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Canada’s roofing industry: Contractors thrive in challenging environment with creativity and initiative
Mild winter coupled with (literally) shocking new technologies create challenges and opportunities for Ontario roofers
Canadian Design and Construction Report staff writer
Canada’s industrial, commercial and institutional building roofers work in a challenging, evolving industry. In some respects, the industry has a built-in security. When the economy is booming, roofers can compete for new projects; when things slow (and the weather turns bad) maintenance and repair opportunities abound.
Of course, a mild winter coupled with a slower economy can put a damper on things – and this combination resulted in some challenges in some Canadian markets, especially Ontario, earlier this year.
“We got off to a slow start (this year),”said Don Marks, executive director of the Ontario Industrial Roofing Contractors’ Association (OIRCA). “Contractors usually will book enough work to pace themselves through the winter,” he said. “But we didn’t have a ‘winter’ this year, even in Thunder Bay, so our members were running out of work in mid-January, as a result, and things were slow in the spring as well.” He says conditions have improved somewhat during the summer, however.
There are other storms, as well, though – electrical in nature. The trend for roof-mounted solar arrays induced because of increasing demand (in part because of government programs) for solar power generation, has created an entirely new level of safety and maintenance challenges for roofing contractors. The new solar panels are often installed on existing roofs improperly in a manner which makes it much harder to access roofs for leak repairs.
More seriously, the solar arrays’ DC current cannot simply be turned off with the flick of the switch, so ill-prepared roofers face the risk of nasty shocks of up to 600 volts (a risk undoubtedly made more serious when they are trying to repair rain storm leaks.)
Marks sees these challenges as opportunities. Even in a down economy, while maintenance and repairs can be deferred, they cannot stop completely; as buildings age, roofs fail, and roofing contractors have to do essential work, providing some security from economic slumps.
OIRCA is affiliated with the Canadian Roofing Contractors’ Association (CRCA), established in 1960 “for unity between and a co-operative effort on the part of roofing contractors from coast to coast in Canada,” CRCA says. CRCA’s membership includes “companies actively engaged in Canada in the roofing and related sheet metal contracting business, along with companies engaged in manufacturing and supplying materials and services used in any branch of the roofing and sheet metal industry.”
Membership standards are demanding. You need to show you have enough experience, competence, adequate experience and references. You can become a CRCA member by joining one of the relevant provincial associations, but their standards are no less stringent.
For example, prospective OIRCA members “must jump through several hoops,” Marks says. “We have a very thorough review process,” he said. “It can take two to three to four months to process the applications.” Roofing contractors who take shortcuts and cut safety corners won’t be accepted. When a membership is declined, the contractor can see the evidence and work to resolve the issues, but will need to wait at least one year to reapply.
In return, clients know that OIRCA members will do the work safely and properly, so many businesses and organizations restrict bidding to OIRCA members.
In Ontario, Marks said he believes OIRCA’s 80 or so members represent about 70 per cent of an $800 to $900 million annual industry – indicating that the Canada-wide industry scale is in the billions; and that CRCA members handle most of the work.
CRCA and its affiliated provincial organizations works to help keep members up-to-date with changes in technologies and roofing systems. While membrane and integrated systems started supplementing conventional tar and gravel (built-up) roofing in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, most of these then-new systems have matured and both roofers and building owners understand how to use them effectively.
However, more recently challenges have emerged with “green” roofs, which are literally green with living material, and those designed with reflective white surfaces. The green roofs present special challenges for drainage, snow loads, and leakage, along with the need to integrate landscaping trades into unconventional areas. White roofs, meanwhile are controversial. “We are in a climate where the building needs to be heated more than cooled,” Marks said, suggesting the reflective rather than absorbent nature of the roof might cost rather than save energy. “White roofs also need special attention for cleaning,” he said.
Marks says the OIRCA is working with the Ministry of Labour and other authorities to develop safety standards and rules for solar array systems. Safety bulletins suggest that roofers should not do any work unless someone who understands the solar system is available and can take measures to prevent unwelcome shocks. The association also is advising building owners to consider carefully the added maintenance and repair costs when solar systems are introduced, especially if they are directly mounted on the roof surface using ballast systems.