Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Acceptable vs. wrong: the difference and relevance

The question: as an inspector who is looking at a new house, you encounter a roof which is installed in the following order: sheathing, tar paper, drip edge, shingles. (The correct order is sheathing, drip edge, tar paper, shingles). What do you say?

The real answer: why did the professional roofer not install ice and water barrier? And if a professional roofer wouldn't use ice and water barrier, then why would you want a professional roofer doing your roof inspections?


Ice and water barrier is a self-adhering underlayment which is required by the 2006 International Residential Code, which is used by the City of Columbus for defining code requirements. According to the 2006 IRC: In areas where there has been a history of ice forming along the eaves causing a backup of water (anywhere in Nebraska) an ice barrier that consists of at least two layers of underlayment cemented together or a self-adhering polymer modified bitumen sheet, shall be used in lieu of normal roof surfaces to a point 24 inches inside the exterior wall line of the building.

So now we're dealing with a new house that wasn't built to code specifications. I don't inspect for code, but I do inspect for proper installation. Proper installation—according to just about any shingle manufacturer nowadays—calls for the installation of ice and water barrier.

If the roofer had used ice and water barrier, then he wouldn't have had to rely on the drip edge to hold anything in place. Ice and water barrier has a pretty tenacious adhesive on it, which allows it to stick to wood, OSB, and—above all—metal drip edges. It doesn't blow off. When I was working on my roof last year, I installed ice and water barrier on a low-slope area of my home's roof and then went to Las Vegas for a week. According to my neighbor, we had some pretty exciting weather that week. When I got home, the ice and water barrier was still there.

To answer the question of why the roofer didn't install an ice and water barrier, there are a number of possible reasons. Maybe the roofer didn't know about ice and water barrier requirements. Maybe the roofer had never heard of the product. Maybe the roofer would brush off the question with a gruff “I know what I'm doing, I've always done it this way.” Since ice and water barrier costs more than tar paper, maybe the roofer thought he could save a few bucks by not using it—a reason which begs questions of the ethical variety. In any case, is anyone going to ask the roofer, or is it the inspector's fault for finding this?

Regardless of the reason, this is just one example of an area where education is needed. People seem to have the idea that new homes are perfect because they are new—an idea which is guaranteed to bring disappointment. It's not a case of new+house=perfect, because "new" is generally based on a number and a house is an object. What's two plus tree equal? Go ahead and type that into your calculator if you can't do it in your head. I'll wait. What does your calculator say? If it could, it would tell you that the two are not directly related.

New homes are not perfect for a number of reasons, but—on a personal level—I think it those reasons can be summed up in one phrase: no one cares about your possessions as much as you do. If you were building your own home, wouldn't you want to make sure you did everything correctly? You would. There wouldn't be any rationalization of any improper installations, such as installing the drip edge over the tar paper because it keeps the tar paper from blowing off.

The job of the drip edge is to direct water away from the sheathing. Nowhere in the drip edge's job description is there any mention of holding tar paper in place. After all, what happens when water runs down the tar paper—the roof's last defense—when the drip edge is installed over the tar paper? It runs right under the drip edge, which likely means wet sheathing. Over time, wet sheathing equals rotten sheathing. So, on your house, you would install the drip edge under the tar paper. would use ice and water barrier. For the first two rows. Tar paper wouldn't be a factor, because this is your house, and your installation is based solely on propriety.

As an inspector, I don't get to inspect that kind of house. Even if I did, time has a way of messing up even the best homes. Either way, the homes I inspect—especially the news ones—were often built for one reason: business. Fluffy mission statements aside, the sincere goal of any business is to make money. I'm in business for that reason. But can you see where this is going?

Ignorance, convenience, and stubborn attitudes are often acceptable reasons for actions in a business—as long as (not “if”) those actions result in a better bottom line. Some places call it "office politics," others call it something else. It's not necessarily malicious, but the end result is always a less-than-perfect product.

If you want a perfect home, here's the easiest way to do that: hire a bad property inspector who says everything is great, believe him, live in the home for a few days, and then sell the home before any problems pop up. That's the only way. Even if the home is perfect, the passage of time will eventually bring about a day when you'll be staring a problem right in the face. And if the home wasn't built correctly, that day will simply arrive sooner.

Which brings us back to the answer to the original question: why didn't the roofer install ice and water barrier, which would have allowed him to (properly) install the drip edge under the underlayment? It doesn't matter. The end result is that he didn't use ice and water barrier. The end result is an improper installation—regardless of context, since that's not what we're addressing here. What we're addressing here is the use of contractors and tradesmen when it comes to home inspections. Want to know how everyone else does it, or hear one guy's version of what he considers to be “acceptable practice?” Or do you want an inspection which lays out the correct ways to install the many systems that make up a house? If the latter is what you're looking for, then hire an inspector. And if you want one who keeps it in context, then contact Nebraska Inspections today!