Thursday, May 9, 2013

Renewal and the Art of Roof Maintenance


As time psses I am less inclined to dive into large house maintenance projects, preferring to pay others to do them, or doing them mañana. Eventually in my quest for simplification, I suspect I will move out of this roomy antique and into a smaller and easier-to-maintain home. But I love living in this house, and for now I manage as best as I can.

However there is one recurring project that I enjoy a great deal. I love to do the roof.

Roof maintenance in this land of flat, concrete roofs is very different from what many of us who've owned houses in northern climes are accustomed to. Up north, a roof leak in a wood-frame house like my old one in Juneau can mean costly repairs that are best left to a professional. In Yucatán, if you start out with a roof that has never been left to deteriorate for too long, with a little bit of attention every couple of years you can keep expensive problems at bay for a long time.

The folks I bought the house from had deferred some maintenance, so for the first several years I owned the place I had a few leaks. Little by little I identified the sources of these problems and repaired them, and since that time I have had no leaks at all. The roofs are original to the house. That means that they are probably ninety years old. Because of their age, they need a bit more TLC than newer construction.

Annually during the January to May dry season, I inspect the entire roof surface, identifying new cracks or spots where the waterproof coating, called impermeabilizante, is lifting or cracking. Some years things look pretty good, and I just scrape loose coating and apply a fresh layer in those places. It's only a few hours of fairly easy work. Other times, like this year, much of the surface needs to be recoated, so I scrape the entire roof and attend to any new cracks that have appeared. 

Sometimes thin layers of old cement, used to level out or smooth over repairs, have become soft or have stopped adhering to the layers beneath. These need to be carefully scraped off, so as not to damage the remaining surface. Occasionally this is quite a bit more work than expected, as layer after historic layer, decades of accumulated coatings and repairs, begin to peel like layers of an onion. You've got to be careful in these circumstances that you don't take off too much and leave a low spot where water will puddle, causing further problems down the line.

Small cracks, if left unattended might allow seepage and cause deeper damage and leaks. To repair these, I drizzle in a thin mixture of roofing tar and then trowel the surface smooth once the tar has begun to set. For larger cracks or hollows in the surface, I mix the tar with a bit of sand. The benefit of using a stiffer tar-sand mixture is that it can be troweled and smoothed much like concrete, but sticks well even on dusty, dry surfaces.
While the patched areas are curing, the scraped sections get a good workover with a wire brush, followed by a thorough sweeping of the whole roof to remove as much dust as possible. Then comes the part I like most.

There is something about rolling on the luscious, creamy roof coating that I find very satisfying. I suppose that knowing my roof will be waterproof and the rooms beneath dry and secure during the daily rains and storms of the coming hurricane season is part of the reason for this.


But there is more to it than that. I love the repetitive work, dipping the roller into the bucket and rolling out the milkshake-thick liquid, over and over. It's a great pleasure to watch the sparkling, fresh surface quickly spread out before me. I enjoy doing things I am good at, and I've figured this one out. When I am done, the roof is perfectly clean and blindingly white. It's a good-sized roof.  It may sound funny, but the results are impressive.

After finishing, when the sun is down and the roof has cooled I sometimes climb upstairs to sit in the midst of this plain of pure, spotless white to watch the sky. I might bring a small lounge cushion and lie down up there to watch for falling stars, owls, bats, satellites, airplanes and distant storms. Even on a moonless night I can see perfectly well on the newly-coated roof.

Spring cleaning, for some, achieves not only household cleanliness and organization but can represent a new beginning and readiness for the coming year. In agricultural communities, tilling the soil in preparation for planting can mean about the same thing. I know devout Catholics here who feel refreshed and renewed after attending mass and confessing.

I don't mean to imply that working on the roof is anything like a person's faith, but for me, the annual ritual of attending to the roof  is something that achieves a similar kind of result. It's a renewal of a sort, a tabula rasa. The house is ready for another cycle, and so am I.