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Roofing revolution: from asphalt to vegetation

Brett Kulina | Improvement Center Columnist | January 17, 2013

If you are getting ready to install new asphalt roofing shingles on your home, then chances are there is a lot that you don't know about today's energy-saving roofing options. For decades, traditional asphalt roof shingles have been the simple and straightforward choice for many homeowners because they were economical, readily available, and most likely what's on top of every other house in the neighborhood. By some estimates traditional asphalt shingles are installed on over two-thirds of all the homes in the U.S.

But is asphalt roofing the best choice?

Today you have stylish and durable roofing options that are more environmentally friendly than those composed of roughly 22 percent asphalt, an oil-based product associated with global climate change and air- and water-quality degradation. But even if you're not worried about the environment, consider this: asphalt shingles can absorb and transfer the sun's heat directly into your attic, thereby increasing the cost of cooling your home during the hotter months.

Although some asphalt-shingled roofs are covered by a 20-40 year warranty, many standard grade shingles need to be replaced about every 15 years, which helps account for the estimated 11 million tons of shingle waste that is produced domestically each year. Although some of that asphalt waste can be recycled into road building material, the website GreenBuildingAdvisor.com, which is published by the reputable Taunton Press, concedes that most old asphalt shingles simply wind up in our local landfills.

Attempting to alleviate the obvious problems with standard asphalt shingles, roofing manufacturers now offer products and roofing systems that last longer, reflect solar heat gain more effectively, and complement the varied architectural styles of today's new homes. Here is a look at some roofing systems gaining popularity as alternatives to the old, standard asphalt roofing shingles.

1. Metal roofing

Made from steel or aluminum, today's metal roofing options are head and shoulders above what was available only decades ago. Not only are there different styles, profiles, and colors to choose from, but metal roofing is also available with finishes that reflect sunlight and emit solar heat, which can ultimately help reduce your home's cooling costs. Metal roofs are durable and long-lasting, plus they can withstand high winds and shed snow and ice better than most asphalt shingled roofs.

2. Tile roofs

Manufactured from clay, cement, or slate, roof tiles are a very durable alternative to asphalt shingles, and they can make a stately impression. Tile roofs can also help reduce unwanted solar heat from entering your home's attic because they are commonly installed on risers that create an airspace between the underside of the tile and the roof's surface. Although the initial cost of a tile roof would be considerably more expensive than a traditional asphalt roof, keep in mind that some slate tile roofs have held up for more than 100 years, which far exceeds the 15-20 year lifespan of most asphalt shingles.

3. Recycled roofing shingles

Some manufacturers are developing ways to save energy and conserve resources by producing roof shingles that are made entirely of recycled rubber and plastic. Enviroshake is one such company that has created a 100-percent, recycled roof shingle that looks like a traditional cedar shake but is longer lasting and doesn't require cutting down old growth cedar trees.

4. Green roofs

Often referred to as a "living roof," the ultimate in green roofing systems utilizes any type of vegetation cover. Originally installed on flat roof tops to increase the amount of green space in high-density urban environments, green roofs are now installed on both residential and commercial structures with flat and sloped roof lines. If you want a roof that is far from ordinary looking, consider a living roof covered in native bunch grasses and wild flowers.

By some estimates a green roof system can reduce rooftop temperatures by 70 - 80 degrees, which can help reduce the "heat island " effect that causes some cities to remain several degrees warmer than their surrounding areas during the summer months. Some green roof systems can also help decrease a home's interior temperature, which helps reduce the need for air conditioning during expensive peak demand periods in the summer.

With all that's new in roofing systems, it's not so hard to look beyond traditional asphalt shingle choices to consider factors such as heat reflectivity, life-span, and the product's manufacturing and disposal processes. When in doubt, look for an Energy Star -rated roofing material, which means that the product meets the latest energy efficiency standards of the EPA. With so many options today for good looking roofing that saves energy and helps reduce the harmful impacts of asphalt shingles to our environment, why not raise your roof to the next level of efficiency?

About the Author

Brett Kulina is a licensed real estate broker and builder, he writes from Missoula, Montana.

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