finding a number of welding rods that had punctured the roof, obviously the result of a game of “darts” played by workers on a nearby building that was under construction!

Some roofs are designed to be “green,” but this small tree is an indication of a flashing failure that is guaranteed to result in more leaks and a reduced life cycle for this roof assembly.

While a visual inspection is critical to roof maintenance, if there has been any sign of a roof leak, it is time to get out the infrared imaging system. While the leak may have been stopped, the moisture trapped in the assembly continues to cause serious damage. Wet insulation degrades the deck and roof fasteners as well as the membrane and the insulation itself. Of course, wet insulation also no longer insulates effectively, resulting in increased energy use to condition the building.

An infrared roof moisture survey is usually the best way to determine if there is residual moisture left in the roof after the assembly has been compromised. This simple technique is used to locate the wet insulation in a roof—which is the key strategy for successfully maintaining the roof over its expected life cycle.

Next week we’ll talk about how thermal imaging is essential to getting the most out of your roof.

Next week, we’ll talk about the specifics of how to conduct an infrared roof moisture inspection as well as some of the real limitations you may encounter. Between now and then, however, take a look around the buildings you work in or visit that have low-slope roofs. If you find one with evidence of a water leak—buckets or stained ceilings or damage to the interior—I’d love to have you leave a comment hear letting me know about what you find.

Thinking Thermally,

John Snell—The Snell Group, a Fluke Thermal Imaging Blog content partner

6 comments to The View From the Roof

  • Dan Laughbon

    I’m glad they called a thermographer to inspect there roof or else that tree may never have been detected until it was too late!. Haha. Good article,Thanks.

  • I have a list of “supplemental tools” to take up on the roof but it generally does NOT include a chainsaw! I didn’t count the growth rings on this one but my guess is it was about 4-5 years old!!!

  • Domenic Llamas

    Do you ever come to Southern California? I am a member of the RCI SoCal chapter (Roof Consultants Institure), and we could greatly benefit from a discussion with you.

  • Domenic, Sorry for the delay in responding. Yes, we are often out in Southern California and would be delighted to work with your RCI chapter. I’ve followed the work of RCI for years. They’ve long represented the best practices of the industry, especially for the kinds of roof repairs that go hand in hand with thermographic surveys for moisture. I’ll be in touch with you directly to see what we can arrange.

  • Domenic, Please drop me an email at .

  • Hallelujah! I needed this—you’re my saiovr.