By Steve Smith
From the August 2020 Issue
When inspecting, assessing, and repairing commercial roofing, it can often be difficult to get a full picture of actual conditions and what work needs to be performed. An on-site inspection can be done, but even professionals may not be able to detect small cracks and other problems that have yet to fully surface. The decision to replace an entire roof versus making limited repairs is not only about cost but also about having the correct diagnosis in order to maintain the structural integrity of the roof. Fortunately, technology has made it possible to take the guesswork out of these decisions with the use of drones and infrared imagery.
Drones serve two functions for roofing inspections—they allow for a visual inspection with photos and also capture infrared scans that can determine inconsistencies in the roofing material. By using military grade infrared technology, which is the equivalent of having an MRI of the roof, essential information can be gathered to assist significantly in determining the most efficient and economical solutions.
When considering replacement versus repairs, a roofing professional must determine the amount of wet insulation and trapped moisture. This is typically done with a walkover assessment, but the results are not always as accurate due to the challenge of checking every inch of a roof. A drone is able to view the entire roof at once from different angles, while allowing a professional to return the next day and physically mark the areas on the roof that need improvement.
By using a drone, the health of the roof can be verified quickly and with unparalleled accuracy. The assessment begins by taking aerial photos with a dual camera—standard photos for reference and another with infrared sensors. Dusk is the ideal time to begin because as the sun sets, the trapped moisture will cool off at a different rate than the surrounding areas with a dry roof. Our company uses FLIR thermal infrared scanners that detect the significant difference in temperature (known as a heat signature) on wet insulation or trapped moisture compared to the surrounding dry areas. By using this technology, the variance in temperature can be determined, which enables fast and accurate identification of even the smallest leaks. This process can also be used to evaluate transformers on electric panels and other heat sensitive elements. This data allows facility management to make informed decisions on whether to replace the roof or to repair the areas that are impacted by moisture.
In some instances, buildings are not accessible to ladders, and the visuals that can be gathered using a drone are the only way to inspect the roof. Even by using a lift, there are many parts of a roof that can be difficult to access. The high-quality visuals from the drone allow diagnostic capabilities that would otherwise be impossible.
Hovering at 150 feet over the building, the drone can gather images and allow professionals to diagnose the status of the roof relatively quickly. These technological advances allow inspectors to gather a more comprehensive assessment compared to walking across the roof. By capturing aerial photos with 20-megapixel resolution, the drone specifies details that cannot be seen with the naked eye.
These photos can then be enlarged and analyzed to pinpoint structural flaws that allows facility management to get precise information about the condition of the roof. For example, if a facility manager is considering a full building renovation, including envelope and façade, it is a costly endeavor. Due to the presence of leaks or a harsh winter, it may be assumed that the structural damage has infiltrated the entire roof. This is a common mistake that can occur with only a walkover assessment. But with a drone’s infrared technology, the roof can easily be diagnosed, and oftentimes the result is less extreme than the initial assessment. For example, the roof may have 5% moisture or wet installation instead of the assumed 60%, which means that a replacement would not be recommended.
The cost savings happens as the infrared scan pinpoints the exact location of the damage in comparison to the healthy aspects of the structure. A minor replacement of wet areas, in order to add dry insulation and fill the voids created, costs considerably less than a full replacement. Plus, the smaller repairs will preserve any remaining warranty on the existing roof system.
Despite the benefits of using drones and infrared technology, many commercial roofing services providers have not adopted this technique. Many companies are unable to commit to the cost, training of employees, and the insurance to maintain these machines. Added to which, the drones must be operated by an FAA licensed drone pilot which requires a greater commitment on the part of the commercial roofing provider.
The use of drones and infrared technology significantly reduces costs for facility management teams by helping to conserve their time and money. The aerial scope and heat sensors of drones are arguably the most cost-effective diagnostic tool for commercial roofing assessment, maintenance, and repair. The technology pinpoints structural problems faster and with more efficiency than a walkover assessment, thereby eliminating uncertainties in estimates and budgeting. Drones and infrared technology are poised to become an increasingly essential tool in the future of commercial roofing.
Smith is vice president of commercial roofing at Legacy Roofing Services, a commercial roofing service provider managing more than five million square feet of roofing annually. The company was founded in 2012 and primarily operates in the Midwestern and Southeastern U.S.
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