As a result of my travels around the country meeting with architects and building owners, I have become increasingly concerned regarding the reliance that these groups place on roof warranties. In many cases, roof systems are chosen specifically due to the length of the roof warranty provided by the material manufacturer. I believe that this practice can be highly detrimental because in many cases there does not appear to be a true understanding of what roof warranties actually cover. Furthermore, I believe that these documents are often mistakenly thought of as insurance policies that provide the building owner with complete coverage under all conditions, when this is rarely, if ever, the case.

Roof warranties came into prominence in the early 1980s with the onset of numerous roofing systems and the emergence of a plethora of manufacturers vying for the roofing consumer. Prior to this time, the majority of roof construction was completed using the tried-and-true bitumen-based built-up systems, which had enjoyed over 100 years of performance. Built-up manufacturers had provided bonds but never supplied any type of guarantee that exceeded an express warranty.

Manufacturers of new technology, such as systems utilizing rubbers, plastics, modified asphalts and other synthetic materials, could not rely on a sustainable track record to market the performance capabilities of their products. They could only provide technological data based on chemical formulations. Savvy consumers required some type of assurance that these materials could perform over the long term in harsh environments. Therefore, in an effort to obtain market share from the built-up sector, the new material manufacturers offered longterm warranties as a marketing tool.

This reaction started a warranty carousel in which the manufacturers repeatedly outbid their competitors by offering longer warranties. The increased liability risk that was associated with the long-term warranties ultimately contributed to the untimely demise of a number of roofing manufacturers. Extensive repair costs, in some cases coupled with inappropriate material formulations, left roofing consumers with serious roofing problems and ineffective warranties from companies that were no longer in operation and had no means of honoring their commitments.

Warranty Misconceptions

There is a common misconception held by many roofing consumers that long-term warranties are all-inclusive insurance policies designed to cover virtually any roofing problem, regardless of the cause or circumstance. This is not the case. Most roofing warranties make no claims that the roof system will not leak or that the material system is suitable for the building on which it is installed. The manufacturer’s coverage is based on the type of warranty that is purchased by the consumer. However, even the most comprehensive manufacturer warranties that cover materials and workmanship generally provide only that the manufacturer will repair leaks that result from the causes specified in the warranty.

Furthermore, warranty documents often contain restrictive provisions that significantly limit the warrantor’s liability and consumer remedies in the event that problems develop. The warranty document may also contain other restrictions and limitations, such as a prohibition against reassignment or transfer of the warranty, exclusion of damages resulting from a defective roof system and/or monetary issues.

What Warranties Actually Cover

There are several types of warranties, including contractors’ warranties, which cover workmanship, manufacturers’ warranties, which cover materials, and extended manufacturers’ warranties, which cover materials and labor. Contractors’ warranties are typically labor and performance agreements that the contractor will repair all roof leaks that occur in a specific time period at no charge to the building owner. These types of warranties commonly span one to five years, depending on the contracted agreement. Repair of leaks is often all that is covered; in most cases routine maintenance items are not included.

Manufacturers’ material warranties are typically available in durations of five to 20 years for new construction, remedial roofing and recover applications. Most warranties provide for the replacement of material in leak areas only; usually they do not include the cost of actual labor for the repairs. Repairs are commonly limited to points of leaks only. Defective material that is not leaking is not covered in many warranties.

There may also be a number of restrictive provisions that limit the manufacturer’s liability - and the owner’s remedies - in the event of a problem. That is why it is unwise to select a manufacturer’s warranty solely on the basis of the duration. In most cases, the length of the warranty reflects marketing considerations rather than a realistic appraisal of how long the material will actually last. Some manufacturers will provide extended warranties that make the manufacturer responsible for keeping the roof in a watertight condition if leaks occur solely as a result of normal deterioration of the membrane or poor workmanship in applying the materials. In these types of warranties, the manufacturer stipulates the materials that must be applied and the applicators that can apply them. Typically, the manufacturer requires premium materials used in select system applications. In addition, the same manufacturer must provide all of the system materials. The roof system must be applied by the manufacturer’s premium or certified contractors in the area.

Manufacturers usually limit their obligations under the warranty to a specific number of years and a specified monetary amount. The warranties terminate if the term of the agreement expires, the maximum monetary amount of the liability is expended, or if any repairs or alterations are made to the roof system without the written approval of the manufacturer. The warranty does not provide financial relief for any incidental or consequential damages to the building or its contents, including loss of equipment, loss of time or loss of profit. Typical warranty restrictions or exclusions also include:

  • Roof maintenance for corrections of conditions other than leaks.
  • Natural disasters such as, but not limited to, windstorm, hail, flood, hurricanes, lightning, tornado, earthquake, vermin, or other phenomena of the elements. (Note: Gale-force winds are considered wind speeds over 35 mph. Some manufacturers stipulate that winds must exceed 63 mph for limitations. It is best to check this out prior to accepting the warranty.)
  • Structural defects or failures.
  • Damage to building or its contents.
  • Changes in building use.
  • Damage resulting from new installation on or through the roof system.
  • Repairs or other applications to the system not performed in a manner acceptable to the manufacturer.
  • Damage resulting from any other materials used on the roof or walls.
  • Damage resulting from insulation unless the manufacturer supplies it.
  • Damage resulting from foot traffic or storage of material on the roof surface.
  • Damage resulting from moisture infiltration from walls, copings or other building penetrations.
  • Damage due to lack of proper drainage or ponding water. The industry generally accepts ponding of water up to 48 or 72 hours after a rainfall. However, one major manufacturer will not warrant a roof area in which water ponds for more than 24 hours after a rainfall.
  • Damage resulting from movement or deterioration from metal components adjacent to, or incorporated in the roof.
  • Condensation.
  • Any other exclusions contained in the manufacturers most current warranty document.

Building Owners’ Responsibilities

In addition to the numerous exclusions, the manufacturer often provides requirements that the owner must follow to maintain the warranty. For example, warranties provided by a roof material manufacturer might expressly state that the building owner is required to complete maintenance of the roof system throughout its service life. The absence of proper maintenance may be grounds for warranty nullification. Read the fine print of the warranty and clarify with the manufacturer the items that are considered to be maintenance items. The manufacturer should provide the consumer with clearly written requirements to maintain the warranty. This includes the consumer’s primary responsibility of providing periodic routine maintenance during the service life of the system.

In addition to maintenance, the building owner is required to contact the manufacturer when any alterations or additions are completed in the warranted roof areas. Most manufacturers also stipulate a specific time period in which leaks must be reported. In the majority of cases, all leaks must be repaired by an authorized contractor using manufacturer- approved materials.

Manufacturers’ Designs

All major roof system manufacturers provide technical manuals that include material application specifications that are often marketed to architects for direct implementation into their project specifications. Most manufacturers take this occasion to highlight their extensive experience with roof system design.

There are typically no design liability disclaimers in these manuals. However, the disclaimers are often printed all over the warranties, where the manufacturers’ clearly state that the roofing specifications they provide are for guidance only and they do not accept any responsibility for the design or construction procedures that are contained within them. The sales literature often fails to mention that most manufacturers provide these specifications as recommendations for material application based within acceptable tolerances that they have established for their materials. The warranties clearly state that it is the requirement of the designer to decipher the requirements that pertain to the specific project and customize the specifications accordingly.

Fortunately, there are ways to hold the manufacturers responsible for the design of their systems. Through various certification programs introduced into the documents, manufacturers can be required to state that they have reviewed the project documents and are in agreement with the intended use of their materials/systems and that their materials/ systems will satisfactorily perform for the indicated service life of the material/ system. Further, they can confirm that the contractor is an approved applicator of their materials/systems.

Such certification programs are intended to provide an owner with legal recourse should problems develop within the system (above normal maintenance) during the indicated service life.

It is still the owner's responsibility to keep the manufacturer informed as to any activity that involves the roof system beyond the original project documents (such as change orders, modifications to the roof or structure, or damage), but it substantially decreases the limitations.

Finding Solutions

Long-term warranties often do not provide adequate solutions for a consumer’s roofing problems. In essence, they can even undermine a prudent consumer’s initial concern for proper roofing specifications and application. A better solution would be for the roof consumer to focus the purchase decision primarily on an objective and comparative analysis of proven roofing system options that best serve the specific roofing requirements.

In the selection of the material manufacturer, the consumer would be better served by choosing a manufacturer that focuses more on the relevant and proven merits of the products and systems that are best designed to meet the specific building needs, rather than selling solely on warranty time frames. The consumer should also decipher that the warranties provided are based on an honest and realistic appraisal of the proven service life of the material. It is also prudent to research the financial ability and good faith of the manufacturer. A company cannot fulfill its warranty obligations if it is no longer in business.