You saw the discoloration of the ceiling tiles months ago, but thought it was too small to worry about.  The stain got bigger until finally the tile started to sag in the middle.   You can’t ignore it anymore, or it might fall during the next rain storm.  One missing tile isn’t such a big deal and, hey, that pail on the floor is hardly in the way.  Your customers and employees won’t even notice.  Besides, it only leaks when it rains.

Now you’re noticing more spots on the ceiling.  You really don’t want to climb up the ladder and check your aging roof, but you realize the time has come.  You’ve got to do something.  But what?  Patch it again?  Replace the whole thing?  How do you know what to do?

This all too familiar scenario often leads to these questions for building owners across the country.  Here are some basic guidelines to help you invest wisely in your roof:

Conduct a complete inspection by a trained professional.

A trusted roofing contractor has trained service technicians who can safely, thoroughly evaluate the condition under the deck and on top of the roof.  First check inspect from the inside.  They will investigate to see the extent of any visible damage to the structure of the building.  Water can cause rotting or corrosion that may reduce the integrity of the building and cause it to be unsafe for traffic on the roof.

Once trouble spots are identified underneath the deck and it is cleared for safety, a rooftop inspection should start with a secured ladder or other access to the roof.  A full inspection should include an examination, documented with a drawing and diagram with photos on these areas:

Area Description What to look for
Field The main area of the roof Blisters, splits, seam failure, debris, disbursement of stones, ponding water, membrane condition, contaminants, damage by people or other living things
Perimeter Gravel stop or parapet walls Securement, gaps, transition details
Flashings Penetrations in the roof: HVAC units, curbs, vents, drains, skylights Damage, sagging, tenting, securement, seam failure, proper counterflashing, compatibility of materials

If sufficient records are kept, you should have documents that describe the date of installation, warranty, type, brand and attachment type for the roofing system.  If not, or in cases with significant areas of concern for moisture infiltration, core samples may be required to determine the components roof.  


With this information, now you are in a position to make informed decisions.  Each section of the roof should evaluated, and prioritized.  If questionable areas can be isolated and there is no appearance of structural damage, in many cases the roof can be repaired.  

Keep in mind, while the roof may be repaired to protect against future leaks, there may still be moisture in the substrate.  Wet insulation loses its thermal performance characteristics and moisture may continue to erode structural components.  

Thermal scanning is one option to get a more precise information on the extent of water damage.  Typically, if a third of the roof area has detectable moisture in it, removal and replacement is advisable.

The average service life of a commercial roof in the United States is 17 years.  However, with new stronger, lighter weight materials are being engineered and manufacturers are providing warrantees for up to 30 years.  Whenever possible, I recommend that steps be taken to repair and extend the life of the roof, rather than removing and replacing it.   

From this data, one can more sensibly set priorities, budgets and plan short and capital expenses to keep your building watertight.

Preventive Maintenance

If your goal is to get the most out of your roof, maximizing the service life cycle and keeping your costs low, the one thing I can recommend without hesitation is a preventive maintenance program.  These simple, regularly scheduled inspections keep minor items from turning into major, expensive headaches.  Inspecting your roof each season and after major weather events is a small precaution to take and one that studies show increase the service life of a roof by an average of eight years and cost a third less to maintain compared to emergency repairs.

As manufacturers modify their warranty requirements to include regularly scheduled and documented maintenance on the roof, you will be wise to do so to insure that your warranty is not nullified.  Regardless of whether you roof was recently installed or has been in place many years, a proactive preventive maintenance plan will go a long way toward avoiding buckets on the floor and costly emergency expenses for the roof.