A Solar Installer Explains the Many Ways Roofing Contractors Can Be Involved in Solar Installations

The solar-power industry has changed dramatically in the past five years. Products and manufacturers have come and gone; tax incentives have become less attractive; and requirements for utilities to maintain a certain percentage of their energy portfolio from renewable sources are not enough to help the market in most places. Despite these negatives, unique financing mechanisms and the remarkable decrease in the cost of solar panels keep the industry booming. These ups and downs demonstrate why Matthew Bennett, vice president for design and engineering and founder of Dovetail Solar & Wind, Athens, Ohio, refers to the industry as the “solar coaster”.

Bennett’s business, which was established in 1995, installs solar on residential and commercial buildings. As such, he has worked with a number of roofing contractors over the years and sees synergies between the trades. Roofing asked Bennett how roofing contractors and solar installers can improve their relationship and achieve successful solar installations upon watertight roofs.

Roofing: When must you coordinate with roofing contractors?

Bennett: On almost every commercial roof where roof penetrations are required we’ll have a roofer come in and flash the penetrations and sometimes install a sleeve to get our conduit off the roof and into the building.commercial solar array

The other common reason for coordinating with a roofer is because the roof may be under warranty. Sometimes the warranty is held by the roof manufacturer, so we receive a list of roofers who can do the inspection. Usually there’s an inspection that needs to happen before and after the solar installation. We’re sometimes paying $1,000 to get inspections.

A lot of times we’re not fastening solar panels to flat commercial roofs; we’re installing what’s called a ballasted system where we may need to use an approved pad or put down an additional membrane to protect the roof from the pan that is holding ballast and keeping the array on the roof. Sometimes different roofing manufacturers are picky about what they allow on the roof and different kinds of roofs require different treatment, so it’s important to have a good roofing contractor available.

Roofing: When you hire contractors, what are you looking for?

Bennett: We’re looking for a roofing contractor that does quality work at a fair price because, I’ll be honest, we’ve been overcharged by roofers more than any other subcontractor. We take notes when we work with a roofing contractor: how easy they are to work with, how responsive they are to emails and phone calls, the quality of work and the price. We know roughly what to expect after being in business all these years. If we get a fair quote from a recommended contractor, we’ll often go with them without looking at other bids. We prefer to use a roofer who is familiar with the roof. A good relationship with the customer also is an important consideration.

Roofing: Are there situations in which you defer entirely to the roofing contractor?

Bennett: It’s a little unusual. We just put a system on a slate roof on a million-dollar home. The roof was very steep and we didn’t even want to get on the slate, so we hired the roofer to install the rails and solar panels. We did all the electrical work and procurement. We provided one of our crew leaders to be there the entire time to train the roofing crew and help them because they had no experience with solar. They knew how to get around on a slate roof and mount the solar flashing and they actually installed the whole array. They did it in not much more time than we would’ve done it. We were very impressed with them.

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Downtown Storm-water Management

Founded in 2002, Xero Flor America (XFA) is the official U.S. distributor of the Xero Flor Green Roof System. XFA has made its home in Durham, N.C., since 2006 when the company relocated its national headquarters from Lansing, Mich. In July 2012, it moved locally into renovated offices in The Republik Building, located at 211 Rigsbee Avenue in downtown Durham’s historic district.

Originally constructed in the 1940s for the Durham Insurance Service Co., The Republik Building is perhaps known to local history buffs as the home of WSSB radio. Robert Shaw West, chairman and CEO of The Republik, a local firm offering brand strategy and communication services, purchased the property from the city of Durham. He renovated the outmoded offices into a more contemporary, open and collaborative work environment in 2006. XFA decided to become more connected to the business community downtown and searched for offices in the historic district—ideally in a building where the company would have the opportunity to showcase its green roof system. West had space available on the second floor for XFA to lease.

Completed in February 2013, the 2,343-square-foot Xero Flor green roof atop The Republik Building is the first green roof installed on a building in Durham’s downtown historic district.

Completed in February 2013, the 2,343-square-foot Xero Flor green roof atop The Republik Building is the first green roof installed on a building in Durham’s downtown historic district.

“It was serendipity,” West says. “Xero Flor was looking for offices downtown, and we had space. Plus, we had to reroof our building last year. Since we needed a new roof, it was an ideal time to also consider adding a green roof, which supports our commitment to sustainability.”

Completed in February 2013, the 2,343-square-foot Xero Flor green roof atop The Republik Building is the first green roof installed on a building in Durham’s downtown historic district.

Going Green on the Roof

In addition to the standard building-permit process, putting a green roof on a historic building required additional review and approval.

According to Anne Kramer, urban designer with the Durham City-County Planning Department, except for certain minor items, such as repainting a previously painted surface, most changes to building exteriors within an official historic district require a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA). The Durham Historic Preservation Commission oversees the process locally.

The commission’s goal is to ensure preservation of the architectural character of the historic district’s buildings and, therefore, had to ensure adding a green roof to the building would not alter or disrupt the appearance of downtown Durham. Demonstrating a green roof would not be visible from the street level was especially important. With the COA from the preservation commission, XFA and The Republik had the green light for the green roof. But first Baker Roofing, Raleigh, N.C., installed the new structural roof.

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Roof Maintenance, Sustainability and RoofPoint Life-cycle Management

The roofing industry knows good design, quality materials and proper installation are the key tenets to achieving a leak-free, long-term roofing system. Roof system maintenance is an equal part of the equation and should not be overlooked, even though there is a tendency for “out of sight, out of mind” by many building owners.

A technician from Sheridan, Ark.-based RoofConnect walks a roof and documents it as part of an annual maintenance survey. RoofConnect, which has locations around the country, including Monroe, N.C., has made maintenance contracts a major part of its business.

A technician from Sheridan, Ark.-based RoofConnect
walks a roof and documents it as part of an annual maintenance survey. RoofConnect, which has locations around the country, including Monroe, N.C., has made maintenance contracts a major part of its business.

Roof maintenance is not only important to long-term service life, it is a key factor for the overall sustainability of roof systems. RoofPoint, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing’s Guide for Environmentally Innovative Nonresidential Roofing, emphasizes durability and life-cycle management for sustainable, environmentally friendly roof systems. Of the 23 credits within RoofPoint, nine are in the Durability/Life Cycle Management (D/LCM) section. It’s clear the roofing industry recognizes the importance of longevity when it comes to environmentally friendly roof systems.

Looking deeper into RoofPoint, one of the nine credits in the D/LCM section is titled “Roof Maintenance Program”. Establishing and maintaining a partnership with the building owner is a win-win for the roofing contractor and the building owner. Performing inspections
and maintenance provides the owner with an ongoing information resource, ultimately allowing better management of capital and the roof asset by extending the life of the roof system.

From a sustainability perspective, a longer lasting roof—extended by regular roof system maintenance—means roof replacement is appropriately postponed and with that comes a reduction in material and energy use, as well as reduced expense and waste. Roof system maintenance is a win for the owner, the environment and the roofing contractor.

PHOTOS: RoofConnect