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How to Find a Leak in a Roof

Most people do not imagine how difficult it can be to locate a leak in a roof. Watch any old cartoon and the culprit is immediately apparent – a simple hole, occasionally big enough to stick your head through. Not so with roof leaks in the real world – most such problems only become apparent after the water has flowed, hugged soaked and spread its way across countless building materials long before it becomes manifest in the home. That means the spot where your ceiling is dripping can be dozens of horizontal feet from the original source of the problem, with much of that path hidden inside walls and casings.

If you have ever tried to head up into the attic to locate a roof leak, you probably encountered a common problem. Although many such leaks occur within the field of shingles or shakes, many hide in places you simply cannot find from inside the house. Many of the most common include flashings, those architectural features designed to join roofing to the other parts of your home. Of course they may also be located within skylights, chimneys or ice dams, making it difficult to eliminate anything right off the bat.

The good news is that water is a substance without intent or cognition, meaning you can usually make sense of its path with a little rudimentary thought. Follow the grade of gravity and try to imagine where it will flow and it’s often easier than you think to backtrack from a visible water source. Many experts recommend paying careful attention to rafters and exposed pipes as well, as any of these can “carry” water significant distances without appearing wet to the untrained eye. A little detective work can go a long way to toward better-informed predictions, saving you considerable time and frustration in the process.

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Roof leaks can also be inferred a number of ways. If you live in an area with sporadic rain, lengthy dry periods may actually provide an excellent opportunity to look for the telltale signs of discoloration that may indicate mildew. Darkened ceiling tiles, moldy corners and damp insulation may remain for weeks following a significant storm, offering you something like a roadmap to the source of the leak. You may also want to pay particular attention to material intersections such as dormers that may be hiding conduits for water just out of sight.

That said, the most reliable way to locate a roof leak is also the most intuitive – with water. Checking during a storm will do little to isolate the problem, but you may be able to mimic its effect with a simple garden hose. Secure yourself safely to the roof and be sure to wear proper apparel for this kind of experiment, however – roofing materials are often designed expressly to grow slick with rain. Start at the outer edges of your roof and be systematic about the order in which you provide coverage. The last thing you want to do is point the water toward the roof’s apex, as gravity will quickly render that experiment useless! Move up slowly and in sections, being careful to give each test time to seep into your home.

Barring the effects of a major storm, your most likely culprit will be the roof flashings. These come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and functions, with different designs and materials dedicated to each type of roofing intersection. Although plumbing vent flashings are the most common source of leaks, you may be able to make further progress with a close examination of the furnace flashings and wall step flashings as well. It’s not uncommon for repairs or poor craftsmanship to leave such openings unprotected from the elements, creating the perfect conditions for a chronic and mysterious leak.

The good news is that most roof leaks can be repaired quickly and inexpensively. Depending on the source of the problem and how much you want to spend, nearly every leak can be plugged, patched or flashed in a matter of minutes. Check with the hose or wait until the next rain, and you may be astonished to discover how flawlessly such piecemeal measures work. That said, if the problem lies in the shingles themselves and seem to be occurring with increasing frequency, it may be time to have an inspector out to the home for a better sense of your options.


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