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The‌ ‌Best‌ ‌Roofing‌ ‌System‌ ‌for‌ ‌Utah:‌ ‌Tough‌ ‌Weather‌ ‌Needs‌ ‌Tougher‌ ‌Roofs‌

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Introduction

“If you don’t like the weather in Utah, wait five minutes, it’ll change.” I’m sure you’ve heard an adage to that effect at some point while living in the beehive state. Hopefully, you didn't here it before considering what is the best type of roof for Utah, because the weather here is not only unpredictable, it will take an immediate toll on homes with an inadequate roofing system.  

Tough weather needs even tougher roofs. From snow and hail to high winds and punishing heat, Utah feels like it’s smack dab in the middle of a weather roulette wheel and your only defense is to be prepared with a roof that can outlast the elements.

If you’re planning on re roofing or are building from scratch, the roof is your absolute first line of defense against this cutthroat climate. It’s not good enough for your roof to simply survive out here, it needs to actively combat everything mother nature can throw at it. We’ll give you some tips on best roofing practices and products in the article below. 


Roof Styles

It’s unusual for people to buy a house because of a roof. Homebuyers aren’t generally concerned about styles like gabled, hip, gambrel, etc. But with the weather changes being what they are, every consideration should be given to having the best roof for Utah. And the design of your roof can be critically important when it comes to its performance. If you’re in the market for a new home or if you’re building a new dwelling, there are a few things that you should keep in mind when thinking about your roof.

In this article, we’ll talk about the most critical components of your roof that you should consider to ensure that your roof and home can outlast the elements of the Utah weather. We cover the topics of roof pitch, roof design, the materials used for the structure and covering of a roof, as well venting and insulation considerations. 

Pitch

One of the most important aspects of any roof is pitch or steepness. The pitch of your roof is instrumental in determining how quickly water is shed from the surface. The steeper the roof, the faster water rolls off. The faster water leaves, the less chance it has to penetrate or damage especially if there’s a potential leak. That being said, one of the more popular roof styles today is flat roofs. They generally tend to go hand-in-hand with modern architecture.

As you may be able to tell, flat roofs have basically zero pitch to them and are generally drained without traditional gutters. This is something to pay attention to. Flat roofs, when done properly, can last just as long as a traditional roof, but they can also fail faster because they don’t have the added benefit of gravity helping to shed water quickly. Likewise, the intense heat and UV radiation can take a toll on flat roofs in an unequal way to their steeper counterparts.

Unfortunately, it’s not only the heat and UV radiation you must deal with as a homeowner in Utah - there’s  also the cold and snow. Again, pitch matters when it comes to snow. The flatter your roof, the more snow it will collect and the longer it will take to shed. This can be particularly problematic with wet snow that we tend to see around the early spring and late winter. Snow that’s forming just around the freezing mark is water-laden, making it very, very heavy. Get too much of this heavy snow on your roof and it could collapse. This is especially dependent on which type of lumber was used to frame your trusses and how they are secured or reinforced.

Overhangs

Another crucial ingredient for a good roof is overhangs. Overhangs are the amount of roof that sticks out beyond your exterior walls. While there are certainly aesthetics that need to be taken into consideration, there’s no debating the fact that overhangs protect your house. They push water away from exterior walls, which is important because if moisture penetrates those walls, it can lead to a whole host of problems down the road including rotted sheathing and framing to toxic mold. 

The overhangs also protect your house from the sun. Utah can get hot, and using your roof to deflect that intense radiation can drastically lower your air conditioning bills. In the summer, the sun's rays are more vertical than in autumn and winter, and your overhangs can help keep that sunlight out of your house and your energy bills maintainable.

Roofline

The complexity of your roofline will determine how many places water may be able to penetrate. Specifically, the number of places that two different roof angles intersect and form a valley. Roofing materials around things like dormers and gables can fail more often because it’s where all the water is being directed. Simply put: the more simple the shape of your roof, the better chance of your roof lasting longer. Even better, they’re cheaper to replace because they have less materials and less potential points of failure.  

Utah will give your house everything she’s got during the seasons. Your roof design will impact how much of that weather you’ll ultimately have to deal with. While this isn’t intended to endorse one type of another, we want to make you aware of the pitfalls you may encounter with different types of construction.


Materials

There are dozens of materials that could potentially be used in constructing a roof or determining its ability to withstand the elements. The following narrows in on the specific type of substrates you can use to finish your roof and a few of the materials used in the construction of various roof types and styles.

When constructing a roof, the materials used can make or break the final product, especially in a state with such an intense weather pattern as Utah. There are four key parts to every roof: 

  • The framing: the wood that holds up the roof
  • The sheathing: the plywood or OSB that give your roof racking strength and help hold your finishing product in place
  • The vapor barrier: we’ll dive into this deeper later in the article
  • The finishing product (steel, asphalt, slate, etc…)

All roofs have to meet building code and we recommend a professional inspection on any roof, even if you’ve lived in the house for a while. Even if you have an inspection or buy new, roofs can still fail because of poor construction. While it’s not a sticking point for most people, you should be aware of how much weight your roof can take. If it’s under-framed (with something like 2x4s or 2x6s, common in 1920s homes) you might not want to put slate shingles (the heaviest) on your roof, as it may cause sagging. 

If you’re building a house, your contractor and engineer will make recommendations as to what they think is the best course of action to ensure a quality roof. You also need to be aware if any of your roof trusses are already sagging or cracked, something a professional inspector will look for and bring to your attention. 

Sheathing

The sheathing is generally OSB (oriented strand board) or plywood. They are almost identical in their performance. Sheathing locks all of your roof trusses together making it one big structure; transferring weight across the entire roof and ensuring wind resistance. It also helps hold your finishing material in place (nailed on shingles, for example). Sheathing can fail in certain circumstances if water makes its way in. It also may not be up to code if you’re in an older home. 

Most building codes require complete coverage of a roof with sheathing, however, older houses may have left gaps in the sheathing, which could allow condensation collection or moisture to creep in. This generally occurs through something like a nail hole. It’s hard to tell what you’re sheathing is made of sometimes depending on the level of finishing in your attic. When you go to replace a roof, make sure you get a professional opinion on it because you’ll want it to be up to code to survive the Utah elements.

Vapor Barrier 

Your vapor barrier is a material that allows water vapor or air to pass through while defending your structure from liquid water. All houses are required to have vapor barriers on exterior walls and roofs. Usually, this is accomplished with a material like tar paper or house wrap, but sometimes your insulation, such as closed cell foam, can also act as a vapor barrier. This is important because houses need air to flow through to allow things that might get wet to dry out. If they don’t dry properly, they rot or mold and that’s something you definitely don’t want.

Finishing Product

The element that you’re probably most familiar with is the finishing product. Asphalt shingles are far and away the most popular roofing material in America. But there are plenty of options if you don’t want to go with those. Tile roofs are common in Utah, as they handle water and heat very well. The same goes for slate. They are weather-resistant and take anything from rain to hail with ease. However, as we mentioned earlier, it’s worth noting that slate shingles are very heavy and may not be the best type of roof for Utah as they're not appropriate for all roof styles.

Steel roofs have been growing in popularity at breakneck speeds. Steel combines the benefits of being lightweight, easy to install, affordable and finally (and perhaps most importantly), durable. Steel has the added benefit of not requiring venting, making it ideal for those who like to tightly insulate their house or work for passive home standards. Steel also sheds snow very efficiently, allowing large sections of snow pack to simply slide right off on a sunny day (watch out below, though).

All the standard types of roofs: asphalt, tile, metal, slate, have their benefits and drawbacks. All roof finishing products are designed to take the toughest of conditions and have all been approved by the state building code for use. It’s largely up to you to investigate their pros and cons and to decide what you want to go with and what fits within your budget. 

As with roofing styles discussed previously, aesthetics need to be taken into consideration, as it’s one of the most visible parts of your home. But know that almost all finishing materials come in a wide variety of colors and styles, so whatever you end up deciding on, you should be able to find something that fits your taste.


Insulation

It’s common knowledge in the building industry that the vast majority of heat loss is specifically through your roof. Utah can get quite frigid in the winter, and without a properly insulated roof, you are going to be throwing dollars out into thin air through heat loss. 

Proper roof insulation also keeps your house cool. An upstairs without a properly insulated roof can get drastically warmer in the summer, forcing your air conditioner to work overtime just to keep up.While insulation isn’t specifically part of your roof, its impacts on your roof is immense. Proper insulation keeps us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. But beyond the obvious, it also prevents condensation from damaging the structure of your roof. In the winter, when your warm air from inside meets the cool air from outside, it causes water to form on any surface it touches.

You want to make sure your insulation isn’t letting warm air out into the space of your roof structure. Some thermal loss is inevitable, but the more you let out, the more condensation will form on trusses and joists. This can lead to damage if not vented properly or worse, mold.

Venting

To combat moisture in your attic space, you should make sure that your roof and attic are properly vented. Venting has taken many different forms over the years, but many modern builds rely on vents in the fascia or eves of the roof. The concept of roof venting is simple: leave a small perforation on the outside of the roof that allows air (and nothing else) to penetrate underneath the shingles. This ensures that if any water does find its way underneath, it has air movement allowing it to dry out, thus saving your sheathing and trusses in the process. 

Attic venting is exactly the same. Vents are inserted into the exterior walls so that air can get into your attic, drying out any condensation that would occur from insulation gaps. While it seems counterintuitive, outside air plays a crucial role in making sure your house stays structurally sound.

Outdoor Insulation

High performance builders have often been known to put insulation on the outside of the roof or house instead of the inside, as is traditionally done. The comparison can be made to putting a warm winter jacket over your body, enveloping it in insulation. The same is true for any structure. Insulation on the outside prevents that cold or hot air from ever getting in. It’s generally drastically more expensive to do, as it requires more insulation and significantly hampers the timeline of building your house. 

Luckily, the roof is the one exception to this rule. If you’re planning on removing your roof, it might be in your best interest to add something like closed cell spray foam or rigid foam insulation on top of your sheathing, but before your shingles or finishing product is applied. This will be more expensive and more time consuming, and it also might be outside the realm of your roofing contractor, which means you may have to have a general carpentry shop do the work. But if you’re serious about saving energy, it might be worth the extra cash to add it to the roof replacement plan. 

Hot Roofing

The final thing you need to know about insulation and your roof is “hot roofing.” Hot roofing occurs when your insulation is not vented. This is allowed by code in many states, but there are serious concerns that arise when going without venting.  


Hot roofing generally requires one type of insulation, spray foam. Spray foam is a chemical mixture that expands when sprayed. If it’s applied to the underside of the roof, it will fill every nook and cranny, effectively choking off air from the outside. This is great for insulation purposes, but can be a problem if it’s a retrofit with the wrong type of roof. 


Certain asphalt shingles will fail drastically sooner than intended if they are put on a hot roof, and this can speed up the replacement schedule significantly. Make sure to check if your shingles are rated for hot roofs. Metal and slate are fine for hot roofing and it will not affect their integrity. As with everything, if you have questions, contact the experts and do your research before deciding on what type of insulation you’ll add (if any), and where you’ll do it. 


Gutter Systems

While your roof may collect and shed the water, your gutters are the primary delivery mechanism for where that water ultimately ends up. Gutters are incredibly important in getting water away from the foundation of your house. Without gutters, rain and snow melt would come off the roof and drop straight down. Houses with large overhangs and proper grading would be less affected than those without, but even so, that water will end up far too close to your foundation for comfort.

Water up against the foundation walls can cause undue settling, leaks, cracking, and many other problems that you will cost more than your roofing and insulation to fix. Gutters are one of the simplest features of a house. They are simply open trays that collect and move water from here to there. Gutters have been around since even the earliest homes. After all this time, fundamentally, they are still the same design and construction as they always have been.

There are an array of gutter materials to choose from, depending on how decorative you want them, but the most common are aluminum, steel, and vinyl. We recommend against vinyl as they simply don’t have the shelf life of metal, but the other two are great options if you’re looking to have new gutters installed.

There is also a style of steel gutters called seamless steel gutters. These are gutters that are custom made on site and have no junctions. This style is effective because they’re easier to maintain and won’t leak at the joints like other gutters. You can also buy leaf guard systems that prevent leaves from making their way into your gutters and ultimately clogging them up. The more clogged they become, the more likely they are to overflow and spill water close to your house. The leaf guard systems also eliminate the need for regular cleaning, which, depending on the roof, can be a tricky and in some cases a dangerous task.

Ice Dams

All this talk on gutters might seem a bit misplaced, but they can have a massive impact on your roof, especially in winter. After a big snow, your roofline could form ice dams. Ice dams are almost exactly what they sound like, a mass of ice that prevents water from shedding off your roof. Gutters can certainly help alleviate ice dams, but if they are clogged with leaves from the previous fall, that water will get held up and potentially freeze, making your ice dams even worse.

An ice dam forms when snow begins to melt from solar heat during the day or from improper attic insulation, but cools rapidly and freezes at night. Then as subsequent water passes over this plot of ice, it too cools and freezes. The process repeats itself until a wall of ice has formed on the edge of your roofline blocking water from getting effectively getting off your roof and creating more and more ice.

As this ice dam grows, it expands and can push up under your shingles and force water underneath them and down to the sheathing or framing below. Intense cases of ice damming have had water pouring in attics or external walls. If that moisture remains, serious damage can occur and is the perfect breeding ground for mold in the coming warm months. 

Checking your insulation should be the first thing you do if you’re experiencing ice damming. It’s the easiest thing to spot and, depending on the house, can be fairly easy to remedy. You can also purchase heating cables that string along the overhang of your roof. These heating cables are simply long extension cords that get hot when plugged in. A rudimentary, but effective way of dealing with the ice and snow build up on your roof. There are a few drawbacks to using heating cables.

Though they’re far better than a potentially destructive ice dam forming, installation can be difficult. If you’re the DIY type, you likely need a ladder to reach their final position and some might even require getting up on the roof for installation. Best practices would also suggest that you take them down after the winter months and store them for summer, but if you’re more of a procrastinator, you’ll probably just leave them up.

Heating cables that are affordably priced won’t have any type of remote or timer built in. This means you’ll likely have to plug them in everytime you need them. If you’re lacking an outdoor outlet or if it’s inconveniently placed, you’ll have to gear up and head out into the snow to plug them in. No fun if your priority is staying warm and comfortable. They can eat up a decent amount of energy as well. The best way that you can create heat with electricity is resistance (like a toaster), so they’re actually designed to be inefficient.

Don’t be shocked to see a larger than usual electric bill if you end up using heating cables. Still, in the end, if heating cables are the best course of action for preventing ice dams, it’s better than the damage that would otherwise occur. You would need hundreds of months of increased electrical bills to come close to the potential damage ice dams can cause. 


Flashing

Unlike the other definition, this actually deals with properly covering exposures. Flashing is a non-permeable material that is put around sill plates, windows, exterior doors, and roofline penetrations like skylights, vent pipes, and chimneys. Flashing on a roof sits underneath the shingles and is designed to fully encapsulate whatever is coming up through your roof. 

Sometimes this flashing might be made out of plastic or rubber, but more often than not, it’s metal that slips over or around your extrusion and then is finished with a sealant like caulk or liquid rubber. There are hundreds of options on the market for flashing, from specialized tapes to metal collars and sheets. It’s almost impossible to have a roof without anything poking through it, which means you need to know what flashing is and why it’s important.

Your shingles (or whichever finishing product your house is finished with) is designed to be a continuous sheet that moves water. This is why shingles and tiles overlap, it’s why steel roofs are seamless, and why flat roofs are as few pieces as possible. Wherever there’s a break in this continuity, the potential for water intrusion exists. Improper or failed flashing is almost always the first place that water makes its way into your house through your roof. If this happens, repairs from the inside can be made, but it’s unlikely to be a long-term solution to your problem. 

Replacing your failed flashing has to be done from the outside and will require moving some of your finishing product. If you’re putting on a new roof, it’s of the utmost importance that this is done properly right away. The last thing you want is to have a leak just a few years into your new roof’s life. Utah might be a dessert, but it doesn’t take much rain with improper flashing to ruin things inside. The larger the break in the roof, the higher the chances are that the flashing will fail.

Skylights are notorious for leaking and understandably so. Large breaks in a roof that rely on sealants will fail eventually as their durability is determined by chemical products and not by the mechanics of gravity. Every freeze and thaw cycle brings more and more stress on materials like caulk and rubber.

Chimneys are also often main sources of leaks. The capillary action of rain running down something like brick serves as a great vehicle for locating weak spots in flashing. It also gives it a natural pathway straight into the home and usually behind a wall. If you’re buying a new house, your inspector will check these spots for anything concerning, but we would recommend asking for an extra thorough adjudication on skylights and chimneys. 


Next Steps

Roofs are a tricky part of the house to get just right. It’s the one thing that takes more abuse from the Utah elements than anything else. Blazing sun, freezing cold, wind, rain, hail, you name it, we’ve got it. Because of the special role it plays, it needs extra care and attention. The extra scrutiny you give to your roof now could be worth tens of thousands of dollars in prevented damage in the long run. 

Whatever kind of roof you have, whatever shape, size, style, or material, know this: You need to be educated about it. It’s too important of an asset, too critical to the longevity of your home, and way too expensive to replace, to not be. Even a half hour on the internet looking at roof basics will give you a leg up on this state’s crazy weather. If doing your own research is not enough to satisfy your curiosity and questions, then it may be time to talk to a professional.

Get a free inspection on your existing roof today or for a home you are considering purchasing. It’s better to go into a big purchase (whether it’s your new home or your roof replacement) knowing all of the facts and considerations so that you don’t end up wasting time or money in your decision. 

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