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American Family Insurance kicks off 25-year quest to find best home roofing brands

American Family Insurance kicks off 25-year quest to find best home roofing brands

Making residential roofs last longer and leak less is the goal of a first-of-its-kind national study that Madison-based American Family Insurance will help do over the next 25 years in a partnership with researchers at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.

Begun two weeks ago, the study will determine how Midwest weather affects different brands of roofing material, using a dozen small roof structures built on a bare patch of ground at American Family’s 400-acre corporate headquarters on Madison’s Far East Side.

Insurance companies in the country’s other main geographic regions are being recruited to build similar roofing research centers — American Family’s Sandra Spann calls them “roof farms,” from which data, rather than produce, will be “harvested” — with results to be shared with the public, shingle manufacturers and builders in a bid for better roofing materials everywhere.

And though the study of controlled roof aging in various climates will last a quarter-century, researchers won’t have to wait that long to get good information from it, American Family project manager Bill Eberle said.

“Every year that goes by, we’ll know more,” he said.

Located just east of the company’s main building, next to a patch of land used for employee gardens, each 15-square-foot test roof sits on six wooden pillars about four feet off the ground and is topped with a different brand of shingles. Installed along a slope similar to a typical home roof, the shingles are exposed to the elements and wired with sensors to measure the temperature and relative humidity of the roofing layers and a small enclosed attic space under each rooftop.

The data is then correlated with weather information continuously gathered at a nearby, solar-powered weather station, which stores all the information on a memory card that can be removed and plugged into Eberle’s computer to periodically deliver the research to the insurance institute lab in South Carolina.

Eberle hopes to automate the data transmission process using wireless technology in the coming months. Insurance institute scientists will visit the site annually and, once every five years, a pair of shingles from each roof — one panel facing north and the other facing south — will be removed and lab-tested for their capacity to withstand wind uplift and resist different impacts.

Eberle acknowledged that roofing materials, like many other products, already are rated by organizations, including the Underwriters Laboratory, for features such as wind and hail resistance, steadfast color and lifespan.

“But the problem with the existing process is that the testing is done with brand-new materials,” Eberle said. “We know that roofing materials, as they get older, become brittle and don’t hold up as well. But we just don’t know exactly why or when this happens. The intent with this project is to evaluate those test parameters (over time) to really see what the effects of aging are.”

Residential roofing material types being tested include some of the building industry’s most widely used asphalt-composite shingles, such as GAF’s Timberline, and brands from the four other leading manufacturers: CertainTeed, Tamko, Owens Corning and Malarkey, according to IBHS study director Tanya Brown.

For the roofing material study, the research center will monitor data on 36 roof models built on its own South Carolina site — to represent the U.S. Southeast region — as well as collect and collate results from American Family’s Midwest roof testing site and the other test sites to be set up in the country’s Southwest, Northeast and Northwest regions.

American Family sees the roof study as a potential win for both homeowners and their insurance companies, with roof-related claims typically comprising the majority of property losses and damage claims filed annually in the industry, depending on weather conditions and the number of catastrophic storms in a given year.

From 2011 through 2013, American Family reported just over $33 million in material costs for roof-related repairs, including $21 million in storm-prone 2011, when the insurer topped $1 billion in total losses for only the third time in company history, during a year that included a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, that killed more than 160 people and caused widespread residential damage.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if an unbiased organization could help you choose the most resilient types of building materials, such as roofing and siding, when you build or remodel your home?” Eberle said about the potential impact of IBHS’ roofing material tests and other ongoing construction-product studies. “That day is coming.”

American Family, which insures homes, autos, health, farms and businesses in 19 mostly Midwestern states, is the nation’s third-largest mutual property/casualty insurance company, with $19.5 billion in assets and net income of $378.8 million last year, up 5 percent from 2012.

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