Under Cover

Regular inspections will help to expose minor school roofing problems before they turn into major repairs.

By the time you notice a leak on a classroom ceiling, you've probably missed your best opportunity to repair the roof. But by regularly checking roofs for such telling signs as blisters, loose flashings or cracked caulking, you can head off minor problems before they become major repairs.

"Preventive maintenance is everything," says Dale Hughes, roofing coordinator for the Duval County Schools in Jacksonville, Fla. "It's hard to get people to realize how critical it is. You can save yourself a lot of headaches down the road."

TAKEN FOR GRANTED Roofs are an integral part of school facility management - every building has one, and every one is eventually going to need some maintenance work.

"Roofing is an item that begins to wear out from the day you put it on," says Hughes. "You have to do something to maintain your roofs. You can't ignore them."

But because of what they are and where they are, many schools do ignore their roofs as long as no problems manifest themselves inside the building. They may save some maintenance costs in the short term, but the damage that unchecked roofs can inflict on a building will be much more costly in the long term.

Schools historically have not had a good record of keeping up with repairs. Deferred maintenance has plagued education institutions nationwide. The widely publicized 1995 General Accounting Office report on school facility needs concluded that more than 21,000 school buildings had inadequate roofs. That translated to 11.9 million school children in buildings that needed roof upgrades.

REGULAR INSPECTIONS Many of those problems could have been avoided if schools routinely inspected their roofs. Organizations such as the Roofing Industry Educational Institute recommend that schools inspect their roofs twice a year, but that is a goal most schools can't meet. Many maintenance staffs are spread too thin for even once-a-year checks.

"If you had the ability to put all your buildings on a yearly inspection, you could avoid a lot of problems," says Hughes. "I can't afford that."

Principals and custodians who are in the building every day focus their attention on what is happening inside the building, not on top of it.

"Principals call only when there is a leak or a tree is growing out of one of their gutters," says Hughes. "Custodians don't know enough about roofs to spot what might be potential problems. You need someone who knows what he's looking at."

In the Duval County district, Hughes has to keep track of 1,600 roofs that account for 15 million square feet of space - everything from portable classrooms to a high school that covers seven acres.

Hughes compares roofs to car tires. You can take better care of tires by rotating them, putting the right amount of air in them and making sure the wheels are aligned properly. But even with that extra care, the tires will wear out. So will roofs - and if you have 1,600 of them, you're going to have to be looking constantly at replacing some of them.

Since the Duval district doesn't have the staffing to establish an inspection schedule, Hughes relies on the roofing repair contractor the district hires to be his eyes, and to look for cracks and crumbling.

"We tell our contractors when you are on the roof to do a repair, inspect the whole thing," says Hughes. "And if you find a problem, take care of it while you're there. They have standing instructions not to walk away from it. Do it now, rather than waiting for something else to happen.

"And don't just put bubble gum on it," he says. "Do the repair properly."

Roofs come with warranties, but some warranties don't cover repairs unless the roof is already leaking, says Hughes. It makes more sense to fix the roof before that point.

SIGNS OF TROUBLE When checking a roof for potential problems, pay special attention to the edges of the surfaces, to the flashings and to areas where repairs have already been made. Wind and rain can cause a building to shift. Flashings can loosen, or caulking can lose its adhesion. Older roofs need to be checked more closely.

Blisters - pockets of air trapped between roof layers - can lead to more serious damage.

"They tend to grow," says Hughes. "You've got to fix them or the ultraviolet rays will eat them up, and the roof will start alligatoring."

A simple way to avoid roofing problems is to keep them clean. In Duval County, the district has identified the buildings that tend to get a buildup of leaves or debris and makes sure they are cleaned regularly.

"Oak leaves will rot out your gutters in a few years if you don't remove them," says Hughes.

ROOFS THAT LAST For districts like Duval County that don't have the staffing to keep up with all their roofs, installing roofs with longer lives may help them avoid falling further behind in roof maintenance.

"I've got to get 20 years out of my roofs," says Hughes.

He notes that a roof with a 20-year lifecycle will be more expensive than those with shorter lifespans. But by having to replace roofs less often, a district will not incur the labor costs of roof replacement as frequently.

"The major expense in replacing roofs is labor," says Hughes.

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