Whether Buying an Existing Store, Building a New Facility or Just Trying to Maximize Your Current Laundromat, Don’t Neglect the Roof

By definition, a roof with a hole in it is like devouring a Big Mac and a large order of fries right after your workout. It kind of defeats the purpose.

Then again, laundromats and their roofs have had an adversarial relationship since the very first store owner punched a hole through his roof to make way for the very first exhaust duct to accommodate the very first dryer.

“Laundromats and roofs are generally competing with each other on a couple of levels,” said Karl Hinrichs of HK Laundry Equipment in Armonk, N.Y. “Roofs like wide open stretches with as few penetrations through it as possible. After all, the more penetrations, the greater the chance of leaks.”

However, laundromats need to exhaust their dryers, and the most effective exhaust method is through individual dryer exhaust ducts – quite often through the laundry’s roof. In such cases, there can be as many as 50 exhaust ducts going through the roof. That’s quite a few holes overhead. What’s more, dryers also require makeup air… a lot of it.

“It’s not uncommon for a 15-stack-dryer laundromat to need up to 25 square feet of makeup air,” Hinrichs said. “This would be equal to a five-foot-by-five-foot opening in the roof. Laundromats have more roof penetrations than any other business.”

In fact, some of the openings one might find on a typical laundromat roof include:

  • Dryer exhaust ducts
  • Dryer makeup air ducts
  • HVAC units
  • Evaporative (swamp) coolers
  • Plumbing vents
  • Bathroom exhaust fan vents
  • Electrical wiring
  • Wiring for television or satellite dish antennas

“I explain to all who will listen that the best form of dryer exhaust is not through the roof, but through the outside wall, with one penetration per dryer stack,” said Dan Marrazzo, who owns Newtown Laundry Company and is based in Morrisville, Pa. “Of course, when that’s not possible due to neighboring tenants, the roof becomes the only option. Each round exhaust duct will require a low-pitch flashing collar, which will be attached to the roofing material in accordance to the manufacturer’s specifications. To prevent fires, it’s recommended that a one-inch gap be maintained between the metal dryer stack and any wood material.

“Many landlords will be responsible for the roof, until you cut 30 holes in it,” he continued. “Also, landlords often require that their roofer perform the installation to validate their warranty. If not, I’d recommend using an established commercial roofer. Often, this will satisfy your insurance underwriter as well.”

Robert Maes, who owns Express Laundry in Houston, believes that store owners should always attempt to minimize the number of penetrations in their roofs, for some very basic reasons.

“Less holes in the roof mean less leaks,” he pointed out. “Also, there’s less opportunity for vandals to break into the laundromat, and less expense in the sense that you’re probably going to have a pay a pretty penny to the contractor who holds the warranty for that roof for any additional work.”

Although laundry owners will commonly place their dryer makeup air ducts on their roofs, Maes is not a fan of this practice.

“If you do that and your dryers also vent onto the roof, you’ve created, in essence, a closed loop to where the lint comes out of the dryer and gets sucked right back into the makeup air hole,” he explained. “Also, when you put the makeup air on the roof, you could have potential vandal issues, because you’ve likely got some decent-sized holes on your roof.”

What’s Best for Your Laundromat?

Given the unique challenges a laundromat roof faces, let’s take a look at some of the most common roofing styles and materials. Of course, if you’re purchasing an existing laundromat or retrofitting an existing storefront or retail space, those decisions likely have already been made for you.

“Most roof styles are determined by architects and town review boards, because the roof is an integral component of ‘the look and characteristic’ of a building,” Hinrichs noted. “The architect is always concerned with the street appearance of the building, and the roof design is a huge component of the overall look. So, the roof design is often already predetermined. In most cases, the dryer exhaust ducts are hidden from the street, so the dryer vents are either in the back of the building or hidden with a parapet wall. There are flat roofs and pitched roofs, and both have their advantages and challenges.”

Here are some popular roofing types, according to Hinrichs:

  • Rolled roofing that gets nailed down to be secured in place.
  • Rolled roofing that gets heated with a torch and bonded to the roof’s substrate below.
  • Membrane roofing (rubber, EPDM, PVC or neoprene), which features thin membranes glued to each other and held in place on a smooth, prepared roof surface.
  • Built-up roofing, where consecutive layers of membrane and hot asphalt are built up, layer upon layer, until the roof is two inches to four inches thick. Then, a thin layer of small pebbles or smooth stones typically are placed on top to protect the surface.
  • Pitched roofs can feature metal or asphalt shingles.

“Over the years, I’ve had stores with a variety of roof types,” said Paul Hansen, owner of Su Nueva Lavanderia in Chicago. “I’ve had flat, barrel and shingled roofs. The easiest and most popular style is the flat roof. Also, as I’ve replaced older roof systems with newer ones, the best ones utilize an EPDM material, which is an extremely durable synthetic rubber roofing membrane that’s widely used in low-slope buildings. The material is similar to a pool liner. It can be rolled out and has very few seams, which makes leaks much less likely. Also, some of the newer roofing materials are white and reflective, which help battle the sun’s heat, increase longevity and reduce cooling costs during the summer.”

Dave Menz of Queen City Laundry in Amelia, Ohio, agreed that flat, commercial-grade, rubber roofs are the best for laundromats.

“These types of roofs enable easy access for any necessary maintenance or repairs, and often aid in heating your facilities during the colder months,” he said. “Additionally, such roofs allow for fairly easy cleanup of the constant lint that we all must deal with.”

Maes suggested that metal roofs might offer some advantages with regard to fire safety, as well as simply being more durable and secure for those laundromats located in high-wind locations.

Maintaining Your Roof

Considering all that’s included on most laundromat roofs, preventive maintenance is perhaps more important than for any other type of small business.

“First and foremost, remove anything from the roof that isn’t supposed to be there,” Hinrichs said. “This includes old roof buckets, nails, screws, hardware, old antennas and discarded HVAC parts. These are materials that can poke holes in your roof. Preventive maintenance should take place twice a year. Look for any problem areas, which would be seams that are peeling up, or holes and tears in the membrane. And, of course, fix any problems immediately. Roofs won’t get better by themselves, only worse.”

No doubt, the simplest form a maintenance is cleaning the roof, especially of lint.

“There is a tendency for lint to build up on the roof, if your dryers vent through the roof,” Maes explained. “That’s a potential fire hazard. Additionally, depending on the configuration of your roof, lint can clog up the roof drains and create a whole host of problems. For example, during one of the hurricanes down here, a shopping center not far from me had its entire roof collapse because the drains were clogged with leaves. In that case, it wasn’t lint, but it’s the same principle.”

“With several dryers pumping a huge amount of air and lint on the roof, you will see fuzzy deposits everywhere,” Marrazzo added. “A broom works, but a leaf blower can be much more effective. While you’re up there, also check your roof drains, which look like tiny flying saucers and are about the size of a basketball. Be sure they are unobstructed so that any water can make it to the ground without causing a leak in the roof.”

With all of that lint blowing around, you may find that it has collected on the coils of your rooftop air conditioning unit.

“The coils of the AC unit look like the radiator of your car,” Marrazzo said. “These are not to be bent while cleaning, so do not use a power washer. Instead, purchase a spray can of air conditioner coil cleaner, and follow the directions on the can. Then, use a garden hose to complete the cleaning. You should notice a measurable difference in the temperature and utility bill of your store.”

Due Diligence: Roofs

With the purchase of any commercial property, one of the key components is the roof. Clearly, the newer the roof the better – and, if the roof still has a guarantee, better still.

“I’d have a licensed roofer check it to see what condition it’s in and how long until it will need to be replaced,” Hansen suggested. “Also, check to see if it’s still under warranty, as some warranties can go as long as 20 to 25 years. If it’s under warranty, make sure the company is still in business. I had a roof that was approximately 12 years old, with a 20-year warranty – but the manufacturer went out of business, so there was no one to honor the warranty.”

“One of the numbers calculated into any commercial property purchase is the cost of a replacement roof, as well as the useful life left on the current roof,” Hinrichs added. “This is then used to determine the budgetary annual cost of the property.”

“If you’re buying an existing laundry, visit on a rainy day or look at the base of the dryer stack before it turns into the machine,” Marrazzo recommended. “If there is a clear spot on the floor surrounded by dirt and dust, there is probably a leak at the flashing. Understand that, as 180-degree air leaves the dryer and goes through the roof, it heats all of the metal on the way. This will cause the metal to move at a different rate than the roof material, causing possible cracks.

“A storm collar – which looks like a large, metal doughnut – can be slid over the vent pipe before the cap is attached, creating an ‘umbrella’ effect around the pipe where it meets the roofing material. This is a great $3 accessory to help prevent leaks.”

No doubt, if you’re leasing, and the space had not previously been a laundromat or if the store will be undergoing a considerable remodel with additional dryer capacity being added, you will need to have a conversation with the landlord. Unfortunately, many landlords are quite particular about who they have working on their roofs and probably will require you to use their chosen roofing contractor, according to Hinrichs.

“Basically, you have to write a blank check to the roofer, because you have no other choice on which contractor you can use, and the roofer knows it,” he explained. “So, before you get too far into a project, you need to determine exactly what the costs are. A discussion with the roofing contractor is crucial to determining your installation and retrofit costs.”

“We always have a professional roofing contractor inspect the roof of a building,” Menz said. “We do this whether we are acquiring the building or just the business. Too much information is never a bad thing.

“If we determine that the roof is near the end of its lifecycle, we use this opportunity for negotiations. If this is a lease negotiation, we will request that the roof be replaced prior to the lease execution. The worst situation we can have is a deteriorated roof, with the property owner refusing to replace or repair it. This can be a helpless feeling as a business owner.”

On the other hand, if you’re building a new facility from the ground up, the best way to handle new construction is to coordinate the mechanical duct installers with the roof contractors to make sure that they are all on the same page with regard to scheduling and the number of roof penetrations. In addition, there likely will be several other contractors popping small and large holes through the roof – plumbers with vent stacks, electricians with wiring for exterior signage, exhaust fans, HVAC units, etc.

“Discuss the roof penetrations before and during the work, and relay the information to your roofing contractor so that there are no surprises,” Hinrichs advised.

Avoid These Pitfalls

“I think complete neglect of the roof is fairly common,” Menz shared. “I often talk with laundry owners who haven’t been on their roofs in 20 years.”

“Out of sight, out of mind,” Hinrichs concurred. “No one thinks about the roof until there is a water leak, and then that leak becomes your singular focus.”

Even when building a new store or renovating, roofs tend to be an afterthought to the rest of the equipment and mechanical work of the laundromat. However, roofs carry the weight of the HVAC units, the insulation and the roofing membrane. Roofs are a structural element, and building departments recently have been getting more involved with regard to roof penetrations, so as to ensure that the structural elements are not compromised, according to Hinrichs.

“I’ve seen roofs that had to be reinforced with steel angle irons to support the holes cut for additional dryer vents,” he said. “This can mean additional costs and delays for engineering drawings and a review by the building department. So, be prepared and be proactive. Call your building department to make sure there are no issues before you start. It’s never fun when the building department puts a Stop Work Order on your laundromat project.”

All in all, the biggest mistake a laundry owner can make is waiting too long to repair, replace or otherwise address a concern regarding the store’s roof.

“As a parting thought, if you prefer not to see where the other end of the ladder goes, hire a roofing professional,” concluded Marrazzo, a long-time general contractor, who maintains his own laundries. “Much of this work can be dangerous, if you have limited experience on a roof. But, above all, don’t neglect your roof.

“Be ever mindful of the fact that the thousands of dollars you have installed in your store are separated from the harsh outdoor elements by just a few millimeters of roofing material. Something to think about.”

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