After all this, now we need a new roof. Here in the final phase of my “editorial immersion” as a consumer of remodeling services, the solar panel installers showed up one morning in late October to begin the work. About an hour after they arrived, the project lead knocked on the door with some bad news: He’d taken a close look at the 8-year-old roof and was … uncomfortable with the idea of covering it with solar panels that are expected to last 25 years. The new roofing had been installed directly over the old roofing—a questionable practice even when done properly, which apparently this wasn’t. He showed me pictures of wavy courses, exposed nails between tabs, and sections where shingles were misaligned or even missing. His recommendation was to replace the roof before installing the panels.
Whose Job Is It?
How did I, a former contractor and a long-time editor of remodeling trade magazines, miss this? Obviously, I should have looked more closely before we bought the place, but frankly, given the issues with the house that I knew about, the roof was the least of my worries. In my defense, I was living in D.C. at the time, and the house was 500 miles away in Vermont. And it was February. Even if I still climbed ladders onto second-story roofs, which I don’t, the roof was covered with snow.
The home inspector had the same problem with snow (he had inspected in mid-February) and ladders (he stayed on the ground and used binoculars). Had I enlarged the photos he included in his report, I might have noticed the shingle underlayer, which he did not mention, but frankly I was more concerned about the damage we might uncover due to missing kickout flashings. Besides, given everything we planned to remodel, would we really have changed our mind about the house simply because it needed 12 squares of roofing?
Where else can we point a finger? How about at the solar company? Not the installer, certainly—he’s a subcontractor who got his first look at the house the morning he arrived to install the panels. He’s the hero, protecting both himself and us by refusing to put his work on top of a substandard roof.
But what about the two-person solar company team that was climbing around on the roof for 30 minutes taking measurements for the panels? Surely they should have noticed the roof’s problems. My guess is that their work order was to make sure the panels would fit around the chimney and vent stacks. Inspecting the condition of the roof is likely not in their job description, or even a part of their training (although I have a feeling that may soon change).
That leaves us with our remodeler. One of the first things he’d done last October was hire masons to remove an unused chimney, after which he’d roofed over the opening. By that time, of course, we already owned the place. Besides, even if he had noticed the roof problems, it might not have made much difference. Roofers in Vermont are “out straight,” as they like to say, and they all complain about lack of skilled labor. Earlier this summer I watched a roofing crew strip and re-roof the house next door, and when I asked my neighbor about it, he told me he’d signed the contract 18 months ago. Out straight indeed.
I wish I were surprised by these events, but this stuff seems to happen all the time in remodeling. In our case, one probable cause appears to be a kind of tunnel vision that had most of the players focused on doing what they always do, the way they always do it. The home inspector brought his binoculars and his camera, but failed to “see” what he was looking at. The solar measuring crew probably had limited experience outside of the specific tasks they’d been trained for, and their focus on avoiding a solar panel array that doesn’t fit on the roof blinded them to the potential waste of an installation crew’s morning. And the masons and remodeler were just trying to get the chimney demolished and the hole patched before bad weather set in.
As for me, I wish I had paid closer attention, but I was focused on other things, too. So I was relying on the professionals to do their job. All but one of them did exactly that.
And not a speck more.