Maintenance of physical structures always has been a significant challenge for education institutions, but today’s economic climate, which has cut budgets to the bone, has raised the stakes. Funding, staffing and resources for proper maintenance are becoming harder to find, and the need for upkeep and maintenance remains constant. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of roof maintenance—perhaps the most critical element of a building’s physical envelope. Deferring or cutting back on maintenance in this key area can have serious consequences, including leaks, structural damage, or even roof failure.

Even when roof maintenance is addressed, the need to do more with less can cause headaches. Budgetary constraints can cause education institutions to put off repairs and improvements until funding can be obtained. But roofing problems may not wait, and facilities managers must function in "crisis mode" and respond to sudden developments. The result in too many cases: an emergency (and costly) roof replacement, often well before the end of a roof’s service life. This is avoidable if roof asset management is made a priority and planned for properly.

Developing a plan

The foundation for an effective plan is to anticipate and schedule roof repair costs for campus facilities at regular intervals. It makes sense to do a roof asset audit, gather information on the type of roofing for each facility, when it was installed, and when it has been inspected.

Before scheduling inspections (twice yearly, in the spring and the fall, is probably the best schedule), decide which details to inspect (e.g., areas under HVAC units, areas under molding that could have hidden deterioration) and which areas are particularly vulnerable to damage (e.g., areas that routinely collect a thick coating of wet leaves in the fall). Pay particular attention to areas where objects such as pipes, chimneys and skylights penetrate through a roof, and where there are changes in the level or angle of the roof (intersections, peaks, dormers). These areas are where water is most likely to seep into roofing materials. It’s also a good idea to schedule "as-needed" inspections after events such as heavy snowstorms.

Keep in mind that small investments in time, effort and money can save money and disruption in the long term. These preventive efforts can be as simple as regular removal of debris (including materials left behind after building alterations or HVAC repairs). Quick repairs of small items such as tears in a roof membrane, or loose flashings or seams, can help prevent further deterioration and leaks. On flat roofs, ponding of water should be alleviated by making sure drains are clear or providing additional drainage.

Facilities staff can be assigned to conduct visual surveys to clean flat or low-slope roofs. However, for best results, inspection and cleaning—as well as most repairs—should be done in conjunction with experienced roofing contractors. Some contractors offer specialized inspection services that evaluate an entire roof assembly, including insulation, using techniques such as infrared imaging.

There’s a caveat here, however: Roofing contractors often have a vested interest in recommending costly solutions that require their own services, materials and personnel, including roof replacements. The proposed costs of such interventions can cause administrators to balk at having repair work done, sometimes with disastrous results.