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Sunday, November 02, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Ask the Expert / Darrell Hay
Some thoughts on repairing your cement-asbestos roof

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Q: I have a question about a 1940s-era ranch home with the original cement-asbestos roof. The majority of the roof is in excellent condition, needing only a moss removal. The ridge and hip pieces have separated in many areas, and leak stains can be seen from beneath (the attic) in several areas. It needs repair, obviously. Also, since the roof can't be walked on, the chimney has never been swept; I am concerned with the chimney condition and flashing. What are my options for repair, or am I better off replacing it altogether? It is about 2,000 square feet, a full hip roof design, so what are the costs and problems with removal?

A: Asbestos roofs pose quite the conundrum. Why pay money to remove possibly the best roofing material ever known to man? This roof will outlast any two roofs you replace it with, except maybe slate or clay tile.

Confusion arises between an cement-asbestos roof like what you have and an asbestos-containing roof, which has been "declassified" by regulatory agencies. The tar in asbestos-containing roofing (which can look like typical composition roofing) encapsulates it, preventing the fibers from being released. Cement-asbestos roofing has no tar and will release fibers when disturbed.

Repair to your roof may be possible, but unlikely, due to the lack of roofers willing to tackle the job. Cement-asbestos roofing cannot be walked on, as it is extremely brittle and will shatter with the first footfall. Since they rarely are installed with tarpaper beneath, even the smallest crack will result in a leak. All work, including repair, cleaning, chimney maintenance or simply retrieving a Nerf football, requires a man-lift, a hook-ladder, scaffolding and a Chinook helicopter.

You as a home owner may remove up to 48 square feet of asbestos materials without obtaining a permit. A $25 permit fee (Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, or 206-343-8800) is required for areas larger than 48 square feet.

Again, you can do this work if desired. In all cases, the roofing should be disposed of as a hazardous material. Alternatively, an asbestos-abatement company can remove some, or all, of it for repair or replacement. The thing to be acutely aware of is that a roofing contractor or a general contractor cannot do any asbestos removal/repair work unless appropriately licensed.

Ed Plikaytis with American Environmental Construction says air sampling from past cement-asbestos removal jobs has resulted in extremely low fiber counts in the area. If the individual pieces are kept wet, not dropped to the ground and not broken during removal, little or no fibers are released. Plikaytis estimates removal costs from $2 to $3 per square foot, but possibly higher depending on site conditions.

Removal of the hip and ridge caps and replacement with a complementary material (copper, metal) is an option to consider in lieu of complete removal.

This may allow you to walk up the ridges, retaining the original roofing as needed. Ray Wetherholt, a roofing consultant in Kirkland, suggests plastic shingles for patching in the field where and when cracks develop. Wetherholt and I would caution against the use of problematic fiber-cement shingles that would be a closer match cosmetically.

DEAR READERS: One close encounter with the bizarre is enough to make a person take notice. Two times makes a trend, and three constitutes the need to take serious action!

Well, it happened a third time recently, and I place the blame squarely on, well, Canada, for lack of anything better.

What in the world am I getting so worked up over, you ask?

It's all about programmable digital thermostats and a recently purchased tape measure. Digital thermostats wake you up to a warm house, go off when you go to work, warm it up for you before you get back and turn the heat down at night. These thermostats are great products, undoubtedly saving untold amounts of energy through the years. But they can be abused, and badly.

Let's say you were programming said thermostat. One normally overlooked function allows you to display temperature in Fahrenheit or Celsius. Three times in the past few months, I have walked into someone's house and been greeted by a thermostat proudly displaying the temperature in degrees Celsius. 25 degrees? Hello!!

Then, to add insult to injury, I walked into my local big-box hardware store last weekend to buy a simple 20-foot tape measure. I just about choked when I pulled it out to use it. One edge of the metal tape had brilliant, glowing-red millimeter marks, and the other, just for kicks I suppose, had tiny little inch markings. Oh, gee, how quaint — inches.

The building I was working on had original plans drawn in inches and feet, built of 2-by-4s with 4-by-8-foot pieces of plywood nailed to it, covered with 4-by-12 chunks of drywall (taped with a 12-inch knife, nailed with a 50-pound box of 2-inch nails) all sitting on a foundation poured with yards of concrete in 8-inch-wide foundation walls, 20-foot chunks of 1-inch plumbing pipe and the showers were 36 inches wide, covered with 4-inch tile. So much for simplifying things.

I drove to this building in my ¾-ton truck doing 55 mph behind 215 horsepower and 460 foot/pounds of torque burning fuel measured in gallons and BTUs processed from barrels of oil.

Since there is absolutely nothing measured in a residential building in metric, we can stop the madness, eliminating the damage already occurring in other industries: 2-liter bottles of soda, 170-millimeter skis, 5.9-liter engines, etc.

I plan to sacrifice my new tape measure at the shrine of the English system by dumping it into the 4x6 garbage bin out back. Goodbye and good riddance, you imposter!

Darrell Hay answers readers' questions. Call 206-464-8514 to record your question, or e-mail Sorry, no personal replies. More columns at

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