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For most, two important goals in the world are putting food on the table and having a roof over one's head. For co-op and condo boards, however, the emphasis is strictly on the latter. True comfort comes from knowing that your roof has a long-lasting, manufacturer-certified warranty that will keep you from having to pay for leaks or repairs.

Almost all comprehensive roof systems are backed by manufacturer guarantees. But having a warranty doesn't mean that boards are free and clear of responsibility to maintain their roofs. Roofing companies, contractors, and engineers all repeatedly warn that, without regular care and maintenance, roofs could be damaged and warranties voided, and boards could have leaks - and big problems - on their hands.

"There is a common misconception by roofing consumers that long-term warranties are all-inclusive insurance policies designed to cover virtually any roofing problem, regardless of the cause or circumstance," warns a consumer alert from the National Roofing Contractors Association.

The basic idea behind a warranty is simple. After a new roof is installed, the manufacturer guarantees that, over a period of time, it will pay for any repairs or materials needed to fix leaks caused by material failure or poor workmanship. That period is determined by the type of the roof purchased (single-ply to multi-ply), with guarantees ranging from 5 to 20 years. The total expenditure covered per square foot can run from a set fee to a "no dollar limit" promise. Roofs with more layers and plys installed are guaranteed to last longer than a single-ply roof.

"For the most part," explains Frank Benish, president of Roofing Solutions, a consultancy in Armonk, N.Y., "the roof warranties do cover the labor and material that it would cost to repair or replace the roof, provided that the material has failed or the workmanship has caused the material to fail as well."

While there are a variety of manufacturers and products on the market, most contractors typically work with only two or three brands. Most brands offer similar warranties in terms of coverage and scope. After a roof is installed (and with some companies, before) agents from the manufacturer inspect the work and the roof and then issue the warranty.

Before that is issued, however, boards must discuss the terms with the contractor. In addition, the super needs to understand the procedures to be followed. "The first thing to do is communicate to the plant engineer or the head maintenance guy," says Charles Blum, a technical consultant with Johns Manville, a Denver-based manufacturer of building materials and roofing systems. "He needs to have all the information and know what to do."

If a leak develops or there's a problem, the installer should be contacted immediately and a written notice should be given to the manufacturer within 30 days. The proper steps are clearly spelled out in the warranty. If someone works on the roof or alters it without certification by the manufacturer, the warranty could be voided.

But rather than wait for leaks to develop, most professionals recommend setting up a regular maintenance program, conducted by a manufacturer- certified contractor, to keep any potential problems at bay. Maintenance is not only a good idea; it's also your duty. Most warranties contain an "owner's responsibilities" section. That usually says roof owners must perform and document regular inspections and maintenance and make any repairs to the building or the roof that are not covered by the warranty that may be uncovered during inspection.

"The lack of a maintenance program is really the cause of a lot of circumstances or conditions where you would void your warranty," Blum says. "The building owner really needs to have the protection and wants to have the security that the roof is going to last," Blum says. "The only way to do that, once you have the roof installed, is to have a maintenance program that takes care of it and keeps an eye on it. It's like putting oil in your car. If someone changes it every year or every 3,000 miles, it runs fine." Blum even recommends including a service contract as part of the initial installation bid.

Tamko Roofing Products, a Joplin, Missouri-based manufacturer, sells a maintenance package to roof owners that is intended to keep warranties valid. It includes regular inspections, maintenance reports, recommendations, and a documented history of the roof system.

What can buildings do to make sure their roofs are functioning properly? "Keep your roof clean," states Richard Nagel, a principal in Nagel Roofing. Make sure there's no debris that could clog up drains or puncture the membrane. Inspect the roof after a bad storm to make sure there's nothing out of the ordinary. Sweep up any ponded water that has collected over time. At the very least, make sure an inspection is performed at least twice yearly, typically in the spring and fall.

Roof traffic is a fact of life for every building, and it's important to keep that from inadvertently voiding a warranty. Contractors working on an air conditioning unit or repairing masonry, for example, could rip holes in the membrane or spill oil or chemicals, both likely causes of leaks and both excluded from warranty coverage. Any workers on the roof must take steps to protect the surface.

"If you ever have work on your building, say someone wants to hang a scaffold, they have to put down plastic, Styrofoam, and then plywood," says Joe Smizaski, director of operations at Herbert Rose Certified Roofing Company. "That way the roof is protected. It's what every roofing manufacturer wants."

He suggests that if a building will have workers on the roof, the original roofing contractor should be called in for a meeting with the managing agent or board along with the new contractor who will be performing the work on the roof. The contractor will then contact the manufacturer, who will specify what steps need to be taken to protect the roof and keep the warranty valid. If work needs to be done that will cause alterations - cutting a hole in the roof, for example - make sure that a contractor certified by the manufacturer handles that portion of the job.

Once the work is done, the contractor can conduct an inspection on behalf of the manufacturer, document its condition, and issue a letter saying the warranty is valid. "Protecting the roof should be part of anyone's bid," says Blum

Buildings need to protect their roof from their own residents as well. Sunbathers bringing up chairs and plastic furniture could unknowingly tear a hole in the membrane, thereby voiding the warranty. Benish warns that a high-heel shoe can be enough to puncture the surface. Boards can have the contractor install rubber pavers and walkways that provide a pathway where residents can walk, but Benish recommends simply discouraging all excessive foot traffic up top.

The roof is only one part of a building's upper level, and all the structures - bulkheads, parapet walls, chimneys - need to be in excellent shape in order to prevent leaks. Many times, cracked masonry, old coping stones, or poor flashing could be the culprit, not the actual roof itself. All roof manufacturers indicate in their warranties that they are not liable for leaks caused by other materials and structures. "Ninety-eight percent of my leaks occur where the roof terminates and runs into masonry or metal or caulking," Blum says.

Chris Kelly, president of CK Engineering and a former board president, stresses the importance of keeping all roof structures in good shape to prevent leaks. "Many leaks come not from the roof field itself, but from the parapets, flashings, bulkhead walls, etc.," he says. "When you're trying to make a building leak-tight, it's important to address all the components necessary for a leak-tight structure, especially the walls and roof and how the two are married together."

Improvements on the surrounding roof structures should be made when a new roof is installed, suggests Ron Erickson, principal of Ron Erickson Engineering. If these defects are noticed after a roof has been installed, a roofing contractor should indicate them to the building owner when investigating any leaks. Making these repairs will insure that the warranty is not voided.

Boards should think of a warranty as an added benefit, not a fail safe mechanism that will pay for any and all repairs. A properly installed multi-ply roof that gets regular maintenance checks should not fail under normal weather and traffic conditions, roofing professionals say. The best insurance for protecting a roof - and a building's investment in it - is having a roof installed and checked by a reliable, reputable contractor who is recognized by the manufacturer of the roof.

"When you do the work the first time, do it correctly," Kelly says. "If you do it correctly, and the job is specified correctly, and the contractor follows the specification and performs a good installation, you will never have to worry about whether or not the roof warranty is going to come into play."

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