The Perfect Patch

Dec. 1, 2003
Preventive maintenance can help schools avoid roof leaks and other roofing headaches.

Roofs are at the top of the “damage chain” in education buildings. With a failing roof, the damage is immediate and the results can be catastrophic. When a roof leaks, it results in structural damage to walls and floors, as well as damage to insulation, and mechanical and electrical systems. Another major concern is roof-water leakage seeping into walls and other areas, creating mold. The effects can be extensive because a roof leak may not show up right away.

Every building manager has to deal with roof issues but, for the most part, in commercial buildings, the similar age and condition of the roofs make management relatively easy. For facilities managers in education institutions, though, the problems are complicated by the fact that there may be many different types of roofs of different ages. Many schools and universities have been around for years — many more than 100 years — and in many cases, the original buildings are still in use. Different roof types also present problems. Some are pitched, some are flat, some are tar, some are slate. Some have copper gutters and some have internal gutters.

Each roof requires different maintenance procedures and skills. But all roofs have one thing in common — good roof maintenance eliminates headaches and is less expensive in the long run. Preventive maintenance and, just as important, predictive maintenance can help schools avoid emergencies and reduce damage dramatically.

Good roof maintenance doesn't just happen, though. It comes from having a plan that is the result of understanding what challenges the roofs present.

A good beginning

The key to predictive maintenance is an audit. Every roof and related system should be inspected in detail to evaluate its condition. In addition, repair records should be examined to identify recurring problems.

An audit does not just classify easily defined characteristics such as age, type of roof, materials and other factors. The audit should rank several specific factors:

  • Condition

    The overall condition of the roof should be categorized and ranked. This is critical information for developing predictive-maintenance and replacement programs. It is important to have the background of similar structures at other colleges and schools in order to categorize roofs adequately.

  • Weather

    The location of the facility is important. The weather wear of facilities varies considerably across the country. The North has high heat in the summer and bone-chilling cold with ice and snow in the winter. As a result, the roofs expand and contract, putting stress on every kind of material. In the South, extreme heat and damage from the sun contribute to fatigue. Severe rains and winds associated with hurricanes also present problems.

  • Structural integrity and loads

    Roofs are only as good as their underlying structures. Make sure that the original construction and the current condition of the roof is sound. Many school facilities were built before there were construction standards for loads. Start by knowing what the current standards are, and test to make sure the roofs are compliant.

    Snow, ice and rain all can put inordinate stress on roofs, but look beyond the structure of the roof itself. A few years ago, a relatively new middle school in New England lost its roof, not because of a deficiency in the roof itself, but because the walls were not constructed properly. The walls bowed out and failed under a heavy snow.

  • Materials

    Understand what materials are used on your roofs. Many older roofs have hazardous materials, such as asbestos. You need to know about these substances so you can plan removal and protect workers when they perform maintenance.

    In addition, older roofs, especially on historic buildings, may require special attention in order to preserve their historical value. Finding replacement materials may be difficult. Some of the materials may not be readily available and may have to be custom-made. It is best to plan where to get materials and who is qualified to work on the roof before an emergency occurs.

  • Drainage

    Drainage systems, whether internal or external, are the most likely cause of leaks. Luckily, they also are the easiest to prevent through a good preventive-maintenance program. Examine all of the drainage systems so that they are designed properly, and are free-flowing and clear of debris. Don't forget the catchment systems. Water is not drained until it is clear of the building, other structures and landscaping that could be damaged.

Make the case for funding

After a thorough review, develop an operational and capital-spending roofing budget. The proposal should be put in the context of a cost/benefit analysis.

The capital budget should address the long-term issues identified in the study and ideally should be funded through a reserve fund that will smooth out investments. Effective preventive maintenance and capital-improvement programs will go a long way toward reducing overall roof and building maintenance costs.

Once the budget is approved, follow the plan. Whether you use an outside assessment company or conduct an audit in-house, all of the relevant findings should be plugged into a computerized maintenance-management system (CMMS). Only by making roof maintenance an integral part of your overall facilities maintenance program can you hope to succeed. Emergency service is always the most expensive option, so preventive and predictive maintenance will reduce costs substantially and make it easier on staff and contractors.

Having the plan and integrating it into the CMMS is not the last step. Often, work on other systems affects roofs. Construction modifications made over the years may weaken the structure or affect its performance. For instance, the repair or replacement of a chiller may damage a roof. Therefore, it is necessary to conduct an inspection each time a project is undertaken that potentially can damage the roof. Schools should issue a job ticket for a roof inspection every time other systems on the roof are changed.

Gaither is director, facility support for UNICCO Service Company, Newton, Mass. He has more than 35 years of engineering/maintenance industry experience, including areas of operations, sales and technical support.


The key to predictive maintenance is to start with an audit. The audit should rank several specific factors:


A challenging mix

A historic college in the South is a classic example of a school with a mix of old and new buildings. The college has its challenges in maintaining its 700,000 square feet in 24 buildings. A few buildings are more than 100 years old, and most of the residence halls were built in the 1950s. However, some buildings are only a few years old.

The college outsourced facilities maintenance during a summer break and immediately became aware that several of the buildings had roof leaks that were damaging interior walls and ceilings. The source: the gutters had not been cleaned out in years, and blocked drains were causing backups.

With the hurricane season approaching, workers immediately began to do the necessary cleaning and patching, but they had to hold off on preventive maintenance because of time and money constraints. In conducting the inspections and completing the work, a few other roofing problems were identified. These issues were put on the maintenance schedule to be addressed over time. Now, there is a regular preventive-maintenance program with cleaning at the top of the list. Most of the repairs are being handled as part of the normal maintenance budget.

The college is now into the second year of effective roof and gutter cleaning and maintenance, and it shows. Leaks have been eliminated, surprises are few and the college spends less keeping its roofs in good condition.

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