The way a roof wears can show a lot about why it is failing. Each type of failure, whether it be blisters, splits or punctures (just to name a few) typically results from a specific cause. For example, poor design can lead to splits and debris can cause punctures. Understanding the causes of the most common types of roof problems can help building owners and facility managers prevent the errors that too often shorten the life of the roof.
Preventing problems begins with the design of the roof and choice of materials. The roof membrane chosen should reflect the characteristics of the building. If there will be a lot of foot traffic, you should choose a system that will be resistant to such damage. If the roof is wide open and there will be a great deal of thermal movement, a stretchable material such as an EPDM membrane is a better choice than a system that has limited elongation capabilities.
Details must be carefully thought out prior to installation. A transition from a gravel stop to a parapet is a poor building design that must be compensated for in the roof design. A metal transition piece can help alleviate problems that occur as a result of differential movement and different directional movement between the gravel-stop portion and the parapet portion. Correcting slope-to-drain problems should be determined at the design stage.
The roof must also be properly installed, using dry materials and installing them according to the design details or manufacturer’s requirements. Expansion joints have to terminate in a way that the end of the joint will still compensate for building movement. This means that there should be no material crossing the joint — not gravel stops, copings, membrane, and certainly not roofing cement — that cannot flex or move with the movement of the structure. All seams should be properly adhered.
Finally, the roof must also be properly maintained. Roof access should be limited to only those who need to be up there. Keep smokers, lunches and sunbathers off the roof. Not only will the cigarettes burn holes in the membrane, the foot traffic will damage the surface and cause the roof to fail prematurely. Building owners and managers should monitor the activity of sign installers and window washers to be sure that they are not damaging the roof as they work. New HVAC installations should be flashed not by the mechanical contractor, but by a competent roofing contractor to be sure that the penetrations are sealed.
The roof itself should be examined twice a year, including having the drains cleared and all roof debris removed. All small problems like punctures and sealant failures should be addressed at this time to be sure that they are not causing problems that will lead to failure. The life of a roof is finite, but it doesn’t have to be short-lived. Some common sense when designing the roof, attention to detail when installing it, and care when using it will maximize its life.
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