- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

The bad news came in the mail one week after Blair and Courtney Severe had closed on their new home. In a terse two-paragraph letter, the Severes’ insurance company canceled their new homeowner’s policy, denying coverage because the house has an original asbestos roof.

“We called four insurance companies,” Mrs. Severe says. “Only one company was willing to insure us, but the premiums were going to go up by $200 [a year] … and they could drop us in a week.”

Ultimately, the Severes worked out a compromise, keeping their original policy after agreeing to replace the roof immediately with asphalt shingles.

The recently completed work means postponing renovations to the walk-up attic, a project that factored largely in their decision to buy.

“We were going to raise the roofline to add a second story,” Mrs. Severe says. Now “the renovation plans are on the back burner.”

How times change. Asbestos roofing was touted as a selling point for homes in the not-so-distant past because of the material’s reputation for longevity.

For homeowners these days, however, an asbestos roof can lead to problems and unexpected costs.

Roofers qualified to remove the dangerous shingles are often hard to find. Removal costs typically are higher because of increased dumping fees for asbestos.

“You need to find a contractor trained in the procedures to deal with it,” says Harry Dietz, director of risk management for the National Roofing Contractors Association.

Asbestos products were marketed as the toughest available when they were introduced in the 1930s. The roofs — made from concrete asbestos shingles — have life spans of 50 years or more. Most of today’s composite shingles last 20 to 25 years.

Many homes built with the tiles have original roofs, but many are reaching the end of their life span because of the area’s aging housing market.

Asbestos is one of six fibrous minerals used in building materials in houses built before the 1970s when the health risks associated with exposure to the fibers became known. The substance was chosen for its strength and stability and was used in roofing tiles, felt, adhesives and other building materials.

Some of the asbestos roofing felt and other products were used on flat roofs, not commonly found on houses.

Many homes in the Washington area used asbestos-laden cement roofing shingles — hard, brittle building squares typically between 18 inches and 2 feet.

When first installed, the tiles were white and may appear on today’s homes as grayish because of wear and weather on the tiles.

“Look for a grayish brown color with a concrete finish; then it’s probably asbestos,” says Eric Denchfield, owner of DHI Corp. in Rockville.

If you are not sure whether the asbestos in your shingles or tiles poses a risk, have it inspected periodically. Asbestos removal companies can test a sample to determine whether the material poses a risk.

Many roofers, including Mr. Denchfield’s company, offer inspections to examine roofs and point out potential problems. His company charges $95 to $125 for a roof inspection, depending on the house’s proximity to downtown Washington.

“A lot of home inspectors are not really knowledgeable about roofs,” Mr. Denchfield says. “You need to walk on it and really inspect the tiles to do a thorough inspection. With an asbestos tile, you have to check for dampness.”

Most asbestos roofs pose little or no hazard because the building products use concrete, which holds the fibers in place. The tiles are dangerous only if they start to deteriorate.

When the fibers become airborne or “friable,” in the parlance of environmental hazards, the asbestos fibers can be inhaled and, therefore, pose a danger, says Kemal Eralp of Custer Environmental Inc. in Bethesda.

“The problem with asbestos is once you disturb it, it becomes friable, and that’s when it becomes dangerous,” says Mr. Eralp. “If it starts to deteriorate, that’s when you should take corrective action.”

Abatement companies advise homeowners to have asbestos materials inspected to determine the condition of the material. Federal and state agencies advocate removal of the material if it starts to crumble when pressure is applied.

If roofing material is in poor condition, homeowners should consult with a qualified roofer about removal and disposal.

Virginia requires inspections to be conducted by a licensed inspector. Maryland and the District require that the work be performed by certified technicians, meaning they have passed an Environmental Protection Agency exam or equivalent training such as the national trade association’s courses regulating procedures for asbestos removal.

A limited number of companies work with asbestos roof removal.

To find a qualified contractor, contact the National Roofing Contractors Association hot line at 800/USA-ROOF or check the agency’s Web site (www.nrca.net). Enter your ZIP code in the search engine on the site to find roofers serving your area.

Homeowners can expect to pay more to remove asbestos shingles than to remove a conventional roof because contractors have to adhere to certain safety precautions. Quiz your contractor to make sure these precautions are followed.

During removal, homes should be surrounded with a tarp to catch any falling debris. Workers should avoid cutting individual tiles and use scrapers to lift off the panels intact, instead. Once removed, the tiles should be lowered to the ground in buckets so they don’t shatter.

Once on the ground, tiles should be placed in a lined Dumpster or lined truck for removal. The debris should be wrapped in plastic when driven off the site, according to area agency guidelines.

Mr. Denchfield estimates removing an asbestos roof costs about 75 cents a square foot compared to 65 cents a square foot for a conventional roof. Part of the increased cost is because of the landfill dumping fees associated with asbestos removal.

Completely replacing the roof isn’t the only option, though. In many cases, the asbestos tiles can be repaired or replaced.

Caulks and sealants can be used to patch leaky roofs. Several companies also have introduced look-alike shingles to patch leaky roofs that match the old look but don’t use asbestos material.

For most homeowners, though, the choice comes down to aesthetics.

Mr. Denchfield, whose company replaces about 50 roofs a month, estimates 15 of those projects involve asbestos roofs. Most customers want to update the homes and make them look better, he says.

“Many tiles are brownish and gray over time,” Mr. Denchfield says. “They really are the ugliest roofs out there. A lot of people are replacing them because they are ugly, not because they are leaking.”

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