About five years ago, maintenance staff for the Irvine Unified School District in California expected to receive a couple of thousand reports of leaking roofs each year.
Now, the district has about the same number of facilities as it did then — 220 buildings and 300 portables — but the number of work orders for roof leaks each year has plummeted to as low as 30.
What happened? The roofs didn't change, and the weather conditions are no different. What did change was the way the school district monitored the conditions of its roofs. The maintenance department has committed itself to inspecting all the district's roofs twice a year — once in the spring and once in the fall.
“We had had enough roof complaints in the recent past that we decided to make inspections a priority,” says Tim Marsh, Irvine's director of maintenance and operations. “It has reduced our roof calls by 20 to 1.”
The district didn't add any staff to conduct the inspections. Five general maintenance workers do the job.
“They're basically on roofs for the month of October and part of September,” says Marsh.
By inspecting roofs regularly and frequently, school staff can spot potential troubles before they develop into expensive leaks, or health-threatening mold and mildew problems. Many school districts and universities believe they don't have the staffing to conduct twice-a-year inspections, but Marsh says the turnaround in roof leaks in Irvine is proof that the inspections are worth the time.
“We look for obvious signs,” says Marsh. “We make sure there is no debris, that the gutters are clear. We run a hose through the drainpipes. We look for signs of stretching and cracks in the membranes, and if any of the flashing has been pulled away.”
The inspections give special attention to the sites of previous leaks.
For schools that can afford it, infrared equipment can detect whether moisture is penetrating a roof membrane and entering a building. That can head off trouble before it becomes a full-fledged leak.
As important as inspecting roofs regularly is having staff trained to inspect properly. It's better to have one inspection by a trained inspector than two by someone who is not sure what are signs of potential trouble.
“The people who do the inspections have to be trained to know what to look for,” says Fred Tepfer, a planning associate with the University of Oregon. “A school administrator has to have confidence in the person doing the inspecting.”
Roof inspections are critical no matter what type of roofing material is used.
“The water has to have some place to go,” says Tepfer. “You have to discover problems before they do damage to the interior of a building.”
Those inspecting roofs should be trained to walk only on parts of the roof designed for walking. The walkways should have a surface that protects the roofing material. Tepfer also recommends that schools organize a roofing program with a database that includes the amount of roof surface area, when a roof was installed, the name of contractors, the type of material, warranty information, and leak and repair history.
By devoting so much time to roof inspections, Irvine's maintenance staff has to let other maintenance jobs — except those emergencies that affect life safety — wait.
“The backlog of requests grows, but most of the schools expect that there will be a backlog, so they probably don't recognize that it takes longer to get to their requests,” says Marsh.
Preventing a roof leak isn't as dramatic as fixing one, but building administrators in Irvine have noticed the difference.
“They know their roofs aren't leaking the way they used to,” says Marsh.