It never occurred to her that if the drainpipes of a house are clogged, the rain may collect in pools on the roof; and she suspected no danger until suddenly she discovered a crack in the wall. --From "Madame Bovary," by Gustave Flaubert
In temperate Southern California, we largely ignore roof maintenance--until too late. But in much of the country, roofs are an important part of life.
As winter approaches in Chicago suburbs, people talk about roof upkeep, repair and replacement at cocktail parties--much like Orange County residents discuss the best places to take the Beemer for a tuneup.
And while locals are most likely to be found on the roof only if it supports a sun deck, New Englanders, Floridians, Oregonians and Texans religiously take to their ladders to perform the semiannual ritual of gutter, flashing and shingle inspection.
They know a roof is critical because they have to worry about keeping out the elements. All of the time.
They live in places where rain and snow and ice storms are more than multicolored splotches on the TV weatherman's satellite map.
We ignore our roofs because, hey, it never rains around here and never gets cold enough to freeze, so what could go wrong?
Like Flaubert's heroine, most of us don't even suspect the importance of clean rain gutters.
We don't think about our roofs, that is, until we wake up one morning gazing at a spreading stain on the ceiling--or sloshing around in what wasn't supposed to be a water bed.
Then the prosaic becomes profound.
So, let us consider the roof: what we can do to keep it whole; what we should do to spot trouble signs early; what we must do once old age or abuse has done it in, and the costs and choices we face when, finally, it is time to do something about it.
In Southern California, residences generally are roofed with one of six types of material: built-up or rolled composition roofing; composition shingles; wood shingles; concrete or metal tiles; clay tiles; and the new lightweight cellulose-cement composite tile and shingle look-alikes.
A very few homes, usually of contemporary design, have all-metal roofs of galvanized or stainless steel, copper or terne metal (galvanized steel coated with a mixture of tin and lead). And an even smaller number, industry specialists say, are topped off with the creme de la creme of all roofing materials--genuine slate.
Metal and slate roofs, of course, rarely wear out if left in peace. That's one reason they cost so much.
But of the six commonly used roofing materials, three can have relatively short life spans and all are subject to damage from the sun and wind, blowing debris, falling tree limbs and clogged gutters.
Natural wear and tear is aggravated each time the homeowner wanders across the roof, whether to install a TV antenna or search for a lost Frisbee.
The first rule of roofing is that "if you can see daylight through it from inside the attic, you probably need a new one," says Sandy Johnson, a roofing and painting contractor.
That might sound silly, but Johnson, proprietor with his wife, Janet, of S&J Specialty Services in Orange, says he is continually amazed by the number of people who don't discover until the year's first driving rain that their roofs leak.
The best way to avoid spending a day or two emptying overflowing pots and pans and watching the plaster or drywall crumble and fall, he says, is to do like those Easterners and inspect the roof at least twice a year.
But inspect it without walking on it.
"Walking on a roof can damage it badly, even if you know what you're doing," Johnson said. "But more important, a roof is a treacherous place and even experienced roofers fall. Someone who isn't used to walking on a roof can easily go flying."
Each time Johnson takes a crew up on a rooftop, he cautions them that they "are working in the yellow zone all of the time. One false step and you're gone."
Johnson himself has never fallen--all the way--but admits to the heart-stopping experience of sliding from the peak to the edge of his own roof early in his career.
"All the way down I was trying frantically to ditch my tool belt. All I could think of was landing on the hammer. Fortunately, there's a slight lip on the very edge and it stopped me" from plunging two stories to the ground.
Instead of tromping the tiles (or shakes or shingles), use a ladder and a pair of binoculars to facilitate your inspection, the National Roofing Contractors Assn. suggests.
You'll have to move the ladder around the perimeter of the house to do a thorough job, but it beats a month in traction--or worse.
What to look for during an inspection depends in part on the type of roof.
Most of the homes built in Orange County in the first post-Korean War expansion had built-up rock or rolled mineral roofing or asphalt shingles. Those types of roofs, with built-up and rolled roofing used largely on flat or barely sloped roofs, are prevalent throughout the older cities in North and Central County areas.