Roofs 101

Your roof has to put up with a lot. So much, in fact, that it’s a wonder they last as long as they do. Even with all the elements have to throw at your roof, there are some simple steps you can take to prolong its life, and ensure that little problems don’t morph into exasperating and costly calamities.

But first, let’s introduce the players.

Types of Roofs

Roofs come in all shapes and sizes, and are formed of a wide variety of materials. The most common types are:

Shingles. Shingles are by far the most popular choice of American homebuyers. Also known as composite roofing, shingles are formed of a combination of asphalt, fiberglass, and mineral granules. Asphalt shingles are very economical when compared to other roofing materials, and prized for their ability to adapt to a wide range of roof shapes. Shingles come in a variety of architectural grades, textures and colors, and can last 15-20 years if properly maintained.

Wood Shake. Shake roofs are made from wood and are hand-made, unlike asphalt shingles, which are machine-made. Despite their charming appearance, they are gradually losing popularity because of susceptibility to fire, and also because synthetics can now be made to closely match the appearance of shake shingles—but require far less maintenance, and offer greater fire resistance. Shake roofs can last anywhere from 10-40 years depending on climate and maintenance.

Tile. Tile roofs are available in both clay and concrete. Many people love them for their classic appearance and the variety of colors and finishes available. They are quite durable, but not appropriate for all climates, and considerably more expensive than asphalt shingles. In addition, tile is much heavier than other types of roofing materials. An engineering assessment is often necessary to determine if the structure can withstand the added weight. Tile roofs can last more than 20 years.

Slate. Slate is extremely heavy, and a very expensive roofing choice. Again, engineers must determine whether or not your house can support the weight of the stone perched on top of your house. However, though the rock is brittle, it has a striking appearance, and if properly cared for it can have an extremely long life, ranging from 60 to a jaw-dropping 125 years.

Synthetics. Made of bonded resins and fiber-reinforced cement, these are something of a new wrinkle, and have an impressive versatility. Synthetics can lend your roof the appearance of more expensive materials at greatly reduced cost. A synthetic roof that emulates slate can weigh as little as a third of the real thing, cost a fraction as much, and last a solid 40-60 years.

Hey, Look Me Over

Given how expensive roofs can be to repair and replace, it only makes sense to monitor it to ensure it’s healthy. Maintenance issues can quickly snowball, so make frequent visual inspections of your roof, and catch problems before they become more serious. If you don’t feel confident clambering about on your roof, use a pair of high-powered binoculars to look for these early symptoms of deterioration:

  • Cupping or buckling of shingles
  • Loose, cracked, or missing shingles
  • Loss of granuals on asphalt roofs
  • Mold or decay on wood shingle or shake roofs
  • Unevenness or sagging in the roof
  • Dirt, dust, or vegetable matter
  • Blisters or wrinkles in asphalt shingles
  • Old or crumbling patching or cement
  • Decay around fascia and vents
  • Tears and buckling around flashing on roof penetrations
  • Damaged or clogged soffits or ridge vents
  • Crumbling masonry on chimneys
  • Bent, rusted, clogged, or otherwise damaged gutters
  • Popped up nails
  • Moss and lichen buildup

You should also take a powerful flashlight into your attic and scan the ceiling for any staining that might indicate a leak. Pay special attention to areas to flashings and any vertical entry points in the roof such as chimneys, vents, and skylights.

If you see any of these symptoms, hire a service professional to give your roof a more thorough inspection and make any necessary repairs.

Clean House

One of the best favors you can do for your roof is to keep it clean. Clear all debris from the surface of the roof, paying special attention to flashings, valleys, and any and all roof penetrations. Debris, dirt, and vegetable matter tend to hold water, and water accelerates roof deterioration. Trees in particular contribute a lot of debris to roofs. Cut back overhanging tree branches to minimize accumulation.

Clear the Gutters

Your roof is a system that depends upon the performance of all its component parts. Gutters perform an important function in channeling water away from where you don’t want it, and depositing it where it will do no harm to your home. So, check your gutters at least every season—more frequently if the trees are shedding leaves, or winds have whipped up a lot of debris.

If your gutters get clogged, get them flowing again right away. Using a sturdy ladder, pull as much debris out of the gutters as you can. Rinse out gutters with a garden hose, and train the stream directly into the downspout to flush out any remaining debris. NOTE: This is usually messy, grimace-inducing work. Wear gloves and work clothes.

Moss and Algae

If your roof is starting to collect moss or algae, remove it immediately. Organic growths can trap water and accelerate rot, leading to expensive repairs. Once you’re removed the growths, you can discourage their return by installing copper control strips.

Here are some easy steps to removing organic growth, how to help prevent its return.

  1. First, clean the existing deposits away.
  2. Train a garden hose on the growth deposits to wash them away. Always aim the water down the roof—never allow the stream to go up under roofing materials.
  3. If the moss does not come off easily, mix a small amount of non-toxic oxygen bleach with water, apply it directly to the moss, and wait 20 minutes. Then brush lightly to remove the dead moss, and hose away any residue.
  4. Once the roof is clean, protect against future growth by installing copper strips at the peak of the roof. Each rainfall will disperse miniscule amounts of copper on the roof, which harmlessly inhibits moss and lichen growth.


If you see stains that indicate a leak in your roof, first locate the source of the leak.

  • Inside your attic, use a strong flashlight and try to follow the leak uphill.
  • Check for cracks, splits, tears, or any visible problems.
  • Check all places where dissimilar materials come together, such as around chimneys, vents, and stack pipes. Certain materials expand and contract at different rates, and therefore tend to pull away from each other. Look for a tight seal. Loose seals might indicate your leak.

Once you’ve identified the origination point, measure its distance from the wall, or some other externally visible landmark, to locate it easier from the outside when you patch it.

Having located the source of the leak, patch it by applying a rubberized roof-patching compound to the exterior of the problem area. Be sure to follow manufacturer’s instructions, and make sure you choose the one that is appropriate for your roof, as well as your region.

Hire a Pro

If your roof has a steep pitch, is in poor condition, or you simply do not feel comfortable up there, don’t hesitate to hire a service professional do these and any other necessary repairs.

If your inspection turns up damage, it’s wise to address it addressed sooner than later. Leaks allowed to progress can cause exponential damage, and are best caught as early as possible. Hire a service professional to perform a full inspection and do any necessary repairs.

Last Rites

When your roof is on its last legs, it’s foolish to defer its replacement. Patches and quick fixes only last so long, and then more serious issues can arise to further complicate inevitable repairs. On the bright side, a new, high-quality roof adds real value to your home, and helps keep your energy bills low. It also protects all that precious stuff underneath it, like you and your family.

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Author: Robert Bundy