The Search for Hidden Roof Leaks
By: Julie Day
The other night, I was getting dressed to go out for the evening when I heard the most ominous sound a homeowner can hear: Drip . . . Drip. To my chagrin, a rivulet of water was making its way down the bathroom wall and dripping off the chair rail.
Within seconds I was in the attic, crawling around the ceiling joists with a flashlight (not an easy thing to do in heels, I might add), trying to trace the water back to the source of the leak. Turns out, there was not one but SIX leaks, scattered here and there around the attic! Eight, if you count the steam coming out of my ears as I dove around with plastic buckets.
I’m a woman trying to sell a house, I have a showing in less than 24 hours, it’s pitch dark and raining frogs and toadstools, and my roof has taken on the characteristics of a kitchen colander. I’m covered in insulation dust, I’m expected at a holiday party in five minutes, I’m almost out of buckets, and a new roof is NOT on my Christmas list!
I couldn’t do anything more about it right then, but as soon as the sun came out the next day, I hauled out my rickety old extension ladder (lovingly dubbed “The Widowmaker”) and headed up to investigate the roof.
Roof leaks are tricky buggers – water can sneak under a broken shingle at one end and snake its way along the underlayment before seeping into your attic someplace else. Once in the attic, it can follow pipes and joists for long distances before finally dripping onto your ceiling.
To add insult to injury, sometimes it only happens when it’s raining hard, or the wind is just right, or you had eggs for breakfast. And don’t get me started on the fact that something supposed to repel water is made from thousands of individual pieces – full of nail holes attaching them to something that rots when it gets wet!
Anyway, I headed up to the roof armed with measurements to locate the drips, but I knew that the problems could be anywhere.
How to Find a Roof Leak
My roofing experience is rather limited, but I did know enough to:
Seal exposed nails.
Start at the Source
Using landmarks such as edges and vents, I was able to locate the areas of roof directly outside the wet spots. I was looking for loose, broken, raised, or bent shingles, pulled-out nails, and any other damage.
Question the Obvious Suspects
When shingle damage didn’t explain everything, I moved on to inspect the parts of the roof most likely to spring a leak:
- Plumbing and furnace vents
- Roof valleys
- Ice dams
- Seams where shingles meet flashing, framing, or masonry
- Satellite dishes and antennas
- Ridge vents
Seal around plumbing vents.
Simulate a Rainstorm
Using a water hose, you can systematically test each section of roof to try to find out where the water’s coming from. For the time being, I decided to skip this step. Wet shingles are dangerously slick, and my relationship with the Widowmaker is tentative at best! I’ll come back to this if I need to.
Seal joints on ridge vents.
Armed and Dangerous
Armed with enough roof cement to glue together a warship, my investigation yielded answers that were, as they say, “clear as mud.” I found:
Bent and exposed flashing around the plumbing vent, an easy fix. One down, five to go!
A small hole in a shingle, probably caused by those wicked walnuts. Two accounted for! Moving on.
Here’s where the whole operation took a bad turn. The other leaks weren’t so easy. I crawled all over that roof and found nothing out of place, although I added some sealant under any suspicious shingles just in case.
Finally (it’s always the last place you look) I discovered that the sealant on the ridge vent had completely disintegrated, leaving the seams wide open and many of the nails uncovered. Somebody (not me) had used silicone, which eventually broke down over time.
The ridge vent had become a virtual funnel, which would explain the sudden appearance of so many drips in different places. I sealed that thing like it was the space shuttle!
Patched damaged shingle.
My freshly repaired plumbing vent.
Watching the Skies
Having attacked the roof like a tar-coated ninja, I slowly backed away and am now waiting for confirmation that it worked. We’re forecast to have rain tonight, so I’ll be spending the evening in the attic with a flashlight, daring the roof to spring another leak.
It better not, that’s all I have to say! You’ve heard that saying about a “woman scorned”? Well, that’s nothing compared to the fury of a woman in a freezing attic on a dark night, jockeying buckets like bowling balls.
- How to Find Roof Leaks in Your Home (video)
- How to Repair the Roof on Your Home (video)
- How to Clean and Inspect Your Roof (video)
- Leak-Proof Flashing: Fixing Leaks Around Chimneys (article)