Your commercial roof takes a pounding during the winter months from the snow, sleet, freezing temperatures and wind.
The winter months are an endless cycle of thawing and refreezing which can take a toll on the roof. As a cause of insured catastrophic losses in the United States, severe winter weather ranks third, only after hurricanes and tornadoes, averaging about $1.2 billion in damages a year.
Because of the strain that winter can put on your commercial roof, it is extremely important to ensure your roof is prepared for the rough winter weather.
Here are a few causes of winter roof damage that you can prepare for to ensure your company’s roof is secure and protected during the winter months and save on energy bills.
Common Causes of Commercial Winter Roof Damage in Pennsylvania
A Pennsylvania winter is long, cold and snowy. Below are some of the most common causes of commercial roof damage during the coldest time of year:
1. Snow Accumulation
Many commercial roofs are flat, and flat roofs tend to accumulate snow. Unlike a sloped residential roof, which allows snow to slide off easily, a flat commercial roof will collect snow throughout the winter. If you don’t perform regular winter maintenance by removing snow from the roof after it falls, you can end up with a pileup.
Accumulated snow can seriously damage a commercial roof. Snow is weighty — after a heavy snowfall, the snow on a roof can weigh as much as 20 pounds per square foot, and a 1-inch layer of ice adds about 5 pounds per square foot. Commercial buildings have a weight limit, and exceeding that limit puts tremendous stress on the building’s structural integrity. And if the snow drifts, it may put extreme, unsustainable pressure on a small area of the roof.
The weight from snow and ice compresses insulation and overburdens building supports. Left unaddressed, it can also compromise the roof membrane and lead to severe leaks.
2. Ice Dams
Ice dams typically form at the transition points between warm and cold roof surfaces. They often develop when warmth from the building heats the roof and melts the snow into standing pools. When the pooled water refreezes, the massive weight of the ice can cause cracks and leakage. If ice dams form at the edge of the roof, they often give rise to icicles, which add further weight that the roof must support.
The leaks ice dams can cause are nuisances in any building, and they are particularly hazardous in commercial buildings because of the high volumes of electrical wiring and ductwork near the roof. HVAC systems, lighting systems and electrical systems all often have rooftop or sub-roof components that are susceptible to winter weather. Because of the vulnerability of these systems and the extensive damage they could do — compromised electrical wiring, for instance, could cause a fire — preventing ice dams in commercial buildings by clearing snow and ice dams is crucial.
3. Clogged Gutters
In autumn, gutters collect fallen leaves, and they can also fill with pine needles and bits of other debris. Rains tamp the leaf matter down into a solid, soggy mass. If you don’t clean out your gutters before winter sets in, ice accumulates on the mass of leaves, and this ice can back up onto the building’s roof, damaging its structures and promoting leaks.
4. Flashing Leaks
“Flashing” refers to the long metal pieces used to secure the edges and corners of a roof, as well as the edges around chimneys — anywhere angles meet. Over time, especially if the area has experienced strong winds, the flashing can start to separate from the roof. This separation allows winter roof leaks to occur.
5. Winter Wind Damage
Even if your roof membrane and flashings are watertight and secure at the beginning of winter, one good storm can pry material loose. Strong winter winds are adept at prying up the sealing — usually flashing or caulking — that holds the strips of commercial roofing material in place. Without proper sealing, water gets in and causes immediate water damage or freezes, deforms structural elements and creates slow, insidious leaks. Gusty winds can also hurl tree limbs onto commercial roofs, potentially causing impact damage or piling up debris that impedes drainage and leads to flooding. Keep an eye on your roof for wind damage throughout the winter, and address any issues you find.
6. Excessive Heating
Too much heat from the building causes extreme temperature variations across the roof, increasing the likelihood of condensation, leaks and mold damage.
When snow blankets the roof, it sends the building’s interior temperature plummeting. In response, people turn up the heat. The heating in a commercial building is often inconsistent — some places are chilly, while other areas are boiling. Increasing the heat only adds to this unevenness, especially if some departments have their heat cranked up and others try to conserve by keeping it low.
Uneven heating leads to temperature contrasts on the roof. It creates a condensation barrier within the roof and a water layer under the ice on the roof. This scenario creates a cycle of constant melting and refreezing that results in ice dams and leaks.
7. Blocked Drains
Flat commercial roofs generally have drains to clear precipitation and prevent standing water. A clogged drain prevents melted snow from draining effectively. Instead, the water pools on the roof, where it can cause leaks right away or refreeze and form ice dams. Winter weather can often cause a blocked drain as well — ice and storm debris collects in drains and causes backups.
When warmth from a commercial building escapes through the roof and meets the freezing outdoor temperatures, the mixture of warm and cold air causes condensation to develop. The moist condensation provides a hospitable environment for the formation of mold and mildew, especially in an environment without proper ventilation. Mold and mildew can weaken your roof and nearby structures, compromise the building’s structural integrity and reduce air quality in the affected businesses.
9. A Damaged Membrane
Many commercial roofs use membrane roofing to cover the building’s flat top with sheets of moisture-resistant covering, often rubber or a thermoplastic such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC). If temperature changes cause too much expansion and contraction of the membrane, it may develop cracks, or ice may work its way into the membrane. Either way, a compromised roof membrane can admit water and cause structural damage.
10. An Aging PVC or Metal Roof
An older PVC roof poses challenges in the winter because PVC loses performance at the end of its lifespan. In frigid winter temperatures, aging PVC tends to shatter, opening up many cracks and crevices for water and ice to seep through.
A metal commercial roof can also be problematic in the winter because cold metal contracts, causing the roof’s seams to open. The cycle of constant expansion and contraction due to fluctuating temperatures exacerbates the issue, and snow and ice can work their way deep into the metal seams and open them even further, admitting moisture and causing damage.
Importance of Commercial Roof Inspections
A roof inspection helps you catch any problems early on before they escalate into crises where water is pouring into your business.
By assessing and addressing fall damage, you’ll secure your roof for when the skies bring snow in the winter. A tiny leak that results from fall rain can easily turn into floodgates that send winter snow rushing through the roof. A fall roof inspection helps you catch problems like these early so your business can weather the winter snow snug and dry.
Apart from helping you preserve a sturdy roof that protects your business from leaks, a yearly inspection is necessary to maintain your building’s roof warranty.
When you have professionals from a roofing company come to your business for an inspection, they typically perform some of the following checks and repairs to prevent potential damage:
- Checking flashings: If any of your commercial roof’s flashings have loosened, an inspection can help assess and repair the damage.
- Looking for contaminants or moisture seepage: An inspection also helps inform you of any moisture-related contaminants such as mold that may have crept into your commercial roof.
- Evaluating gutter conditions: If fall debris has clogged your commercial building’s gutters, an inspection can detect and remove it.
- Assessing roof wear: If you have a commercial building with a flat roof, people probably sometimes walk on the roof, whether to take breaks, maintain the HVAC system repairs or assess solar panels and electrical systems. Heavy traffic can damage a commercial roof. An inspection helps determine how to repair the damage before winter.
- Inspecting drainage systems: With a flat commercial roof, the complex drainage systems consist of plumbing and drain networks engineered to minimize standing water. An inspection evaluates and bolsters these systems.
- Securing the roof membrane: A compromised seal in a roof membrane leads to winter leaks. An inspection will check for functional seals to keep your business cozy, warm and dry.
Commercial Roofing Inspections and Solar Panels
If you have a spacious, flat commercial roof, you may have installed solar panels on it for their environmental benefits or to reduce your energy costs. An inspection on a commercial roof with solar panels should only be done by an experienced roofer who also installs solar such as Kautz. We have a solar division, KC Green Energy that works in conjunction with our Roofing division to ensure a complete and thorough roof inspection.
If you’re considering solar panels for your commercial roof, you might wonder whether cold, cloudy winter weather will affect the amount of electricity you can use — and it won’t. During bright, sunny days, your solar panels will produce an excess of power. Thanks to net metering and battery backup systems, this extra production helps compensate for the energy you use on cloudy days, at night or when your solar panels are covered in snow.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), solar panels continue to produce usable electricity throughout all four seasons, even the dead of winter. A light dusting of snow has minimal effect on solar panel function because the wind can soon blow it off. Even if a thin covering of snow remains, light can forward scatter through the snow particles to reach the solar panels and generate electricity anyway.
Though heavy snow can slightly block solar panels in winter, the design of the panels means the snow can’t stick for long. The panels’ steep slope, thick glass and retained heat will cause the snow to slide off.
Besides being fully functional during the winter, solar panels also offer a couple of winter benefits for your commercial roof:
- Roof protection: Many people don’t know that solar panels protect a roof from winter weather damage. The internationally rated solar panels from our KC Green Energy division can even help prevent hail damage to a roof. Their design allows them to withstand the impact of one-inch hailstones driven by winter wind speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour. And the mounting system can withstand the impact of 125-mile-an-hour winds. Most roofs cannot do that.
- Extra cleaning: Additionally, according to the EERE, winter snowfall is beneficial to the solar panels on your commercial roof because it helps cleanse them of dirt and debris. Have you ever inadvertently had your car cleaned when a scouring blanket of snowflakes fell and then slid off your vehicle as it melted, taking dust and debris with it? The same thing happens with solar panels. The snow bonds with dirt on the panels and then effectively wipes them clean as it melts.
- Enhanced efficiency: This cleansing property of snow helps solar panels reach optimal efficiency. Cold temperatures also enhance solar panel efficiency. So even if the solar panels on your company’s roof have less sunlight to work with than they do in the summer, they’re working harder with what sunlight there is.
If you’re thinking about installing solar panels for your business but are worried about their performance and reliability during winter weather, put your mind at ease. Solar panels can stand up to winter weather, help protect your commercial roof and help you sustain your bottom line by saving you thousands of dollars on your electricity bill.
Let Kautz Roofing Winterize Your Commercial Roof
Kautz Roofing is the premier roofing company in Pennsylvania, and we are delighted to be your one-stop source for all your roofing needs. Our expert, friendly technicians are always here when you need them. We are invested in creating trusted long-term relationships with customers because we want our roofing services to keep your business snug and dry for years to come.
Our KC Green Energy division handles solar panels — so there’s no need to call one technician to inspect your roof for winter and another to inspect your solar panels. Whatever your roofing problems or needs, we can get the job done — no job is too big or too small.
Contact us today to secure your commercial roof against the Pennsylvania weather.