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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Cool tin roofs: Metal roofing will last for centuries
Aluminum shingles are a good -- and green -- bet to cut overhead costs
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As eco-friendly materials go, aluminum is generally not what first springs to mind. But if your home's roof needs repair, and you want to do it in an earth-healthy way, metal may well be the way to go.

Tony Siler decided it was. The power-plant maintenance foreman has lived in his log cabin in Genoa, near the Minnesota border, for 12 years and plans on being there a lot longer. This summer, when he found himself having to replace what were supposed to be 40-year asphalt shingles after little more than a quarter of that time, he considered other options.

"I just got tired of the hassle," he says. "I used to put a lot of asphalt roofs on, and they just don't hold up, and then there's a lot of waste that goes in the landfill. I wanted something that's easier to cool in the summer and that handles snow better in the winter. I did a lot of research, and I thought aluminum was a pretty good choice."

Siler tried to find a local contractor he knew who could help him - asphalt he could handle on his own, but he figured metal would be trickier - but ultimately ended up calling Metal Roofing Systems of Madison.

"We have several different options, but aluminum is our most popular when someone's talking green," company president and owner Jack Gugger says. (Parent company Gugger Construction has done metal roofs for about four years, he says. Metal Roofing Systems spun off into its own entity in 2008.) The press-form metal shingles are 98% recycled postconsumer waste, stamped into shapes that look like cedar shake or slate shingles. "When a person typically thinks of metal roofing, they think of an old corrugated barn. That's not what this looks like."

The aluminum shingles, Gugger says, are chemically treated to reflect the sun's rays, like the surface of a stealth aircraft. Depending on the color of metal shingle a homeowner chooses, he says, up to 46% of solar heat can be reflected; even the darkest of the shingles reflect 26%. And that can mean as much as a 20% to 25% reduction in the cost of cooling a home.

Beyond saving energy, there are more visible environmental benefits. "We can go right over an existing roof. If it's only got one layer, we don't have to tear off the shingles," Gugger says. "So it doesn't get sent to the landfill." He says about 300 billion tons of asphalt get tossed annually in the U.S.

Siler went this route. He says they pulled asphalt shingles off his cabin that were curling up, but otherwise let them be. "You can't really see there were shingles there at all," he says.

And if roofers aren't tearing shingles off, Gugger adds, they're not tossing them onto your grass and flowers below. They're also not using the gas it would take to truck them to the dump.

Robin Pharo, president of Healthy Homes, a Mount Horeb consulting firm that works with homeowners, builders and developers to increase green building, agrees that metal roofs are the most ecologically sound option.

"You'll hear a lot about 'alternative' roofing products," she says. "What we find with our clients is that there are typically better ways to spend your money." Unless they have a compelling reason, she'd steer most clients away from, say, plastic composite or recycled shake shingles. "If you put on a roof that's durable, you can actually have a more positive impact on the environment than by using recycled products."

As is so often the case, however, the major disadvantage of going green is that, well, it takes more green.

"The downside of metal roofs is the cost," Pharo says. "There's a significant cost increase."

Gugger is up-front about this. "Cost is generally going to be two to three times more than a conventional asphalt temporary roof, depending on the difficulty of the installation. If a roof has a lot of peaks and valleys, that's what's really going to run the cost up," he says.

An average job for Metal Roofing Systems, he says, is in the neighborhood of $22,000. Some have cost as much as around $75,000; others have come in at $9,000.

But even the higher cost of a metal roof, he says, will be recouped over the long term. It makes for lower cooling costs. And, unlike the asphalt that exasperated Siler, a metal roof won't have to be replaced a decade, or several decades, later.

"It's a lifetime roof. We build homes in our country that we expect to last 300 to 500 years, and we continue to put roofs on them that will fail between 10 and 15 years later," Gugger says. "Whereas look at Europe: Their buildings over there are 1,000 years old. They don't even consider putting a temporary roof on, unless a permanent roof is absolutely cost-prohibitive." A metal roof, he says, is going to "outlive most homes."

"For me, the cost was quite a bit more," Siler says, "because if I was doing asphalt, I'd be doing it myself. But you've got tear-off costs, plus the reroofing. You've got to rent a Dumpster and all that. Then if I end up getting a leak, you're patching boards. After the second [asphalt] roof, you're probably spending just as much money." Siler also lowered the cost by letting the company handle his cabin roof while he learned from them and did the garage on his own.

Gugger says that while a metal roof may require an outlay of cash, it's an investment. Putting a $20,000 metal roof on a $200,000 house, he estimates, bumps the home's value up to about $210,000. "Compare that to a new kitchen or a new bathroom," he says. "If you add an asphalt roof to a home, all you can do is replenish value - you can't add to the value of the home."

He also notes that metal roofs can mean lower insurance premiums because of resistance to fire and hail. (Some metal roofs, Pharo says, can actually be more susceptible to hail damage. "It's something you want to be careful with," she says. Gugger says his company's are rated to withstand the impact of golf-ball-size stones.) And, he says, putting on a metal roof will qualify a home for the energy tax credit presently in effect - the job has to be done by the end of 2010 - which could mean getting up to $1,500 back.

There should be time. Siler says his roofing job took one week. "And now," he says, "I hope I never have to go on my roof again."

An additional investment in roofing material means less upkeep later.

Asphalt can work - if you do your homework

If you want to be green, but a metal roof isn't an option - maybe you won't be in the house long enough to justify it, or it's just too much money - go with asphalt with a clear conscience, says Healthy Homes' Robin Pharo. Just make sure it's the right kind.

"One of the easiest things to do from a green roofing perspective is to make sure you have a good shingle," she says. "To use a petroleum product that will last 30 years isn't a bad use of petroleum."

Despite what the label may say, not every asphalt shingle holds up like it's supposed to, as Tony Siler discovered when his allegedly 40-year shingles needed replacing after 12 years. "Shingles aren't lasting like they used to," he says. "They pro-rate them so much that you lose money."

But Pharo says solid shingles are still out there. "Manufacturer warranty is a big part of it," she says. "If it's a longer warranty, how does it pro-rate? Each company pro-rates their shingles differently, so one may offer a 30-year warranty, but it's only worth 10% [of the original cost] at 30 years."

She recommends roofing products made by Elk, Owens Corning and CertainTeed. They cost slightly more than other manufacturers'-"maybe 10%"-but that's considerably less than putting on a whole new set in 15 years.

Whatever shingle you go with, Pharo says, homeowners should know they can recycle their asphalt shingles by choosing a roofer willing to work with Second Season Recycling in Verona. "You just have to make sure they aren't taking them to a landfill," she says, "that they really are taking it to a recycling location."

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