Hail and High Water
While savvy homeowners have finally arrived-asking intelligent questions, placing a premium on performance-they can require the roof to perform magic. One could argue that the remarkable innovations in asphalt shingles have raised the expectations for constant improvement and more features. As manufacturers attempt to elevate their products above commodity status, they must balance innovation with sticking their necks out too far.
While impact resistance is an important feature, many manufacturers don't promote their products as hail resistant even if they have passed stringent tests. Concerns about appearance, implied warranties and abundant claims have made them cautious about how well the product will perform during weather extremes. Hail presents some unique challenges as everyone in the equation tries to protect property and increase profits.
UpgradesIn 1906, five years after the first asphalt shingle was made, GAF Materials Corp. used pigmented slate that was embedded into the asphalt. It seems that modifying the shingle is a long tradition and hail/impact resistance has been on the horizon for some time. For those who live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, plus large sections of Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas, hail is an on-going problem, as many homeowners have to replace their roofs multiple times.
The Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) started promoting insurance premium discounts in 1998 for homeowners who purchase roofing materials that passed UL 2218. While some argue that the test using a steel ball doesn't accurately mimic real hail, the test has become an industry standard with over 100 manufacturers having at least one product that has passed the test. The test further breaks down results by dividing materials into four classes. As in many facets of American life, insurance is the driving force behind change. Companies are very keen on promoting impact-resistant roofing materials to the point where agents have almost become a marketing program for such products.
"What they are looking for is a product that will get them through an event," says Scott Hamilton, vice president of sales and marketing at Lon Smith Roofing, Dallas. "They're not looking for an impervious product."
While it may not be reasonable to expect a roof to endure baseball-sized hail, Hamilton says that everyone benefits when a roof can successfully survive a relatively small hailstorm. Only two of the roofs his company replaced in 2003 had a hail-resistant rating. Even aesthetic damage to an asphalt shingle can trigger a claim. The TDI used to require homeowners to sign a waiver, but Hamilton says that he doesn't see such exemptions for asphalt shingles anymore. On the other hand, metal roofing still typically demands waivers.
To help insurance adjusters tell the difference between cosmetic and membrane damage, Lon Smith Roofing began hosting seminars in 1990 for insurance professionals. The day-long seminar covers product identification, hail and wind assessment, measurement techniques and safety issues. Adjusters and agents get lunch, a comprehensive manual and continuing education units to maintain their license. Lon Smith-which charges $25 to cover expenses-gets to enhance its reputation among those paying for all those roofs.
"We're trying to develop a relationship with the adjusters," says Hamilton. "It's been very successful."
Hundreds of attendees will get their training this month; Lon Smith Roofing even takes his program on the road for companies like State Farm. All of this has helped build the 30-year-old company into the largest residential roofing company in Texas, possibly the country. Virtually all of the $50 million in sales last year came from reroofing projects, with only the occasional new roof for preferred clients. He estimates that 25 percent of his 2004 sales volume was represented by impact-resistant shingles.
Hit Over the HeadAnother company that has built its business around frequent hailstorms is Contractor Associates in Fort Worth, Texas. Company president Steve Ralston was hit with an epiphany-literally-when he was visiting with a friend in Albuquerque and a sudden hailstorm pelted the car. For years, friends in the roofing business had tried to get Ralston into the business. The former insurance agent and property manager and now roof consultant had dealt with hail on all sides of the issue. So he started his restoration consulting business in 1994 and has gone through several billion-dollar storms in the Dallas/Fort Worth area alone, the last one occurring in 2003.
"It was a major reason for getting into the business," says Ralston about the frequency and severity of Texas storms. "I had to deal with some major hail storms."
The company acts as a kind of broker between insurance adjusters and contractors. With a mobile office-complete with lap top, digital cameras and roving Internet access-his teams travel to areas hit by storms, work on behalf of homeowners making claims over hail and wind damage, and then bring the work to qualified contractors. Ralston says that his experts can often identify hail damage that escapes the scrutiny of an untrained insurance adjuster.
"They're out there not to find damage and we're out there to find damage. It's the nature of the business," he admits, adding he's seen some hail-damaged roofs leak up to two years after a storm. "It's a problem. Roofs are going to leak at some point. We've taken a hard stand before and gotten squashed."
Ralston's insurance background helps him appreciate the mentality of the industry and has seen examples where homeowners simply don't want to tangle with a reluctant claims adjuster. In addition to examining the roofing material itself, Contractor Associates notes damage to metal accessories to build a possible case for replacement. The size, intensity and hardness are all factors that can make or break a roof. Many times the disagreement is over appearance, but Ralston likens a bruised-but-still-functioning roof to a fender bender. People want their property to be made whole, especially homeowners who carefully chose the color and style of their high-profile roofs.
"We think that's an insured loss," he says, even for roofs behind a parapet. "I don't think it makes a difference whether you can see (the roof) or not."
Metal roofing that achieves the highest UL rating, Class IV, can still look pretty banged up, so Ralston thinks that replacement is in order for any severely dimpled roof. In fact, he hardly hears UL 2218 discussed by insurance adjusters, but the discounts are getting the attention of homeowners. Texas homeowners who replace a wood shake with a Class IV rating can see their premiums reduced by up to 50 percent. When customers are also spared the expense of deductibles plus the hassle of frequent replacements, then a ready-made marketing tool is available to all segments.
When a settlement is reached, Contractor Associates assigns the job to a contractor that's been vetted. Even though roofing contractors in hard hit areas like Florida have no problem finding work, Ralston says that he offers professional bids, negotiating tactics and construction management techniques so that those installing the roof can concentrate on just that. Contractors handle the money and labor, while Ralston can provide extra help using trained teams that follow the work around the country. In essence, he positions himself to be an advocate for both contractors and building owners.
"Our customers come from referrals and contractors we work with," he says. "What's hurt people in the past is they go out and sell a job that doesn't make any money. We sell a job that is a quality job and we make sure that it's going to be profitable."
One-Way StreetHail can be found around the country, but the large populations in "hail alley" keep the focus primarily on target-rich environments like Dallas/Fort Worth, Wichita and Oklahoma City.
With all attention being paid to hail resistance, it may seem unusual for manufacturers to keep their hail performance attributes rather quiet. Virtually any roof can be impacted by hail, so there is no dishonor for a roofing system that sacrifices itself to protect the building, particularly a severe storm where property damage extends far beyond roofing materials. Some hailstorms in Texas have killed people; so there are those who don't see the UL test as a panacea for mitigating all damage.
"It's the tool of the day," says Mike DiStefano, director of marketing for GAF Materials Corp. of Wayne, N.J. "The real issue is: Does the UL test accurately predict the long-term performance of a roof after a hail storm? As a manufacturer, we're concerned that homeowners may be misled into thinking that a UL2218 Class 4 shingle is guaranteed to withstand a hailstorm. In reality, the most it may do, depending on the severity of the storm, is temporarily extend protection"
Just because a roofing system has passed stringent tests for fire and wind resistance doesn't mean it's guaranteed to survive hurricanes and forest fires. So why should hail resistance be viewed any differently? While liability is a serious concern, damage to a manufacturer's reputation is another, particularly when it overstates a product's hail resistance.
The concern is that the membrane might be compromised after a severe hailstorm, but not LOOK damaged. Hail impact can dislodge or crush the granules on the surface of the shingle, exposing the asphalt to UV. Over time, whether it's six months or a year or longer from the time of impact, the asphalt can begin to degrade, eventually causing a roof failure. Tests for asphalt shingles are related to their ability to resist cracking; they do not deal with the potential damage as a result of UV deterioration caused by potential loosened granules. DiStefano says he is not aware of anybody that has an accurate count of how many impact-resistant roofs are installed and there has yet to be a comprehensive examination of their effectiveness (over time) in the real world. The Roofing Industry Committee on Weather Issues of McDonough, Ga., announced last year that it is investigating a hailstorm that hit Oklahoma City in April 2004. As of press time, there has been no report filed. Meanwhile, manufacturers seem resigned to live with UL 2218, if only temporarily.
"This is a Band-Aid," says DiStefano. "If the roofing doesn't work after that period of time, what is gained? ...We're working to find a better answer."
"We have kind of been pressured to test our products," says Neil Robinson, creative director of marketing for TAMKO, Joplin, Mo. "The insurance is definitely driving it in some markets, especially Texas. What you see going on is a transfer of liability."
All of TAMKO's Lamarite shingles and steel shingles are rated Class IV, but the company has never claimed its products to be "hail resistant." (At one time the company did promote a product able to survive up to three hurricanes, but no longer.) The company does advertise products that are listed UL 2218 Class 4, in addition to passing UL Class A for fire resistance and acceptance by Miami-Dade County for wind uplift. Robinson believes that hail, just like fire and wind, is an insurance claim and both homeowners and insurance adjusters can expect too much from a standardized test. He's sees a significant difference in claiming to pass UL 2218 as opposed to claiming a product can resist hail.
"I think somebody is going to get into trouble," he says. "We would rather sell a product and write a warranty that we're going to stand behind. I'm not going to say it if I'm not going to cover it."
Atlas Roofing of Atlanta was the first asphalt shingle manufacturer to achieve a Class IV rating and promotes the "hail resistance" of its products in trade literature. Only two products are rated Class IV, but there are a number of others with lower impact-resistant ratings. When combined with wind uplift resistance, the two facets help drive sales and, in part, account for the construction of a new shingle plant last year. This summer, the company will team up with roofing contractors to advertise directly to consumers; ads in the Texas market will reportedly include information about mitigating hail damage.
Many roofing manufacturers exclude hail damage in their warranties, just like other inclement weather or extreme circumstances. Today's asphalt shingles offer many valuable features, but the time may have come to take a breather. After all, no one is offering a hail-resistant car. While it may seem ironic for roofing contractors to take roofing inventory off line for a while, reputation is the name of the game and those who offer relief from constant repairs and replacement will have lots of customers come hail or high water.
"Some are grabbing more a hold of it than others," says Hamilton of Lon Smith Roofing. "Many roofing contractors, that's their whole goal in life: to beat up on the insurance guys."