Roof maintenance: what building owners need to know

During the past several years, roofing contractors and roof consultants throughout the United States have seen substantial increases in requests for roof asset management or preventive maintenance services. Whether this is a result of building owners and building managers recognizing the long-term benefits of such services or simply having an increased concern for cost control and "getting the most out of their roofs" is difficult to determine. However, this change in buying habits certainly has affected the roofing industry.

It seems as though everyone in the roofing business—from manufacturers to consultants to contractors of every size—has developed a program, system or department to address owners' roof system maintenance needs.

Most of us on the service end of the roofing industry would agree, in most cases, any preventive maintenance is better than none. However, because there are so many approaches to address owners' needs, it becomes important for the building owner community to understand the basic services typically provided and what to look for when considering to move from a crises-management mode to a proactive one.

This article will attempt to clarify roof system maintenance questions for building owners and provide some reasonably objective answers. Remember, there is no such thing as the absolute right answer or wrong answer to any question. What follows is a result of personal experience and conversations with numerous successful roofing contractors and happy and unhappy building owners.

What is the difference between a roof system maintenance program and roof asset management?

The components of a roof system maintenance program can vary widely. The most basic programs only address emergency repairs and typically are reactive in nature—an owner only contacts a roofing contractor when his building's roof is leaking. This type of program often is informal and based on a long-term relationship between an owner and contractor. Although beneficial to both parties, it isn't necessary for the contractor to have a dedicated service department.

What more often is referred to as a roof system maintenance program can encompass a long list of services that address owners' particular needs. This type of program often is formalized through the use of a maintenance agreement, extended warranty or similar contractual relationship. A basic program involves periodic inspections of roof(s), a report of conditions, and some method of completing those repair or maintenance items identified during the inspection. This type of arrangement is proactive and goes a long way toward extending roof system service life and maximizing roof asset investment.

One component that always should be included in this type of agreement is a provision to cover emergency repairs or those items not covered contractually in a basic agreement. Because emergency work typically is performed on a time-and-materials basis, appropriate labor rates should be included in the agreement.

Roof asset management is a term that also can mean a lot of different things to a lot of people. In most cases, roof asset management picks up where a roof system maintenance program leaves off. Although any good roof asset management program includes the basics described, an asset management program should provide an owner with all the information necessary to make good economic decisions about his roof assets. A method or system for recording and tracking any and all information about the roof assets and their condition and makeup are fundamental. In addition, any number of management tools can be provided. In-depth short- and long-term budgeting, life-cycle cost analysis and other financial decision-making tools are the most common.

Of course, to collect and develop such information, in-depth roof system inspections are required. Roof asset management typically has a higher initial cost than a roof system maintenance program but also provides more information about and control over assets. Once the information is collected and an owner is able to make decisions, the most important part of a roof asset management program becomes turning the data into repairs and maintenance that will lead to fewer problems and longer roof system service life. In most cases, a combination of immediate repairs and development of a maintenance agreement-type relationship is the system that benefits owners the most.

Who provides these types of programs?

There are numerous sources for the types of maintenance programs described. Local contractors, contractors with a national presence and groups of affiliated contractors have recognized the potential for formalized service and maintenance departments or program offerings. Most often, contractors provide all levels of service from emergency repair to maintenance agreements. Many roofing contractors have developed roof asset management programs. Other providers are architectural or engineering firms, roof consultants or designers, and manufacturers. Designers tend to provide asset management services, and many manufacturers provide roof asset management and materials as part of relationships with approved contractors to facilitate roofing work.

How do I choose an appropriate contractor?

Although most contractors provide repair services, there are some basic differences between a contractor who repairs roof systems and what I'll refer to as a roof maintenance contractor.

In discussions with contractors who are successful in the field, I have learned there are several commonalities that seem to run across all contracting organizations no matter company size or location. Several commonalities include the following items, and as a building owner, you should be aware of them:

  • A service department that is separate from day-to-day roofing operations. One thing virtually any successful roof maintenance contractor will say is he did not realize the full potential of service and maintenance work until he set up a separate maintenance department. Personnel, trucks, equipment and, in many cases, middle management need to be dedicated to providing service work. The basic philosophy of a typical roofing crew does not, in most cases, lend well to the business of searching for and locating roof leaks and then repairing leaks that may be located 150 feet (46 m) from where water is entering a roof system.

  • The ability to communicate with customers and field personnel. A successful roof maintenance contractor should be easily accessible to you. Before hiring a contractor, ask: Does the contractor have a 24-hour radio or telephone dispatch or another method for you to report a leak to a human being at any hour of the day or night? Does the contractor have the ability to accept telephone, fax or e-mail service orders? Making it easy to report a leak or request service is important.

    Once the work is ordered, consider whether the contractor has the ability to communicate with his field personnel. In cases where an emergency occurs, the contractor should be able to contact service personnel and move them from low priority work to protect your assets as soon as possible. Assure yourself that the contractor has a telephone or radio dispatch to reach each roofing service crew.

  • A standardized approach to field work. The repairs a contractor makes should meet some standard or guideline recognized by the roofing industry. The Repair Manual for Low-slope Membrane Roof Systems is a great resource for repair guidelines. Many contractors not only require their service technicians to follow the manual's guidelines but also expect each crew to carry the manual to jobs for easy reference. Other industry organizations and many manufacturers also have printed repair guidelines that can be used in the same way.

    The important thing to remember is there are a lot of ways to stop water from entering a roof system, and you should expect every final repair performed on every roof system to at least meet the quality of the surrounding roof system. A standardized guideline for workmanship is your best assurance work will be performed to that level.

  • A history of working with different roof systems. For a contractor to be successful in the service and maintenance business, his field personnel should be trained to work on virtually every roof system type they come across. Evidence of ongoing in-house or manufacturer training is important because specific repair techniques, tools and materials are necessary to properly repair the many available roof systems. If a contractor only has employees trained to work with EPDM, you probably don't want them attempting to repair a torch-applied modified bitumen roof system.

  • A professional image and service philosophy. Clean service vehicles, uniforms for field personnel and a professional approach to customer service all are good indications a contractor is serious about his roof maintenance business. As always, checking references will give you a good idea of how a contractor will perform.

    Most contractors provide service work for a wide range of customers. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all maintenance agreement. You should be able to negotiate and tailor a maintenance agreement to meet your requirements.

  • Relationships with other trades. When you call a contractor about a roof leak, the contractor's goal is to stop the water from entering the building. If, as quite often is the case, a leak is coming from a source other than a roof system (heating, ventilating and air-conditioning units; masonry; plumbing lines; etc.), the last thing you want to hear from a contractor is "we don't do that kind of work."

    Many roofing contractors have developed relationships with mechanical contractors, plumbing contractors, etc., to take care of problems roofing contractors do not have the expertise to repair. As an owner, you may want to make sure all your service providers work together or your roofing contractor has relationships with other trades to help address these types of issues.

  • Financial stability. As with any contractor, long-term financial stability is important. A maintenance relationship between an owner and roofing contractor typically is a long-term relationship, and a strong financial position with good trade references and adequate insurance are as important here as they are in a situation where a contractor is reroofing a building.

When do I choose a consultant or designer?

As previously discussed, there are several types of organizations that can provide roof asset management services. Many contractors have programs in place. Consultants and designers often have asset management programs that address only roofing while other providers' asset management programs can address a building as a whole and provide roof asset management as a portion thereof.

Traditionally, as with contractors, the design community primarily has addressed roof systems during new construction and reroofing. The concept of an ongoing relationship between a consultant or designer and owner to address a roof system's life-cycle issues rarely has been considered. However, during the past several years, roof consultant firms have provided asset management services for their clients addressing roof systems during the systems' entire service lives.

The decision as to when a consultant or designer should be hired is based on a number of factors. Only you can determine whether working with a contractor or consultant or designer is appropriate. In many cases, both can provide the information necessary to make good decisions. The size of buildings and their geographic locations may determine the appropriate choice.

As a building owner, do you want a provider who can address roof asset management and the repair and maintenance component as one program, or do you want to separate the services? If you have a consultant or design firm that prepares plans and specifications and handles contract and construction administration during reroofing projects, the firm may be able to provide ongoing roof asset management services. There are benefits to both approaches, and both have proved successful.

How do I choose a consultant or designer?

When choosing a consultant or design firm, some of the same criteria you would use to choose a contractor apply. Professional image, financial stability and a method for communicating are important. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is the consultant's or designer's basic philosophy toward ongoing maintenance and the approach he takes toward making it happen. You want to find a provider who can give you valuable data; help you make good decisions; and translate those decisions into meaningful, cost-effective, high-quality repairs and maintenance.

Remember, simply collecting roofing-related maintenance information and letting it sit on a shelf almost is as bad as doing nothing at all. A computer disk or three-ring binder full of information does not prevent or stop roof leaks.

Another question to ask roof asset management providers is whether they sell computer technology or an integrated concept for keeping water out of buildings. Most available roof asset management programs are driven by a software program. I have seen owners, contractors, consultants or designers, and manufacturers get caught up in the technology, not the philosophy. Remember, a computer program is a tool that, when used correctly, can be powerful. But you need to understand what the program/system will do. Is it simply an electronic file cabinet that records data, or is it a budgeting, decision-making tool that can provide you with meaningful output and the information you need?

A consultant's or designer's relationship with contractors and manufacturers can be another key to success. Reference checks with others in the industry can give you a good feel for how successful your consultant or designer can be. You want a consultant or designer who can work with contractors and different manufacturers and roof systems when necessary.

For whatever reason, roof system maintenance has become a common trend for building owners. I have attempted to answer several of the basic questions owners may ask about maintenance.

Additional questions owners must ask themselves when deciding to adopt a formal roof system maintenance program include the following: What is my philosophy concerning my roof assets? Do I simply want emergency repair services, or do I want a full-blown roof asset management program? Does the additional roof system service life and less disruption I will realize from such a program justify spending money to make it happen?

The answers to these questions and those discussed in the article are the keys to putting together a successful roof system maintenance program.

Dane Bradford is president of Bradford Roof Management, Billings, Mont.


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