The first step is to identify what sort of flat roof you have. The most common flat roof is smooth and white with a mineral grit surface, known as either torchdown (applied with flaming torch) or hot tar. This flat roof is also known as a gravel roof, also applied with hot tar but increasing in popularity are rubber or plastic roofs, known as single-ply, commonly called TPO (in the past, called EPDM).
If you have a mineral grit roof, and the grit hasn’t come off, then it’s in reasonably good shape and probably not in dire need if replacement anytime soon. The most common sign your flat roof is wearing out is pretty simple, you will start to see the granules coming off quite a bit. You’ll see the black membrane start to show through all over. If it’s just in one spot or another, it could be because of foot traffic or maybe in front of drain where the roof wears out faster but when you start to see it all over, it’s time for a new flat roof. You might be able to squeeze another few years out of it.
One thing to look for are buckles. This indicates poor installation, often on top of a previous roof which was not removed. Also, look at the seams where the roofing overlaps. If the roofers did it properly you should see solid black lines, called “bleed out” the entire length of all seams. In the case of roofing, neatness here is not necessarily desirable. It indicates they used the proper amount of hot tar, or, heated the torch roll sufficiently.
Finding leaks on a flat roof is frustrating, even for a seasoned pro but many times they are obvious: a random puncture, a seam that has come loose, and so on. The most common area for roofs to leak are the drains and fixing these usually demands expertise but, in a pinch, slap some tar around it after carefully cleaning it out. Even more important, if it is a scupper drain, check where it penetrates the outside (stucco wall) and make very sure that is sealed with silicone or caulk of some kind. This can leak in disastrous fashion.
Gravel roof issues are not as easy to detect and in that case, it’s best to call a pro.
With single ply (smooth white rubber), a flat roof is often quite easy to find a problem, and it’s even easier to seal it up since any decent, exterior grade white silicone or caulk will do the trick. Just carefully clean the spot and seal it up, using generous amounts.
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