Pop quiz: What can save your customers the cost of replacing their metal roofs and reduce their energy costs while saving you labor?

If you said coatings, you’re right! If you said spray polyurethane foam, you’re right too, but you have to read the article on page XX.

For this article, we talked to some manufacturers of metal roof coatings to get their perspective on this growing industry. We also interviewed several contractors to give you a real-world perspective, as well as advice, on what using coatings can mean for your business.

The Manufacturing Side

“Our products are elastomeric, ceramic, insulating, reflective waterproofing coatings,” says Grant Klosner, vice president of sales and marketing for Nationwide Chemical Coating Manufacturers Inc., Bradenton, Fla. “Their main purpose is energy efficiency.” The company makes 60 different coatings, over half of them for roofing, and about a third of these for metal. According to Klosner, the “extra plus” from his company’s products come from the ceramic. “Depending on the condition of the roof, you can get anywhere from a 5 to 25 percent reduction in utility bills. You can get the same reduction in the ambient temperature inside the building. If the building owner wants to reduce energy costs, coatings help.” He adds, “They also help with noise reduction.”

“We train our contractors to know how to use the coatings and when to use them, as opposed to replacing the roof,” explains Klosner. “Coatings are so easy to use, there is not much training required. If you don’t need to replace the roof, using coatings can save you 75 percent of the costs plus the energy savings costs.”

ERSystems, Loretto, Minn., also makes coatings for metal roofs, as well as for asphalt, single-ply and spray-polyurethane-foam systems. Just like Nationwide, this company places an emphasis on energy efficiency, calling the idea “Cool Roof Restoration.” “We look at the entire roof in terms of Cool Roof Restoration,” explains Jim Leonard, president of ERSystems. “The key is to restore, not just repair. This goes for any material. The goal is to extend the life and performance of the roof.”

As for the “cool” part of the cool roof restoration, ERSystems was one of the first energy star partners. The company has long promoted the fact that bright, highly reflective materials produce cooler roofs that in turn reduce energy costs and urban air pollution, as well as help to extend the longevity of the roof. Leonard is also on the board of directors of the Cool Roof Rating Council, a group of manufacturers, consultants, associations, national laboratories and government agencies. The CRRC is working on performance guidelines for all systems. “We as an industry need to make standards, or they will be imposed on us,” says Leonard.

“The metal coatings are our most unique,” explains Leonard. “We use a high-solids polyurethane coating over seams and fasteners. It is tough and flexible enough without fabric reinforcement, whereas many coatings require the use of fabric or tape over these areas. Also if you use fabric, it is often stretched over fasteners and seams, which causes tenting. The result is that the coating does not get all the way down to the metal. This works against what you are trying to accomplish.”

ERSystems makes two systems. One is a full polyurethane primer with the choice of two polyurethane finish coats. The primer is used where rust and corrosion are evident. The other system is an acrylic primer (though you still use polyurethane over seams and fasteners) and an acrylic finish, similar to other manufacturers’ standard systems.

How do you decide which system to use? It’s basically a problem-solving approach. “Harsh rust needs polyurethane,” says Leonard. “It is also used for roofs for special needs – like a plant that emits chemicals or an one that needs protection from acid rain.” An ordinary roof can take acrylic, and according to Leonard, “In some cases, contractors have a preference and prefer either acrylic or polyurethane.”

While Leonard and Kosner emphasize energy efficiency, Arlen Koppel, president of Topps Products Inc., Overland Park, Kan., emphasizes maintenance and cost savings for the building owner. “Our system has been in service for about 12 years in the field. There have been no material failures,” says Koppel. “It is a very economical alternative to metal roof replacement.”

Koppel’s observation for contractors who want to get into coatings is that, “It’s a simple entry process. The initial outlay for spray equipment is $6,000 to $10,000. Beyond that, the training is simple. There is a learning curve, of course, but it’s a short learning curve.” Topps offers training in its Cleveland facility so contractors can be certified. “It’s the contractor’s choice to be certified, but all of the really big ones are.” Koppel continues, “Our system is fairly easy to learn, there’s not as much labor involved because the material on the seams is sprayed on, not taped. It fills and penetrates seams.”

“Some contractors who use our products just do coatings, others are metal roofing contractors, and some are metal building erectors,” explains Koppel. “The point is that coating a roof can be as little as one third of the cost of roof replacement, and this can extend the life of the roof 10 to 20 years.” He goes on, “It’s a matter of maintenance. To tell if a roof needs to be replaced, consider the original construction, maintenance history, and the condition of the metal. If more than 10 percent of the metal throughout the roof (not concentrated in one area) needs to be replaced, then coatings won’t work. As an industry, we are learning to be concerned with maintenance.”

The Contractors

Of course the manufacturers will tell you coatings for metal roofs are the greatest thing since sliced bread and anyone can do it. But what does it really mean for your business? The contractors we spoke to seem to agree, for the most part, that coatings are the way to go.

Tom Webster is president of Webcon Inc. Metal Roof Restoration and Preservation in Hutchison, Kan. Ninety percent of his business is metal restoration and coatings. He uses products from ERSystems.

In business for 30 years, Webcon employs 20 to 22 people at peak. “We switched over to coatings four years ago,” says Webster. “We found it to be more profitable.” The company gets business through its Web site and yellow page ads, as well as outside sales and a lot of referrals. “We are filling a void in the market,” observes Webster. “But we also think we are different from others who do coatings. We take care of the roof. We re-screw the entire structure and tighten it. We always prime. We go over each screw, seam and protrusion, and then apply two layers of coatings. This may seem expensive, but there are no callbacks.”

Webcon doesn’t encounter many customers worried about energy efficiency, at least for now. “The main reason people are calling us is because their metal roof leaks. If we can restore it, it’s less costly for them. If it needs to be replaced, such as a building in the chemical industry, we can re-metal or do EPDM.”

Webster sees the process of traditional roofers getting into coatings for metal roofs as a long one. “Coatings are a specific market, it takes guys who know metal. We know the problems metal roofs can have and how to solve them.” The company’s success can also be attributed to its general business philosophy. “Most of our positions are filled from within and our people make up to 50 percent more than the average. That’s the key: There is no turnover.”

Webcon also pays its workers through the winter. “You can’t do coatings in the winter, so you have to be a bigger company.” In addition, “Working with metal coatings is more sophisticated than tar. A lot of companies can’t make the switch. It’s a different concept and you need different people.” Webcon is not a particularly large company, so when it made the switch, it did so slowly. “My advice is to start small and take it slowly,” says Webster. “Make sure you do excellent work and then build up to the big jobs.”

Dan Steed is sales manager for American Midwest Construction Inc., Olathe, Kan. The company is part of a larger general contractor, and it does all metal roofing, including repairs, coatings and new construction. His advice to contractors who want to do coatings is straightforward: “Take care of the roof. Add fasteners where they are needed, replace panels and do trim work. The bottom line is to get the roof back into shape before coating it. There are a lot of people who will just spray down a layer of coating, and obviously, that’s not what you should do.”

American Midwest uses Topps products and its applicators have had basic training. “We market coatings as a new weathering surface that will seal the roof and extend its life.” Steed sees coatings as a maintenance item on 10- to 20-year-old roofs: “Most of our clients have leaking roofs or are worried about rust and paint deterioration.” The company doesn’t see a lot of concern over energy efficiency at the moment, but it is increasing. The standard coating American Midwest applies is a white finish (95 percent of the time), but Topps also offers colors. “Sometimes people want to match other buildings in a complex or change the look of a building.”

Tom Pulda is another contractor who uses Topps products. His company, Pro-Tech Services in Racine, Wis., employs about 10 to 12 people at peak. It does mostly restoration and coating of metal, as well as some single-ply.

Pulda’s take on the coatings market is that, “There was a metal construction boom in the early 70s. By the late 80s, there was a need to address leaks and rust. Newer technology led to the development of coatings as an option over the last 10 to 15 years.” And yet, potential customers don’t have many people to call on. A typical contractor might suggest fixing a metal roof by covering it with BUR or single-ply over insulation. “This will add R-value, but is more costly,” says Pulda. “Coatings are another option.”

When asked if concern over energy efficiency plays a roll in his customer’s decisions, the answer is “sometimes.” “It does help with air conditioning costs when you use a white reflective coating, and this is seen quite a bit,” says Pulda. “But most of the buildings we do are warehouses or distribution centers that don’t have AC in the first place. White coatings do help keep them cooler though. And over the next year or two, we expect more people will be looking at white reflective coatings.”

Pro-Tech Services has a six- to seven-hour, 500-mile radius for doing work. The company has also done jobs as far away as North Carolina and Florida. Pro-Tech can get this kind of work because sometimes manufacturers won’t have a certified contractor in the area, or local contractors don’t have the proper safety training for a particular job. “Coatings is still a niche market,” Pulda observes. “You have to travel to find work. But the nice thing is that there is not as much competition so there are higher profits. It’s worth it if you can stick with it.”

His advice is to talk to building owners about preserving or sustaining a roof. “Coatings don’t add a lot of weight per square foot. You can also offer a 10-year warranty. At the end of the warranty, you can wash the roof, re-coat it, and extend the life of the roof almost indefinitely.” Pulda says that using single-ply over metal or metal over metal gets progressively more expensive. And, finally, “Watch out for the pick-up truck guys. Coatings are relatively easy to get into, and people will do a bad job. We had to contend with that at first, but now we have a list of references to show business owners. It’s enough to convince them that we’re good.”

The Bottom Line

While customers in the Midwest might not be so concerned about energy efficiency, you can bet that those in the South and West are. Dave Nelson is the owner of Quality Coatings in Muskogee, Okla. The company does work in Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas and Kansas. He markets his services as a more economical alternative to replacing a metal roof, and as a way to cool a building. Most of his customers are interested in cooler temperatures because he does work on a lot of manufacturing facilities and airport hangers. “We did one job on a flea market in Florida, it would get so hot that customers would pass out,” he explains. “Applying a coating made a big difference, and the owner got a positive response from customers and vendors.”

Not having customers pass out is definitely a good thing. And so is stopping leaks and extending the life of a roof. All good reasons for you to learn more about coatings and metal roof restoration.