Asphalt-based Low-slope Roof Systems Provide Long-term Service Life

MAY 26, 2015 BY JAMES R. KIRBY, AIA

*This article was originally posted in Roofing magazine.

Asphalt-based roof systems have a long-standing track record of success in the roofing industry. In fact, asphalt-based roof systems have more than a century of use in the U.S. Building owners, roofing specifiers and contractors should not lose sight of this fact. It is important to understand why asphalt roofing has been successful for so long. Asphalt roofs demonstrate characteristics, such as durability and longevity of materials and components, redundancy of waterproofing, ease and understanding of installation, excellent tensile strength and impact resistance. Each of these characteristics helps ensure long-term performance.

There are two types of asphalt-based low-slope roof systems: modified bitumen (MB) roof systems and builtup roof (BUR) systems. MB sheets are composed primarily of polymer-modified bitumen reinforced with one or more plies of fabric, such as polyester, glass fiber or a combination of both. Assembled in factories using optimal quality-control standards, modified bitumen sheets are manufactured to have uniform thickness and consistent physical properties throughout the sheet.

Modified bitumen roof systems are further divided into atactic polypropylene (APP) and styrene butadiene styrene (SBS) modified systems. APP and SBS modifiers create a uniform matrix that enhances the physical properties of the asphalt. APP is a thermoplastic polymer that forms a uniform matrix within the bitumen. This matrix increases the bitumen’s resistance to ultraviolet light, its flexibility at high and low temperatures, and its ability to resist water penetration. SBS membranes resist water penetration while exhibiting excellent elongation and recovery properties over a wide range of temperature extremes. This high-performance benefit makes SBS membranes durable and particularly appropriate where there may be movement or deflection of the underlying deck.

BUR systems consist of multiple layers of bitumen alternated with ply sheets (felts) applied over the roof deck, vapor retarder, and most often insulation or coverboard. BUR systems are particularly advantageous for lowslope applications. The strength of the system comes from the membrane, which includes the layers of hot-applied bitumen and the reinforcing plies of roofing felt.

FACTORS FOR LONG-TERM PERFORMANCE AND SERVICE LIFE

It is important for building owners and roof system designers to recognize the principles of long-lasting, high-performance roof systems. Roof longevity and performance are determined by factors that include building and roof system design, job specifications, materials quality and suitability, application procedures and maintenance. The level of quality in the workmanship during the application process is critical.

Longevity and performance start with proper design of the asphalt-based roof system. Proper roof system design includes several components: the roof deck, a base layer supporting a vapor retarder or air barrier when necessary, multi-layer insulation and a coverboard, the asphaltic membrane, appropriate surfacing material or coating, and the attachment methods for all layers. Roof consultants, architects and roof manufacturers understand proper design. Roof design needs to follow applicable code requirements for wind, fire and impact resistance, as well as site-specific issues, such as enhanced wind resistance design, positive drainage and rooftop traffic protection. Roof designers can provide or assist with the development of written specifications and construction details that are specific to a roofing project for new construction or reroofing.

Low-slope asphalt-based roof systems are redundant; they are multi-layered systems. BUR systems include a base sheet, three or four reinforcing ply sheets and a surfacing, either aggregate (rock) or a cap sheet. MB sheets include one and sometimes two reinforcing layers and are commonly installed over a substantial asphaltic base sheet. Modified bitumen roofs can be granule surfaced, finished with reflective options or coated after installation. Aggregate, granules, films and coatings add UV protection, assist with fire resistance, provide durability to the roof system and can improve roof aesthetics.

Coverboards provide a durable layer immediately below the membrane, are resistant to foot traffic and separate the membrane from the thermal insulation layer. Protecting the thermal insulation helps maintain the insulation R-value as specified and installed.

Asphalt is a durable and long-lasting material for roof membranes and flashings. Asphalt is stable under significant temperature swings and can be highly impact resistant. Various reinforcements can be used to increase an asphaltic membrane’s durability. All asphaltic membranes are reinforced, during installation (BUR) or the manufacturing process (MB membranes). Polyester reinforcement has excellent elongation, tensile strength and recovery. It provides good puncture resistance and stands up well to foot traffic. Glass fiber reinforcement resists flame penetration and provides excellent tensile strength and dimensional stability.