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Winter’s silver lining: In cleaning roofs, they clean up

By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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For a few people, there’s a bright side to all this snow.

With more than 150 roof collapses statewide this winter, removing snow and ice from flat roofs of commercial buildings is a thriving industry that is keeping companies busy from dawn to dusk.

Last Monday, a brutally raw day with snow flurries and icy rain, nearly five dozen workers toiled atop the sprawling roof of a Walmart store in Brockton, clearing tons of snow while shoppers below went about their business.

“I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’ve never seen it this bad,’’ said Chad Lewis, job supervisor for John F. Shea Co. of Boston, as 55 workers on the Walmart roof used heavy plastic shovels, tarpaulins, and plastic toboggans to move wet snow and ice to the edge and toss it into giant piles below to be hauled away. “We’ve been out straight every day for the past two weeks.’’

Lewis said he’s heard that workers have been brought in from around the country to clear roofs. On this job, workers from J.T. Cazeault, a Plymouth roofing company, were augmenting Shea’s crews.

The back of Walmart was snow-removal central, with a fleet of trucks and one giant crane that lifted huge steel bins of gear onto the roof. Paul Wightman loaded plastic shovels and other essentials into the bins, including small guardrails for the roof’s edge to protect workers, and signaled the crane to hoist it 50 feet into the air and gently swing it onto the roof.

“This roof isn’t so bad,’’ Lewis said, watching the work. “There aren’t any skylights. Roofs with skylights are like an obstacle course up there.’’

For private homes, most roofs are sloped enough to allow snow and ice to slide off, and collapses are rare. But roof damage from water and ice accumulating in and around gutters threatens residences. Kavanaugh Roofing in Westwood specializes in preventing that.

“Ice dams and removing snow is dangerous work,’’ said 81-year-old owner Morris Kavanaugh. “I don’t do the work anymore, but I schedule it and supervise.’’

For commercial buildings, meanwhile, numerous roofs have fallen south of Boston.

In Norwood Monday, Fire Captain George Geary, a 30-year firefighting veteran, was trapped when an office building roof collapsed; he escaped injury.

Two roofs collapsed in Avon on Jan. 27, the same day the roof of a moving company in West Bridgewater came down. In Stoughton Jan. 28, the roof of a vacant restaurant gave way. And on Feb. 2, the roof and walls caved in at a 150,000-square-foot office building in Easton.

Workers around the area have been scrambling to prevent more of these mishaps.

“I’ve been out straight since last Tuesday,’’ said Michael Lynch, president of Associate Roofing Inc. in Braintree. “I’m the owner, and I’m up there shoveling, too. My dad is retired, and I even called him in. We’re working 10 hours a day, seven days a week.’’

The biggest job so far for the third-generation, family-owned company has been the 40,000-square-foot roof of a heating and ventilation company in Hingham, which took Lynch and his workers 3 1/2 days to complete. They’ve been up on roofs from 7 in the morning until 6 at night.

“I’ve been doing this 38 years, my dad did it more than 50 years, and we’ve never seen it like this,’’ Lynch said.

And it’s not just roofers getting work, said Jim Dostoomian, owner of Dostoomian Roofing in Stoughton. “It’s landscaping companies, contractors, everybody’’ with expertise in roof work.

And the worst may not be over, said Tom Magauran, president of Mattapoisett-based Safe Roof Systems. “We haven’t hit spring snows, when it’s really wet and heavy.’’

In North America, there are 4,000 roof collapses on average annually, said Magauran, whose company sells monitoring systems designed to alert owners when roofs have to be cleared. Those account for $4 billion in insurance claims, he said.

“Very few [install monitors], and that’s part of the challenge,’’ he said, adding that commercial companies don’t want to arouse negative thoughts by having a system that makes people think about roof collapses. “We’d love to get to a point where they recognize by having a system like this, patrons would feel safer.’’

Clearing snow isn’t cheap, Magauran said; it can cost $250,000 to clear snow and ice off a large commercial building.

For companies like Kavanaugh Roofing, that means a lot of income

“We’ve been working day and night,’’ Cavanaugh said Monday. “It’s about time for me to get a good sleep.’’

Danger signs
There are ways to tell if a roof is in danger of collapse — and ways to keep it from happening, said Tom Magauran, president of Safe Roof Systems in Mattapoisett. Most roof collapses occur in commercial buildings with flat or low-sloped roofs.
What to look for:
■Ceiling tiles with water stains or signs they are being pushed down by sprinkler systems above them
■Bent or displaced sprinkler lines
■Door and windows that don’t close or open properly
■Outer walls showing signs of cracking or shifting
■Structural leaks from cracks in load-bearing walls and from around windows, doors, and ceilings
■Distorted bar joists or purlins (horizontal structures that support loads from a roof deck or sheathing)
■Sagging roof insulation
Building owners who detect leaks should consult insurance company engineers before proceeding.
Danger signs
There are ways to tell if a roof is in danger of collapse — and ways to keep it from happening, said Tom Magauran, president of Safe Roof Systems in Mattapoisett. Most roof collapses occur in commercial buildings with flat or low-sloped roofs.
What to look for:
■Ceiling tiles with water stains or signs they are being pushed down by sprinkler systems above them
■Bent or displaced sprinkler lines
■Door and windows that don’t close or open properly
■Outer walls showing signs of cracking or shifting
■Structural leaks from cracks in load-bearing walls and from around windows, doors, and ceilings
■Distorted bar joists or purlins (horizontal structures that support loads from a roof deck or sheathing)
■Sagging roof insulation