Last fall, a homeowner in South Florida raised complaints about a recently installed metal roof that were picked up and broadcast by the local NBC station. The complaints centered on the prevalence of black mold on a white metal roof. This incident and others have leaders in the metal roofing industry concerned about the effect a black eye can have on the entire industry. Metal roofing is a premium product and if it underperforms in the consumer’s eye, then selling metal roofing in the residential market will become even more difficult than it is.
Any metal roofing material sold and installed by a contractor has touched many hands along the way in the supply chain: steel manufacturer, substrate provider, painter or coater, metal former. Each of those steps provides an added value that results in the finished product reaching the contractor.
But the construction industry supply chain has been famously fractured and inefficient. Buyers up and down the chain are motivated by values that are, at times, not in the best interest of the ultimate user: the homeowner or building owner. The two competing forces that have the largest effect are cost and quality.
For metal roofing-especially the residential side-a tighter, more controlled supply chain can more easily ensure quality. But a broader supply chain that includes a wider variety of participants may offer benefits in competition and pricing, but that can be at the expense of quality control.
Tom Black, executive director of the Metal Roofing Alliance, summarizes the issue: “Our position is the steel industry makes great products all over the world, but you have to be very careful monitoring the suppliers. If you’re just buying on price, you can easily get an inferior product. It’s hard for the consumer to really determine what they’re getting and evaluate it.”
Don Switzer is the marketing manager for construction products at Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Steel Dynamics Inc., and he outlines the problem facing the industry and notes that two associations, the Metal Construction Association and the National Frame Builders Association, are working to establish minimum requirements that will “from a guidance standpoint, ensure that people will order a minimum quality level to make sure they get the expected performance.”
That guidance and performance is affected by every step of the supply chain and includes domestically produced steel as well as imported steel. “We’ve tried to develop minimum standards so we can keep from getting incidences of metal getting a black eye,” Switzer explains. “Because then it’s just bad metal, and nobody really knew what the paint system was, what the pretreatment system was, what the metallic coating was on the substrate. Or even what the gauge was of the substrate. All those issues are critical as it relates to the performance of the product.”
At each step of the way, there are established grades and testing to ensure those grades. Coatings, for example, are rated as G45, G60, G90, etc., based on ASTM A525 standards to establish the thickness of the coating. Thinner coatings are viable for certain applications, such as in an agricultural setting, but commercial and residential structures require thicker coatings.
Painted product is rated by years of warranty. Switzer points out the difficulty of managing that process as well. “We’ve had situations where we’ve been told it was a 40-year silicon polyester product, and when tested it was a 10-year product. That’s a critical issue for our industry. It’s the reason we want to make sure the playing field is even.”
For any contractor, homeowner or building owner, these important requirements can be overwhelming and difficult to understand. To some extent, everyone relies and trusts the people next up in the supply chain. Black says: “Homeowners have to rely on the contractor and, perhaps, the contractor’s source. They have to ask the right questions. In terms of steel roofing, there are two main areas: one is metallic coating … and the second area is paint quality.”
In the Florida instance, according to Switzer, the contractor has no idea who the metal supplier was or who provided the paint. That’s not unusual, and the difficulty with being able to trace the metal back through the suppliers is a major part of the accountability for the quality of the product.
At ATAS International Inc., based in Allentown, Pa., Jim Bush is the vice president of sales, and he points to the company’s ISO certification as an important part of its ability to track and verify all the steel used. “I can go back from a traceability point of view, 15 or 20 years and identify everything,” he says. In an event a problem does occur, ATAS can ascertain where and how the problem occurred.
Most major manufacturers have this ability. Bush says: “Most of us have been through a few problems. We’re more cautious.”
There are two significant changes that have occurred in the metal roofing market, though. The first is the increase in imported steel. No expert interviewed for this article claimed that imported steel was across the board of lower quality than domestic steel. But imported steel of lower quality does come into the country, and it enters a very cost-conscious supply chain, making it very attractive to many of the suppliers looking to have an edge in the marketplace. And it is there that the traceability of the product becomes problematic.
When called in to confer on a problem installation, Switzer says the provenance of the steel is often an issue. The contractor has bought it, believing it is a domestic, high-quality steel, and it’s not. “We can test the base metal and find out if it’s ours,” says Switzer. “I feel bad for the homeowners. Usually, it’s the contractor just didn’t know about the differences. You’ve got to make sure you’re working with a company that has a long and valued history of performance.”
That leads to the second significant change that has occurred in the industry. With the advent of portable metal forming machines and an increase in regional players in the last 10 years, a whole, new competitive element has been added to the supply chain.
Black rough guesses that the percentage of metal roofing in the market coming from major manufacturers is about 50 percent. The rest is coming from regional players, and ATAS’s Bush, understandably, points to them as a less tightly controlled variable. “I don’t think anybody intentionally is trying to do something wrong,” he says. “A lot of regional players just don’t have the experience.” Bush is not painting all regional players as inexperienced, but he does argue that inexperience and lack of traceability more likely occur outside the environment of the major manufacturers. “I’m all for competition and obviously ATAS started small, but we think we have to get everybody playing on a level field.”
The major manufacturers have to absorb the overhead cost of compliance-such as getting approvals from agencies and working with Energy Star-that the regional manufacturers don’t have to do.
“It’s really frustrating,” Switzer says, “because I visit those people [speaking of regional manufacturers]. They’re well intended but they don’t know. They need to buy steel quickly, but they buy it from somebody who may not have the same integrity level as their usual supplier. I know that people have bought Chinese Galvalume that’s not really Galvalume. To be Galvalume, it has to be licensed, and you are supposed to follow a strict manufacturing process.”
What To Do
Contractors trying to sell metal roofing to homeowners know that price is an issue, so there is considerable market pressure to reduce costs to land the job. Contractors also know that if the roof system underperforms or fails, they are the first call for repair and blame. It’s their reputations on the line.
For homeowners, building owners and contractors, the solution is education. Consumers need to understand the language of metal, and the industry needs to raise awareness among consumers of the benefits of metal roofing as well as the importance of choosing the right con- tractor. The Metal Roofing Alliance is working to raise awareness among homeowners and make metal roofing a first-choice building product.
Quality contractors also need to educate homeowners, explaining why it’s important to be able to trace the metal roofing material. In particular, contractors should be able to demonstrate:
- Certification for the coating
- Paint warranty
- Steel thickness and quality
Each of these areas have standards and gradings. Contractors should demand documentation from their suppliers of these quality levels. Still, that may not be enough. Switzer notes that he’s seen people showing Bethlehem Steel warranties as proof of quality. Bethlehem Steel stopped producing steel in 2003.
So, if suppliers are playing fast and loose with the warranties and certifications, how can a contractor or homeowner protect himself? One simple solution for the contractor is to work with experienced, long-term providers who stand behind their work, then communicate that to the homeowner as an important part of building trust during the sale.
Another solution is certification. The Metal Construction Association established a certification program for metal roofing. According to Jeff Henry, executive director of the association, the program currently has 45 metal roofing products certified among a handful of manufacturers. Broadening that program, something ATAS’s Bush highly desires, can help level the playing field and ensure the industry doesn’t suffer from adverse publicity because of poor metal roof performance.