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The Basics of Shingle Roofs

Asphalt shingles are by far the most prominent roof covering material in the United States, and especially in Chicagoland. With such a large customer base, there are a lot of manufacturers and products, which can sometimes be overwhelming. Below are some of the basic terms and details every homeowner should know before they decide on a new roof.

  • Underlayment: This can refer to either the felt paper or the ice and water barrier that is installed over the roof deck, under the shingles, as an additional layer of protection against the elements.
    • Felt Paper: Felt is made of a base, made from natural materials (such as wood cellulose) or synthetic ones (such as fiberglass or polyester), and then coated or saturated with a protective coating such as bitumen (asphalt), which repels water but still allows the product to breathe. Sometimes also referred to as Tar Paper. Felt paper is not self-sealing, and any nails create possible spots for water to penetrate so it is best installed with staples. There are a number of felt paper options, some even synthetic, but most homeowners can stick with the standard #15 or #30 felt, which indicates the weight and durability of the felt.
    • Ice and Water Barrier: Ice and water barrier, sometimes called ice and water shield, is a rubberized asphalt membrane that helps prevent leaks in ice damming situations. This is usually only installed along the gutter perimeter of the roof and in valleys, areas where snow can accumulate and infiltrate the roof system. Ice and water barrier is a self-sealing membrane, meaning that it seals around any nails that go through it, preventing water penetration. There are a variety of brands on the market and your decision on the specific brand will most likely be based upon a warranty that is offered. Many manufacturers will only offer a full system warranty if their product is used, so keep an eye out for matching materials.
  • Starters: A starter strip of shingles is a specific piece of asphalt shingle that is applied at all roof edges to ensure that the first layer of shingles is adhered properly, preventing wind blow offs. It needs to be nailed down, and has one or two lines of adhesive to help shingles seal properly. Brands are also dependent on the warranty, and as long as you have starters installed, the manufacturers do not vary too much in their quality.
  • Shingles: The most visible, and to some the most important part of the roof system. Asphalt shingles have definitely changed over the last 20 years, with the biggest change being the introduction of architectural shingles which replaced the 3-tab shingle as the industry standard. Architectural shingles are made of essentially 2 layers, a thick fiberglass mat base and a top layer of ceramic-coated granules that are embedded in asphalt, which cause the shingles to be thicker and have more definition. This makes architectural shingles more durable, and more resistant to wind damage and hail damage. Architectural shingles often carry a longer warranty than 3-tab, with most manufacturers offering 30-year or lifetime warranties. Colors may vary between manufacturers, but the quality is pretty uniform, so the decision comes down to the warranty offered, and the aesthetics of the house.
  • Hip and Ridge Shingles: Almost as important as the roof shingles themselves, these specific shingles go on the ridges and hips of your roof. Ridges and hips are the high points of where 2 roof planes meet. In many cases roofers will use 3-tab shingles as the hip and ridge pieces, which is a viable and cost efficient option, while not being the most durable option. We recommend special hip and ridge pieces that are thicker and can withstand being subjected to the winds and elements we experience in Chicago and surrounding areas.
  • Ventilation: The roofing element that is most often undervalued. A properly vented roof will lower heating and cooling bills, prevent ice damming situations, and extend the life of your roof. The options vary between static vents, which can be mushroom or slant back vents, turbine vents, and our personal favorite, the ridge vent. While static vents used to be the most common, the efficiency and appearance of the ridge vent is making it the class leader in the recent years. The ridge vent is installed exactly as the name suggest, along the ridge line. This allows the vent to blend in with the roof, providing a more uniform look, while also being the most efficient exhaust vent. When combined with proper intake ventilation, roof vents exhaust the moisture and excess heat from your attic, ensuring that the roof deck and installed shingles are not deteriorating prematurely.
  • Flashings: Flashings are the necessary roof elements that tie in roof penetrations to the roof and make sure they will not leak. Whether it is a roof meeting a wall, a chimney coming through the roof, or a pipe coming through the roof, all of these need to have the right flashings to prevent water infiltration. Some penetrations, such as bathroom soil stacks or electric masts, have pre-manufactured boots that are installed without any issues by most roofers. Other penetrations, such as chimneys, or intersections of roof to wall, require sheet metal flashings. Different roofers have different methods of installing flashings, but a safe practice is to get a specification of what the flashing material will be and how it will be installed. Our recommendation is to use at least 24 gauge steel with a weather protective coating which will ensure that the flashings will last as long as your new architectural shingle roof will.

These items cover the basics of a roof system assembly. There are of course many more elements that go into each section, but this should allow for a basic understanding of what to look for in a new roof. With underlayments, there are always different options of natural or synthetic. With shingles, you can do more research into designer styles which can mimic the appearance of slate or cedar shake. Even then, different manufacturers have different looks and specifications, so research is always a good thing. Ventilation should always be balanced between intake and exhaust, and different vents might appeal to different tastes. Flashings are often brushed over, but they are a very important part of the roof assembly to keep in mind.

Hopefully these items can help you decide on a new roof, and can make that decision a little bit less stressful. As always, if you have any questions, concerns, or would like us to provide a roof assessment or estimate, feel free to contact the roofing experts at Smart Roofing Inc. at (847) 797-0404 or email us at


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