Preparing for the Worst: Roofing Contractors Learn From Harsh Winters and Severe Weather Events
On the heels of Superstorm Sandy, the winter of 2014 was one of the coldest in recent history, with heavy precipitation and snowfall throughout the Great Plains, Midwest and East. The fallout from these weather events was significant for roofing contractors, and for some the impact on their businesses was a game changer. Roofing Contractor recently spoke with roofing professionals from these areas to learn more about their experiences with extreme weather conditions.
We wanted to find out how harsh weather impacted their businesses in terms of manpower, materials and financial considerations. We asked how they reacted to severe weather events, how they adjusted crew schedules with little notice, and if their experiences helped them prepare for future events.
Many contractors were caught by surprise when it came to both Sandy and the winter of 2014, according to GAF’s Commercial Program Maintenance Director Tim Botkin. As a result, most businesses have reviewed their preparedness programs. “Last winter pushed back contractor deadlines, which in turn affected their customer service,” said Botkin. “The overall lesson learned is that they now have a contingency plan in place. Many contractors review this with their crew at least once a month. Preventive maintenance inspections are critical, as well as before and after photos, if necessary, for insurance purposes. They aren’t waiting for the storm to hit, but they have the manpower, equipment and other necessary supports such as fuel, generators and even portable housing available for the crews.”
Matthew Baggett, contractor specialist with National Roofing Partners, agreed that extreme weather conditions can put a company’s strengths and preparedness to the test. “Contractor personnel will be challenged with their own homes and situations, so that impacts each business in terms of staffing issues,” he noted. “At NRP, we are able to reach out to other assets that aren’t necessarily in the path of these storms, so that they can assist us in the areas that are damaged.”
In the Path of Superstorm Sandy
Mile Square Roofing
Mile Square Roofing had a week of preparation as Superstorm Sandy came up the coast toward Hackensack, N.J., in October 2012. The impact of Sandy was felt for months after the storm ended; Mile Square handled roof repairs and blow-offs until the end of March.
“After the storm hit on October 29, our guys worked every day until January 4, with only Thanksgiving and Christmas off,” recalled Vice President of Operations Tim Wyka. “The five projects we were working on at the time came to a halt and anything we were set to do was pushed off for nearly a year. After Sandy, we were called to several blow-offs where large portions of roofing came off down to the deck — which equates to thousands of squares.”
Hundreds of buildings sustained damage in the area. “The blow-offs weren’t the only problem from Sandy, but all of the small things that happened — a piece of edge metal here, a puncture there — kept us very busy,” Wyka said. “The assessments, insurance estimates and the work itself took at least six months to complete.”
To make matters worse, repair work was complicated by a host of other factors, noted Executive Vice President Kirk Hollis. “One of our biggest problems after Sandy was access to the work sites due to flooding,” he said. “For several days after Sandy, our shop had no power. All we had were mobile phones to continue operations. We were without computers and our service management portal.”
These conditions were also faced by most of the company’s staff members on a personal level, as many of their homes sustained wind damage and flooding. Many had no power, little fuel and minimal transportation for nearly two weeks. “Sandy was by far the worst weather we experienced in our 30-year history,” Wyka said.
To further illustrate the impact of Superstorm Sandy, service work conducted in the two months after the storm constituted 35 percent of the company’s service revenue for the year. Last winter’s harsh weather kept service crews busy as well. “Fortunately, we have been able to maintain our growth since Sandy, which has resulted in a great deal of customer loyalty,” Wyka said. “These kinds of weather situations can make or break a business.”
Since Sandy, Mile Square has supported three full crews with additional subcontractors to handle the workload. “Sandy was a catalyst, and we have continued to stay busy,” noted Wyka. “The level of service we are able to provide as a result has helped us grow our service side of the business. We’ve added vehicles, manpower and a larger service program for building owners.”
The extreme and sustained conditions last winter created a different set of challenges. “It’s usually not one incident, but compounding events over time that develop into six or eight inches of ice and two or three feet of snow. Our customers are being proactive, asking what they can do to get out ahead of these situations. We are suggesting calcium chloride in drains and wiring in gutters to help melt ice. In some cases, we are being asked to mark solar arrays and roof drains,” said Wyka.
“These storms certainly have opened our eyes to the importance of communication and safety,” he noted. “Communication with our field crews is critical when we are dealing with three- or four-foot snow drifts. Along with the obvious dangers associated with winter weather, objects on the roof can become obscured in the snow. This can lead to very dangerous conditions. We take special precautions for injury prevention. Prior to the start of a project and throughout its duration, we periodically hold toolbox talks, our version of a safety briefing.”
To illustrate one of Mile Square’s frequent winter challenges, Hollis provided the following example: “In our first project of the winter last year, we had a solar array to consider, so we had to communicate and prepare for the realities of the project. There’s electricity to deal with, the arrays themselves and other factors you wouldn’t necessarily encounter. Our job is to service our customer and keep our men safe at the same time. It’s hard to navigate on a roof that has a solar array blanketed with snow and ice.”
Last year, Mile Square sent out office personnel at the request of building owners and consultants to measure and weigh the amount of snow on the roofs and create a priority list. “When removing snow and ice, we are cautious about using unskilled labor,” Wyka said. “Our crews are trained in the proper handling of roofing materials and have safety training relevant to the industry. When a membrane is only 60 mils thick, you must be careful. We don’t take on more than we can handle to meet our customers’ needs. We aren’t afraid of letting new work go in order to maintain our customer service and relationships. We have to share the workload with our fellow roofing colleagues and don’t expect to be everywhere at one time.”
“Superstorm Sandy helped us prepare for future events,” noted Hollis.
“It made us think of things we might never have considered,” added Wyka. “Now our gas reserves are full, our trucks and equipment are ready to go and we are better prepared as a result.”
South Hackensack, N.J.
South Hackensack, N.J.-based WB Contracting had a different experience immediately following Superstorm Sandy. There were some emergency blow-offs and repairs, but the real work came later. According to WB’s Director of Operations Tom Delancey, “We were without power 31 days at our homes, but fortunately, we never ran out of gas at our office since we have tanks of fuel. The bigger impact was the Nor’easter that came in early November 2012. That was our biggest snowfall of the entire winter.”
Delancey said for his business, the weather following Sandy paled in comparison to the winter of 2013-14. “It was, by far, the worst from December 2013 right through to the second week of March 2014,” he said. “For us, it became a follow-up to Sandy, as many roofs were weakened from the winter storm and extreme snowfall. From my perspective, Sandy did not create the boon of work that many contractors expected.”
Last winter’s harsh weather also had a financial impact for company, noted Delancey. “As a result of the roadblocks we faced, the impact on the cash-flow cycle was significant,” he said. “We only lost four to five days of work during Sandy versus last winter, where we lost 60-90 days. We could never gain momentum and get anything done because of the freezing-thawing cycle. It lasted from Christmas until the end of March.”
WB’s current business plan includes allowing for 30-90 days of no cash flow due to weather emergencies. “Money continues to go out, but nothing comes in,” Delancey noted.
As the son of a roofing contractor who has worked on both coasts, Delancey thinks that the roofing season gets shorter each year. “Particularly in New Jersey and New York, where everybody wants their work done in June, July and August,” he said. “That’s what I’m experiencing after 25 years in the business. The majority of my money is made between May and September.”
Roofing contractors can’t underestimate the impact of the weather, stated Delancey.
“Our business is the weather. ‘Are we able to work tomorrow?’ is the question of the day,” he said. “While we try to plan for what we might deal with, it’s not always possible.”
Delancey remembered a summer storm last year that produced 18 inches of rain in about six hours on Long Island. “We lost almost $30,000 of roofing materials in a parking lot that were in place for us to use on an upcoming job,” he said. “Fortunately that day, we were actually roofing 21 miles away and didn’t lose a single hour!”
Facing Challenging Winter Conditions
F.A. Taylor & Sons
F.A. Taylor & Sons is a fourth-generation company, and Vice President Larry Nash has been in the roofing business for 20 of those years. Hurricane Isabel in 2003 is still etched in his memory. “Isabel was significant, so I assumed Superstorm Sandy would hit our business hard, especially on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” he said. “We had a plan to send out crews to meet demand, but the storm hit just north of us.”
Recent winters in the Baltimore area, however, have been a story of another kind. “Last winter, it was extremely cold, and we had 78 inches of snow, which shut us down,” Nash said. Normal annual snowfall in that area is between 24-30 inches.
Since most of F.A. Taylor’s work is tear off and recover, new projects account for only 20 percent of the company’s business. This typically results in a crew reduction during the winter. “We usually keep our core group and struggle to keep them busy, but probably have one of the cleanest warehouses in the business,” Nash said.
With the severity of the last three winters, the company has seen its maintenance division business nearly triple, and heavy snows also have kept the crews busy. “The past two or three years, we worked seven days a week for over a month just shoveling snow off the roofs,” noted Nash. “Add this to the required maintenance work, and it certainly carried us through the winter months.”
When winter interferes with business, F.A. Taylor fortunately can turn to another aspect of its operations — the manufacturing of galvanized skylights. Nash noted that skylights are popular in Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia. “This portion of our business also keeps us busy if we can’t get out during extreme weather,” he said.
Nash said a key factor that can make or break roofing businesses during harsh weather is being able to access equipment and work areas to get crews up and running. From an overall business perspective, Nash feels fortunate that if work is slow in the winter, his crews will return in the spring. “As for materials, we get what we need at the time,” he said. “It’s been tough for the distributors, too, because they weren’t selling anything. If they can’t get their trucks out on the road, they can’t do business.”
The most important consideration for Nash is rooftop safety. One misstep in slippery conditions could be dangerous — or even deadly. “When skylights are covered with snow, we must have a diagram to locate them all,” he said. “We install hard yellow safety rails at the edges of the roof for protection. We want our crew calm and protected — we don’t put them up there if we have safety concerns.”
At the end of the day, meteorologists play an important role. “We watch the weather religiously,” said Nash. When storms approach, he reaches out to the staff and tells them to get ready. Simple things, like access to shovels, can be a major roadblock if you aren’t prepared. “Stores ran out of snow shovels,” he said. “That will never happen to us again. We bought extra this year.”
Nash feels being prepared includes expecting the worst. “We expedite and take care of our customers, keeping them calm and letting them know we will be there as soon as we can,” he said.
One of the biggest obstacles throughout the East and Midwest during the winter of 2013-14 was the extreme cold. For many contractors in these areas, it took several months to catch up from both a production and financial perspective. One of those companies was Alumni Roofing of Lexington, Ohio. “We had to lay off many of our roofers during the bitter cold, and then we were suddenly very busy,” said Alumni’s President Bill Hope. “Last year was much more severe than normal and we just couldn’t keep up. We’ve got a backlog that will take us through this winter. “
Hope finds one of the biggest challenges for roofing contractors in North Central Ohio is the wind. “When we have materials for a job in place, they must be secured on the roof,” he said.
High winds are commonplace in the Midwest and sometimes accompany extreme thunderstorms, lightning and occasional tornadoes. “After Hurricane Rita in 2005, we had incredible 60-mph sustained winds that were the result of that storm,” he said. “Anything that was loose blew off the roof and punctured roofing membranes. We likely had the most repairs ever from that event.”
When it comes to preparing for extreme weather conditions, Alumni Roofing checks for any loose rooftop materials and inspects HVAC units and other areas with penetrations. “We have a couple of major wind events each year,” Hope said. “We periodically get calls to clear the snow from rooftop heating units to keep snow from impeding the heating capabilities. Of course, we also inspect our customers’ roof drains as well during the ‘sandwich’ period of freezing and thawing.”
One interesting example that Hope shared was the case of the roof on a local retail store that couldn’t drain, so it collapsed. “Winter is so harmful in our area, and when you have ice and snow, any leaks become exacerbated and more prominent. The elevation of the leak line is higher with ice and snow, and major melt days like we often have in February are a huge challenge,” he commented. “It’s just like the pothole parades on the roads.”
Crews from Alumni head out for inspections immediately after any major weather event. “In any case, our customers know we will be right there to check their roofs,” Hope said. “They then can go online for a copy of their inspection report, complete with pictures, all uploaded to the cloud with a terrific tool known as Dataforma.”
Hope is optimistic about completing projects this winter. “If the weather allows us to be out, we will work,” he said.
In Alaska, Harsh Weather Is THE Status Quo
Interior Alaska Roofing
Standard operating procedure for the crew of Interior Alaska Roofing is quite different than for most contractors in the lower 48 states. Extreme weather conditions are routine in Alaska, and as company President Jason Clark stated, “Mother Nature is known to give painful and unforgettable lessons on tough love!”
In terms of manpower, cold weather wears crews out mentally and physically. The company must have plenty of extra crew members to replace those that burn out. “Workers need a lot of fortitude to survive the harsh conditions,” Clark said. “Those that don’t have it are the first to give up.”
Clark advises that companies provide adequate cold-weather gear, including hand and feet warmers, hardhat liners, headlamps and batteries. “The crew can only work so long in the cold, so there will be warm-up breaks, thus magnifying the impact on productivity and cost,” he noted.
Clark shared several tips on coping with severe weather events that have become second nature to him working in Alaska. “You must keep track of materials in order to be prepared if 12 inches of snow comes down overnight, hiding all your materials,” he said.
He recommends keeping extra products on hand to be ready when the weather cooperates. This can put a strain on budgets. “Be willing to blow your budget of $2,000 today because tomorrow it may cost you $6,000,” he said.
One of Clark’s favorite sayings is “Make money from problems.” He believes difficult situations raise the intensity level. “You will put a lot more focus and attention on a situation to come up with ideas to pull your fat out of the fire,” he said. “Once out of the fire, you must learn from the situation. Set up a system so you can avoid being in that difficult situation again if at all possible. It shows you what you must do to be prepared and helps solidify your team.”
According to Clark, the worst weather event he has dealt with was installing 400 squares of EPDM on a roof in Barrow under a 70-foot-by-120-foot tent. It took days just to build the tent and get it heated. “One night about 10 p.m., we were trying to save the tent in a windstorm,” he recalled. “The temperature was about 30 below zero outside, and we were inside trying to fix a seam. We had eight guys holding the seam down while others were trying to reinforce it as it came apart.”
Clark quickly pulled the crew off the roof, as Mother Nature won that round. “Tomorrow is a new day,” he said. “You just have to start the process over and try to build it better the next time. Nature isn’t forgiving, but you have to get over it. We are basically adrenaline junkies. It is nice to have a great person beside you helping you fight through the battle. You just can’t make it a habit!”
When the weather is favorable, Clark pointed out that you have to do whatever possible to take full advantage of it. “On a job we did in Valdez, Alaska, our crew was stuck in camp for a week and a half waiting for conditions to clear. When the weather finally broke, we were working 85-hour weeks to catch up. We had to give the guys a break. Unfortunately, a week or two later, we had a 60,000-square-foot ice rink on that roof.”
He said he regularly reminds himself that there is no guarantee that tomorrow is going to be as favorable as today. “You have to make tough decisions on where to focus your resources. Which job is going to cause you the most pain? It is like choosing whom to disappoint: your wife or your mother-in-law. Either way you lose, but not making a choice will cost you even more.”
Clark summed up his advice for dealing with extreme weather this way: “Be organized, prepared, always operate as a team and learn from your mistakes. Don’t be tempted to take shortcuts to get the job done quickly.”
His company motto is “Nothing beats a team!”