Some installers say cold is a state of mind. What are cold working conditions to someone in Florida or Arizona may be quite comfortable to someone in New England, the Upper Midwest, or even Canada. It’s all relative.
“First and foremost, you have to stay warm but that goes without saying,” says Mike Kilty, a Decra Roofing sales representative in Oakville, Ont. “Most times, it comes down to the hardiness of the installer. There was one time last winter when I was out with a crew and it had to be, and I’m talking Celsius, about minus-30, and that’s getting into below zero Fahrenheit. It was nice and windy and we all looked like we were getting ready to heist a bank.”
For those of you who never have to deal with temperatures dipping below 50, let alone below zero, you may be surprised what your northern counterparts have to do to get the job done during the winter months.
Dress for the occasion
Preparation for a workday in cold conditions starts before you leave the house. “The days we don’t work are few and far between,” says Dwight Kimball, owner of Dwight and Sons in Conway, N.H. “A lot of times, we’ll work a shorter day, let the chill get out of the air and start around 8 or 8:30 a.m. and end around 3 p.m. It’s like skiing or anything else physical you do in the cold. If you stay moving and dress in layers, it’s bearable. Roofing is just such a physical job, you get wiped out every day.”
No one really wants to take a day off if they don’t have to. Contractors and installers don’t get paid until the job gets done and the customer isn’t happy with half a new roof — especially if snow is falling on a roof deck or exposed underlayment.
“Typically we don’t shut down for any extended periods of time,” says Mark Baker of Bayford Construction in Rochester, N.Y. “It’s usually not so much the temperature as it is the wind. We can work down to about 10 degrees, but 20 degrees and windy can be worse than 10 degrees and no wind. Sometimes it’s so brutal you just can’t work.”
Bayford installs standing seam roofing from ATAS International, mostly on commercial jobs. Baker says projects that call for panels longer than 20 feet are more likely to be slowed down by windy conditions, for safety’s sake.
“And when you’re bundled up, it slows you down,” Baker says. “You can keep your body warm, but you can only cover up your hands so much and still work.”
If weather conditions prevent crews from working outside they can get things done indoors. Bayford Construction has a shop where crew members perform equipment maintenance to keep busy. Baker says when it comes to working in cold weather it’s a matter of simple economics. “Everything takes a little longer to do, but you make a lot less if you’re sitting at home,” he says. “Generally, we stay at it.”
That’s how the work gets done.
“The cold actually keeps my guys moving,” says John Zolko of Preferred Contracting Services in Pittsburgh. “No standing around. They do drink more coffee!” Preferred primarily installs stone-coated steel shingles from Gerard, which are safer to walk on than standing seam panels because of the granules. Zolko says his employees are even more safety-conscious during the winter months.
Keep moving and find the sunlight
“If the sun comes out, the shingles warm up and it is usually about 10 degrees warmer up on a roof,” Zolko says. “We hardly ever shut down, maybe one or two weeks over the winter in Pittsburgh. Cold weather just does not stop us. We never say die! Do whatever it takes. We even build plastic tents to keep the drizzle rain off our work area. Plastic is cheap. Our bills do not stop, so neither do we. We all drive four-wheel drive trucks. We even drive to Lake Erie and do roofs and they really get dumped on with snow up there.
“We’re all deer hunters here in Pennsylvania. We all go to Steelers games where you cannot see the other side of the stadium because of the snow and so if we can do that, why can’t we work? We all wear long johns. Sometimes we change our socks and boots at lunchtime. We eat in the truck with the heater running, have two or three pair of work gloves. We have kerosene/electric torpedo heaters that really heat up a space fast. Just build a plastic tent and throw a torpedo heater inside and you warm up and dry out.”
Taking extra breaks cuts into production, but not as much as lost time because of injuries, illnesses or frostbite. “We take a break every hour to two hours depending upon the temperature,” says Bill Anderson of Diversified Roofing in Elk River, Minn. “Keeping warm on the roof demands a lot of layers, such as long johns, six T-shirts, fairly heavy clothes, bibs and a Carhartt coat. It is also best to work in the sun as much as you can.”
The sun can be your best friend on the jobsite. Still, no matter what, cold weather is going to slow down your progress. Brad Finken of Tomahawk Expediting in Tomahawk, Wis., believes his crews work at 50 percent efficiency during the coldest northern Wisconsin months. “You have to be more careful,” he says. “Working with any tools or equipment, including fall protection systems, is more challenging, but you do what you’ve got to do to make money.”
Most of the winter work Finken does is for new residential construction — if the homebuilders are busy in the winter, so is Tomahawk Expediting. “The main reason we work with the builders like that in the winter is to keep the accounts,” he says. Many of Tomahawk’s residents are seasonal and by this time of year, their boats and summertime toys have been long ago put away and those customers have headed back south. That means there really is little retrofit roofing to do during the winter months. “We’ll go about four months without a phone call,” Finken says.
Tomahawk Expediting works with a handful of homebuilders who appreciate his attention to detail. If Finken is tied up at another jobsite, the homebuilders will install the underlayment and cover it with a black 6-mil plastic covering. “We try to keep up with them, but if we don’t they can do that,” he says. “When we get there, we peel back what we’re going to work on and cover up when we’re done. The key is keeping the underlayment dry. It gets slippery and if you get a snow and ice buildup, it can slow you down three or four days.”
Snow removal adds to job
Snow and ice add to the challenge of any job. Obviously it’s best to install the roofing on dry underlayment. Most installers find ways to deal with snow before it accumulates. “The snow hardly ever slows us down,” Zolko says. “We did one job last year, a 1,600-square foot ranch, and it snowed 6 inches on Thursday night. We started on Thursday setting up scaffolding around the house. Before we left the job, we turned the scaffold planks upside down so in the morning we just had to flip them over and did not have to shovel snow. Sometimes, we just turn them on the edge. Anyway we shoveled the 6 inches of snow off the roof, put tarps down, tore off the shingles and papered it in with (InterWrap’s) Titanium underlayment. We even used our backpack leaf blower to blow the light snow off. We were off Saturday and Sunday and on Monday we came back and shingled it. This included new gutters and downspouts. I had six guys on the job for the tear-off and four men to install the roof on Monday.”
Sometimes, you just have to accept the fact Mother Nature is the winner. Working in northeast New York and southern Quebec, Dave Mackey of Mackey Metal Roofing has learned the best thing to do is not fight it — take some time off during the winter months. “We consider our main season to be from April 1 to December 15,” he says. “We close from December 15 to January 31, and in February and March, we’re choosy about what we’ll do, based on the weather.”
During a two-week cold spell last year, when temperatures slipped to 25 or 30 below zero, Mackey’s crew worked on a project that called for flush panels in a wall application. All the panels had to be handmade on site. “Everyone in the industry has 8-inch flush panels and the architect specifies 7-inch panels,” he says. “So we made 7-inch panels.”
Mackey and his employees look forward to their time off during the winter months. Believe it or not, they spend their free time outside — climbing in the Adirondacks! “The cold-weather gear used by the military is available to the public,” Mackey says. “I buy it for all my employees and they wear it for work. They’re polypropylene long underwear suits. I don’t understand the technology, but they’re very warm.”
When it comes to safety, Mackey and his crew take it to another level. They use their mountain climbing equipment on steep-slope projects. Everyone on the crew is familiar with it and it works. They install rappel hangers along the ridgeline to secure their safety line to. “We’re hyper sensitive to safety,” Mackey says. “If it’s windy, no matter what season it is, we’ll shut down. When the wind is blowing 25 mph and gusting to 50 mph, panels can get bent and it’s dangerous.
“It’s tough because we have such a limited season. We’re constantly looking for ways to extend the season and increase revenue.” Mackey says steep-slope projects get put on the back burner or pushed back to the spring. “We do a lot of low-slope residential roofing in the winter,” he says.
Installers who face cold, snow, and windy conditions have found a way to make it work. Extra clothing, tents, heaters, and coffee all combine to make installing metal roofing in the cold as bearable as possible, if not in reality, at least in your mind.