Fixing a leaky roof, 05 October 2009


Recently, a skylight at my Mom’s house developed a rather annoying leak, so I found myself in the enviable position of having to climb up there and figure out what was going on. Prior to doing so, I tried to envision what might be happening, based on my observation of where the water was getting in, and my understanding of residential construction. [1] As I saw it, there were a few solutions I might attempt that could solve the problem; some were quite simple, while others were substantially less so. The simplest solution I could envision was simply reapplying caulk and sealant to the exposed edges of the skylight and glazing; on the opposite end of the scale, I could strip off the shingles around the skylight, add sealant around the skylight flashing, lay down new asphalt paper, add more sealant around that, then reapply shingles around the skylight. At the most extreme end of the scale, I could remove the skylight entirely, fill in the opening with new framing and sheathing, and reapply roofing materials over that.

Being the lazy, lazy creature I am, [2] I decided to try a simple fix, on the off chance that this would solve the problem without expending too much effort. As such, I applied an epic [3] amount of sealant around the base of the skylight where it meets the shingles, and reapplied caulk to the skylight glazing itself. As it turns out, this didn’t solve the problem, though it did cut down on some of the flow of water, meaning that I had done something (partially) right. Okay, so at this point I was out around 40 USD for the sealant and caulk. Annoying, but not too expensive, either. Not to be discouraged, I climbed up onto the roof the next time it rained, [4] and observed what was actually happening at the skylight’s top edge (which was where the water was getting in). [5] Based on this observation, I determined that all I really needed to do was to build up enough material such that the water would drain away from the skylight’s top edge. Since I’m the type of person who will improvise a solution whenever possible, I hauled out a roll of asphalt paper I had originally purchased for another repair (which was far more extensive than this one), and combined it with even more roofing cement to make my own built-up roofing. [6] This time, I decided to test out my solution with the garden hose, instead of waiting until the next rainstorm. It turns out that my second solution did not entirely eliminate the ponding [*] that had originally led to the leak, but it did add enough material to the point that the water wouldn’t be drawn underneath the shingles and into the gap between the skylight’s built-in flashing and the roof sheathing. [7] As such, I’ll need to apply another layer of material to divert water away such that it no longer ponds at that point; it shouldn’t take too much more effort to do this, however, so I’m not concerned about this.

Of course, you’d be well within your rights to ask, what does this have to do with anything? As it turns out, there is a method to my madness. [8] The reason I wrote out all of this is that it occured to me that this would make an interesting analogy for the health care debate now embroiling the citizens of our fair Republic.

As I have mentioned before (and I know I’m not the first to do so), one of the major problems I have noticed is the tendency to justify the massive scope (and attendant expense) of the various Fedgov proposals by claiming that our health care system is broken. Fair enough, but what about it is broken? Is the entire system broken, or parts of it? Since I don’t believe the entire system is broken, what parts of the system are broken, and what are the best solutions for these problems? Is it truly necessary to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, or would the citizens of our Republic be better served by smaller but specifically targeted programs that are specifically tailored to address only the parts of our health care system that are broken?

The correlation between this and my experience with fixing the skylight is that I ended up spending roughly 70 to 80 USD and roughly six to eight hours to fix the problem; had I gone with one of the more extensive fixes, I would easily have spent two or three times that amount money, and likely a similarly expanded amount of time to fix a problem that was ultimately solved for much less and in far less time. The lesson here is that to address a problem, one must understand the problem. It is not enough to identify that something is wrong; to properly address the problem, on must analyze the situation and determine the best means of moving forward. This isn’t rocket science, folks; it is basic problem-solving. I’m not arguing that the solutions to the health care situation are all simple ones; likely, they’ll end up being complex, no matter what the solution may be. That said, considering the amounts of money involved, and the turmoil a massive overhaul is likely to cause within the health care system, is it not prudent to proceed carefully with any reform? And yet, what we’ve seen thus far is one faction that blithely proposes a massive overhaul of a system that may or may not even be “broken,” a reactionary opposition that is just as prone to resort to fear-mongering as it is to propose productive alternatives, and a chief executive who has, to date, spent more time demanding haste than he has in proposing alternative solutions or even guiding his own side towards a specific goal. [9]

If there is, indeed a problem (and I do not deny that there is one), then we must proceed calmly and rationally. We (literally) cannot afford to waste money on programs that may or may not work, and that may or may not even be necessary. Given that this issue directly impacts the lifeblood (literally and figuratively) of our Republic, it is vitally important that we do not botch the solution.


[1]: Yes, I know…architects don’t build things. I know it, you know it, everybody knows it; still, I know a bit about actual construction practices, too. Call it a hobby, or something of that sort, if you’d like.

[2]: One of my favorite SF authors, Robert A. Heinlein, once wrote, “Progress doesn’t come from early risers – progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.” Knowing that Heinlein’s wit tends towards the sardonic, he probably wasn’t being entirely serious when he wrote this. On the other hand, one cannot deny that many of the technological marvels we enjoy today are, indeed, the result of men and women who were actively looking for easier ways of doing things. Some of these, of course, were probably also early risers, but still.

[3]: Hey, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing, right? Okay, maybe not. Unless we’re dealing with explosives, but that’s another story for, um, never.

[4]: Oh, but it’s more fun than that: it was at night, and the rain was being generated by a thunderstorm. And all I had for illumination was my little LED headlamp (which is actually surprisingly bright for its size). Er, for all you kiddies out there: DO NOT try this at home. Being on a roof in a thunderstorm isn’t exactly a bright idea.

[5]: For all you snarky types out there, you don’t get any bonus points for suggesting that I should’ve tried this before attempting any solutions. In my defense, I did check the conditions prior to trying to fix it, just not in the rain.

[6]: Ever seen roofers applying tar onto the roof of a large building? This is what they’re doing. Built-up roofing consists of multiple alternating layers of tar and asphalt paper sandwiched together. This process generates a rather thick layer of highly water-resistant material that (in theory) should keep water from getting into the less water-resistant parts of the building (like framing and insulation). The downside is that built-up roofing eventually solidifies and becomes brittle, meaning that it’ll have to be replaced. If executed properly, however, this replacement shouldn’t be necessary for quite some time.

[*]: Yes, it’s a real word. Well, it’s a word we use in the industry, so that’s my justification for using it here.

[7]: For those of you who don’t know why this happens, look up capillary action. I’d explain it, but I’m too lazy right now. And besides, I still have a point to make, so I’ll focus on that, instead.

[8]: This time. I won’t make that claim for other times, however. In fact, most of the time, my madness really is just madness. What can I say? I’m weird like that.

[9]: Before you mention it, yes, I am aware that the President recently offered his own “proposal” on national TV. As you may have guessed, I’m not exactly impressed with his “plan.”


One Response to “Fixing a leaky roof, 05 October 2009”

  1. Kelsi Arceo Says:

    I’ve always enjoyed roofing work. Gets a little stressful at times but I love it.

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