Building Science

Retrofit Single Ply Roof Systems: Physical Testing

By James R Kirby

August 03, 2020

Sunest on a Retrofit Single Ply Roof System

In part 1, Retrofit Single Ply Roof Systems: An Assessment of Wind Resistance, we provided information about the following:

  • Four (4) methods to re-cover a metal panel roof
  • The many options for attaching a single-ply system to a metal panel roof
  • An example calculation for wind uplift design pressures and appropriate fastener patterns that provide the necessary resistance capacity
  • Industry concerns about wind uplift when not attaching the retrofit single-ply system into every purlin

In this blog, we will discuss and analyze the four full-scale physical tests that were performed to determine their wind-uplift capacity.

Physical Testing

There have been no publically available validation studies or data supporting any particular approach to the installation of retrofit single-ply roof systems (RSPRS). Non-validated attachment methods could result in failures during wind events. Therefore, the objective of GAF's physical testing program was to determine the wind-uplift resistance of RSPRS fastened directly into purlins. A variety of fastening patterns and fastener densities were tested in order to provide a better understanding of the effect of wind loads on these systems. The physical testing was performed at the Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Department of the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, MO (MS&T).

Test Roof Construction

Four full-scale test roofs were constructed and tested in a 10 ft. wide x 20 ft. long chamber. The test roofs were installed by Missouri Builder Services, Jefferson City, MO, with oversight by GAF. After the test roofs were constructed, the MS&T research team instrumented the assemblies for data collection.

test roof construction

The four test roofs consisted of 24 in. wide, 24-gauge structural metal roof panels attached to 16-gauge Z-purlins with concealed expansion clips and purlin screws. The purlins were connected to and supported by horizontal steel channels; the purlin/channel construction was supported by four vertical steel columns. To complete the test specimen, flute fill polyisocyanurate insulation, flat stock polyisocyanurate insulation, and a mechanically attached 60 mil TPO membrane were installed. Prior to membrane installation, the insulation was mechanically attached with minimal fasteners to prevent shifting during the testing. The cross-section shows a graphical representation of the completed RSPRS over the structural metal panel roof system.

test diagram

For Tests #1, #2, and #3, purlin fasteners and 2 3/8 in. barbed fastener plates were used to secure the membrane, simulating a "strapped" installation. The fasteners and plates were not stripped in. For Test #4, purlin fasteners and 3 in. specially-coated induction weld fastener plates were used.

The purlins in all tests were attached to C-channels. This did not allow for data collection at a purlin-to-mainframe connection. When an RSPRS is mechanically attached to every other purlin, the load path is altered significantly. This raises a question about the effect on the wind-uplift capacity of the existing metal building when the load path is altered. More information on that topic can be found here. Therefore, it is recommended to engage a structural engineer when altering the load path of an existing structure.

Results and Discussion

The table shows the ultimate loads achieved, tributary area and load per fastener, as well as fastening method. The term "ultimate load" refers to the point of failure of the roof system during physical testing.

test results

Test #1

The fastening pattern for Test #1 was 5 ft. o.c. fastener rows and 12 in. fastener spacing within the row. Test #1 failed when the membrane ruptured simultaneously at seven fastener locations in the center purlin. The system successfully completed 160.1 psf and then failed as the pressure was being increased to 174.5 psf. The membrane pulled over the five center fastener plate locations in an essentially circular pattern along the outer edges of the fastener plates. The outer two failure locations resulted in L-shaped tearing of the membrane, which was attributed to the boundary conditions of the test chamber. The fastener plates were deformed upward. There were many locations of permanent upward membrane deformation.

test 1

Photo of the outcome of Test #1.

The permanent upward membrane deformation was evident along the edges of the rows of fasteners, as can be seen in the upper row of fasteners in the photo. There was very little permanent upward membrane deformation at the centerline between fasteners within a row. This pattern of deformation leads to the belief that the load within the membrane is being transferred from fastener row to fastener row, and not significantly from fastener to fastener within a row.

Test #2

The fastening pattern for Test #2 was 5 ft. o.c. fastener rows and 24 in. fastener spacing within the row. Test #2 failed when the membrane ruptured simultaneously at the three central fastener locations in the northern quarter-point row of fasteners. The system successfully completed 116.9 psf and then failed as the pressure was being increased to 124.1 psf. The membrane pulled over the three center fastener plate locations within the row. The center rupture was circular at the fastener plate. The outer two ruptures were "D" shaped; the straight-line edges were attributed to the boundary conditions of the test chamber.

test 2d

Photo of the membrane rupture at the center fastener plate location for Test #2.

The tributary area for each fastener for Test #2 was double that of Test #1. This led to the hypothesis that the ultimate load for Test #2 would be one-half of that from Test #1, or 81.4 psf. However, the ultimate load was 119.5 psf, which is approximately 73% of that from Test #1. This is believed to indicate that the membrane transitioned from one-way loading to a more efficient two-way loading.

test 2 diagra

The load was not only distributed across the 5 ft. purlin-to-purlin span (as was the case in Test #1), but was also distributed between fasteners within a row. The uplift loads were pulling on the fastener and fastener plates from all sides (two-way loading) instead of just two sides (one-way loading). During the test, the membrane deflected up approximately 4 in. between fasteners within a row. The loads were more equally distributed within the membrane and around the fastener plate, and therefore, the load per fastener increased from 813.5 lbs. (Test #1) to 1195 lbs. (Test #2).

The membrane resisted the uplift loads in two generalized directions: between fastener rows and between fasteners within a row, which aligns with the machine direction (MD) and cross-machine direction (XMD) reinforcement yarns within the membrane, respectively. The membrane had permanent upward deformation between rows and between fasteners within a row because of this two-directional loading. The permanent upward membrane deformation was circular around fasteners.

test 3

Test #3

The fastening pattern for Test #3 was 5 ft. o.c. fastener rows and 36 in. fastener spacing within the row; fasteners were staggered row to row. Test #3 failed when the membrane ruptured at a single fastener location in the southern quarter-point row of fasteners. The system successfully completed 59.3 psf and then failed as the pressure was being increased to 66.5 psf. The membrane pulled over the center-most fastener plate within the row (at the red circle).

test 3

The photo shows a close up of the failure location for Test #3. The failure was "D" shaped, similar to failure locations in Test #2. The flat edge was on the boundary edge of the test roofs; the rounded edge is towards the center of the test roof.

test 3

Similar to Test #2, there was circular upward permanent membrane deformation at fastener locations for Test #3 as shown in Figure 10. This shows that the membrane is being loaded in the MD and XMD. This is due to the relatively wide spacing of the fasteners (2 ft. and 3 ft.) relative to Test #1, which had 1 ft. spacing of fasteners within a row.

The tributary area for each fastener for Test #3 was 50% greater than Test #2. This led to the hypothesis that the ultimate load would be 2/3 of Test #2, or about 79.7 psf. However, the ultimate load was 61.9 psf which is approximately 52% of that from Test #2.

Comparing Test #3 to Test #1, traditional assumptions based on tributary area would lead to an expected ultimate load for Test #3 to be 1/3 of Test #1. The ultimate load from Test #1 was 162.7 psf, so the expected ultimate load for Test #3 was 54.2 psf. The actual ultimate load for Test #3 was 61.9 psf which is approximately 38% of that from Test #1.

While two-direction membrane loading appears to increase the expected ultimate load of a roof system relative to the traditional linear expectation of failure load, it appears there is a limit to this increase. For this series of tests, the limit seems to be 5 ft. o.c. for fastener rows with 24 in. fastener spacing within each row.

Test #4

The fastening pattern for Test #4 was 5 ft. o.c. fastener rows and 24 in. fastener spacing within the row; fasteners were staggered row to row and induction welded. Test #4 failed in two locations—a fastener plate pulled over the fastener head and the membrane separated at the reinforcement layer at the adjacent welded fastener plate. The system successfully completed 59.3 psf and then failed as the pressure was being increased to 66.5 psf. The failures occurred in the southern quarter-point row of fasteners. The photo shows the 2 failure locations for Test #4.

test 4

Test #4 used induction welded fasteners, which means the fastener plates were under the membrane. Therefore, the membrane was cut in order to evaluate each failure.

Based on audible observation at the time of failure, the two failures occurred "simultaneously." It was difficult to determine from visual examination which occurred first: the fastener plate pulling over the fastener head or the delamination of the membrane at the fastener plate.

Test #4 and Test #2 have the same tributary area per fastener location—10 square feet. However, Test #2 achieved a 119.5 psf ultimate load and Test #4 achieved a 64.8 psf ultimate load. All components were identical for both test roofs except for the fastener/plate combination and that Test #4's fasteners were staggered row-to-row.

The above-membrane fastener (e.g., an in-seam fastener) is 2 3/8 in. in diameter. An induction welded fastener plate is 3 in. in diameter and is constructed such that a raised 'ring' surface adheres to the membrane, not the entire fastener plate.

test 4 plates

The area of a standard 2 3/8 in. above-membrane fastener plate is approximately 4.4 square inches. The area of the attachment surface for an induction welded fastener plate is approximately 3.3 square inches. Therefore, an induction welded fastener plate has approximately 75% of the surface area of a traditional mechanically attached fastener plate to restrain the membrane.

Individual fastener load for Test #2 (with the same tributary area as Test # 4) was 1195 lbs. Direct extrapolation to the induction welded fastener plate (at 75%) leads to the predicted value of the fastener load for Test #4 to be 896 lbs. This prediction assumes the reinforcement is the weak link, but the test clearly shows the cap-to-core connection to be the weak link, and therefore, it makes sense that the failure load per fastener for Test #4 was less than 896 lbs. In fact, it was 648 lbs per fastener.

The analysis of these two different types of fastening methods and failure modes supports the result that Test #4 has lower wind uplift resistance than Test #2 even though the tributary area for each fastener is the same for Tests #2 and #4.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Review and analysis of the four full-scale physical tests of retrofit single-ply roof systems installed over structural metal panel roof systems resulted in a number of conclusions. They are as follows:

  • Uplift resistance of RSPRS and individual fastener loads in an RSPRS are based on the membrane's reinforcement strength and one-directional versus two-directional loading of reinforcement.
  • Reducing the overall fastener density increases the tributary area for each fastener. As expected, the ultimate load is reduced with larger tributary areas.
  • Two-directional membrane loading increases the expected ultimate load of a roof system relative to linear extrapolation based on fastener tributary area. However, it appears there is a limit to this expected increase. For this series of tests, the ultimate load exceeded expectations for the Test #2 fastening pattern, but the ultimate load was more in line with traditional linearly extrapolated expectations for the Test #3 fastening pattern.

    • This work emphasizes the limitations of extrapolation and validates the use of physical testing to determine uplift resistance of roof systems.

  • Permanent deformation of the membrane was observed in all four physical tests at the end of testing and was not seen to be a water-tightness issue. The test procedure performed did not determine what pressure during the test cycling the membrane deformation began. This observation may provide an explanation for "wrinkles" observed in mechanically attached membranes that have experienced high wind events.

For additional information about this topic, here is the GAF paper that was presented at the 2020 IIBEC Convention and Trade Show, and here is a webinar presented in early 2020.

About the Author

James R. Kirby, AIA, is a GAF building and roofing science architect. Jim has a Masters of Architectural Structures and is a licensed architect. He has over 25 years of experience in the roofing industry covering low-slope roof systems, steep-slope roof systems, metal panel roof systems, spray polyurethane foam roof systems, vegetative roof coverings, and rooftop photovoltaics. He understands the effects of heat, air, and moisture movement through a roof system. Jim presents building and roofing science information to architects, consultants and building owners, and writes articles and blogs for building owners and facility managers, and the roofing industry. Kirby is a member of AIA, ASTM, ICC, MRCA, NRCA, RCI, and the USGBC.

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Thermal Bridging Through Roof Fasteners: Why the Industry Should Take Note

What is going on here?No, this roof does not have measles, it has a problem with thermal bridging through the roof fasteners holding its components in place, and this problem is not one to be ignored.As building construction evolves, you'd think these tiny breaches through the insulating layers of the assembly, known as point thermal bridges, would matter less and less. But, as it happens, the reverse is true! The tighter and better-insulated a building, the bigger the difference all of the weak points, in its thermal enclosure, make. A range of codes and standards are beginning to address this problem, though it's important to note that there is often a time lag between development of codes and their widespread adoption.What Is the Industry Doing About It?Long in the business of supporting high-performance building enclosures, Phius (Passive House Institute US) provides a Fastener Correction Calculator along with a way to calculate the effect of linear thermal bridges (think shelf angles, lintels, and so on). By contrast, the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code also addresses thermal bridging, but only considers framing materials to be thermal bridges, and actually pointedly ignores the effects of point loads like fasteners in its definition of continuous insulation: "insulation material that is continuous across all structural members without thermal bridges other than fasteners and service openings" (Section C202). Likewise, The National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings: 2020 addresses thermal bridging of a number of building components, but also explicitly excludes fasteners: "in calculating the overall thermal transmittance of assemblies…fasteners need not be taken into account" (Section Admittedly, point thermal bridges are often excluded because it is challenging to assess them with simple simulation tools.Despite this, researchers have had a hunch for decades that thermal bridging through the multitude of fasteners often used in roofs is in fact significant enough to warrant study. Investigators at the National Bureau of Standards, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Research Council Canada, and consulting firms Morrison Hershfield and Simpson Gumpertz & Heger (SGH), have conducted laboratory and computer simulation studies to analyze the effects of point thermal bridges.Why Pay Attention Now?The problem has been made worse in recent years because changes in wind speeds, design wind pressures, and roof zones as dictated by ASCE 7-16 and 7-22 (see blogs by Jim Kirby and Kristin Westover for more insight), mean that fastener patterns are becoming denser in many cases. This means that there is more metal on average, per square foot of roof, than ever before. More metal means that more heat escapes the building in winter and enters the building in summer. By making our buildings more robust against wind uplift to meet updated standards, we are in effect making them less robust against the negative effects of hot and cold weather conditions.So, how bad is this problem, and what's a roof designer to do about it? A team of researchers at SGH, Virginia Tech, and GAF set out to determine the answer, first by simplifying the problem. Our plan was to develop computer simulations to accurately anticipate the thermal bridging effects of fasteners based on their characteristics and the characteristics of the roof assemblies in which they are used. In other words, we broke the problem down into parts, so we could know how each part affects the problem as a whole. We also wanted to carefully check the assumptions underlying our computer simulation and ensure that our results matched up with what we were finding in the lab. The full paper describing our work was delivered at the 2023 IIBEC Convention and Trade Show, but here are the high points, starting with how we set up the study.First, we began with a simple 4" polyisocyanurate board (ISO), and called it Case A-I.Next, we added a high-density polyisocyanurate cover board (HD ISO), and called that Case A-II.Third, we added galvanized steel deck to the 4" polyiso, and called that Case A-III.Finally, we created the whole sandwich: HD ISO and ISO over steel deck, which was Case A-IV.Note that we did not include a roof membrane, substrate board, air barrier, or vapor retarder in these assemblies, partly to keep it simple, and partly because these components don't typically add much insulation value to a roof assembly.The cases can be considered base cases, as they do not yet contain a fastener. We needed to simulate and physically test these, so we could understand the effect that fasteners have when added to them.We also ran a set of samples, B-I through B-IV, that corresponded with cases A-I through A-IV above, but had one #12 fastener, 6" long, in the center of the 2' x 2' assembly, with a 3" diameter insulation plate. These are depicted below. The fastener penetrated the ISO and steel deck, but not the HD ISO.One visualization of the computer simulation is shown here, for Case B-IV. The stripes of color, or isotherms, show the vulnerability of the assembly at the location of the fastener.What did we find? The results might surprise you.First, it's no surprise that the fastener reduced the R-value of the 2' x 2' sample of ISO alone by 4.2% in the physical sample, and 3.4% in the computer simulation (Case B-I compared to Case A-I).When the HD ISO was added (Cases II), R-value fell by 2.2% and 2.7% for the physical experiment and computer simulation, respectively, when the fastener was added. In other words, adding the fastener still caused a drop in R-value, but that drop was considerably less than when no cover board was used. This proved what we suspected, that the HD ISO had an important protective effect against the thermal bridging caused by the fastener.Next, we found that the steel deck made a big difference as well. In the physical experiment, the air contained in the flutes of the steel deck added to the R-value of the assembly, while the computer simulation did not account for this effect. That's an item that needs to be addressed in the next phase of research. Despite this anomaly, both approaches showed the same thing: steel deck acts like a radiator, exacerbating the effect of the fastener. In the assemblies with just ISO and steel deck (Cases III), adding a fastener resulted in an R-value drop of 11.0% for the physical experiment and 4.6% for the computer simulation compared to the assembly with no fastener.Finally, the assemblies with all the components (HD ISO, ISO and steel deck, a.k.a. Cases IV) showed again that the HD ISO insulated the fastener and reduced its negative impact on the R-value of the overall assembly. The physical experiment had a 6.1% drop (down from 11% with no cover board!) and the computer simulation a 4.2% drop (down from 4.6% with no cover board) in R-value when the fastener was added.What Does This Study Tell Us?The morals of the study just described are these:Roof fasteners have a measurable impact on the R-value of roof insulation.High-density polyisocyanurate cover boards go a long way toward minimizing the thermal impacts of roof fasteners.Steel deck, due to its high conductivity, acts as a radiator, amplifying the thermal bridging effect of fasteners.What Should We Do About It?As for figuring out what to do about it, this study and others first need to be extended to the real world, and that means making assumptions about parameters like the siting of the building, the roof fastener densities required, and the roof assembly type.Several groups have made this leap from looking at point thermal bridges to what they mean for a roof's overall performance. The following example was explored in a paper by Taylor, Willits, Hartwig and Kirby, presented at the RCI, Inc. Building Envelope Technology Symposium in 2018. In that paper, the authors extended computer simulation results from a 2015 paper by Olson, Saldanha, and Hsu to a set of actual roofing scenarios. They found that the installation method has a big impact on the in-service R-value of the roof.They assumed a 15,000-square-foot roof, fastener patterns and densities based on a wind uplift requirement of 120 pounds per square foot, and a design R-value of R-30. In this example, a traditional mechanically attached roof had an in-service R-value of only R-25, which is a 17% loss compared to the design R-value.An induction-welded roof was a slight improvement over the mechanically attached assembly, with an in-service value of only R-26.5 (a 12% loss compared to the design R-value).Adhering instead of fastening the top layer of polyiso resulted in an in-service R-value of R-28.7 (a 4% loss compared to the design R-value).Finally, in their study, an HD polyiso board was used as a mechanically fastened substrate board on top of the steel deck, allowing both layers of continuous polyiso insulation and the roof membrane to be adhered. Doing so resulted in an in-service R-value of R-29.5, representing only a 1.5% loss compared to the design R-value.To operationalize these findings in your own roofing design projects, consider the following approaches:Consider eliminating roof fasteners altogether, or burying them beneath one or more layers of insulation. Multiple studies have shown that placing fastener heads and plates beneath a cover board, or, better yet, beneath one or two layers of staggered insulation, such as GAF's EnergyGuard™ Polyiso Insulation, can dampen the thermal bridging effects of fasteners. Adhering all or some of the layers of a roof assembly minimizes unwanted thermal outcomes.Consider using an insulating cover board, such as GAF's EnergyGuard™ HD or EnergyGuard™ HD Plus Polyiso cover board. 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Building Science

Developing Best Practice Solutions for GAF and Siplast Customers

With any roofing project, there are a number of factors to consider when choosing the right design: sustainability profile, potential risks, overall performance, and more. Our Building and Roofing Science (BRS) team specializes in working with industry professionals to help them enhance their roof designs across all of these areas. Leveraging their building enclosure expertise, our BRS team serves as thought leaders and collaborators, helping design professionals deliver better solutions for their customers."We're a consultant's consultant. Basically, we're a sounding board for them," explains Jennifer Keegan, Director of Building and Roofing Science. Rather than solely providing product specifications and tactical support, the BRS team partners with consultants, specifiers, and architects to provide guidance on designing high-performing roofs that don't just meet code, but evolve their practices and thinking. For example, this might include understanding the science behind properly placed air and vapor retarders.As experts in the field, our BRS team members frequently attend conferences to share their expertise and findings. As Jennifer explains, "Our biggest goal is to help designers make an informed decision." Those decisions might be in a number of areas, including the building science behind roof attachment options, proper placement of air and vapor retarders, and how a roof can contribute to energy efficiency goals.Expanding the BRS TeamOur BRS team is accessible nationwide to look at the overall science of roof assembly and all of the components and best practices that make up a high-performance, low-risk, and energy-efficient roof. Our regional experts are positioned strategically to better serve our customers and the industry as a whole. We have the capacity to work with partners across the country on a more personalized level, providing guidance on roof assembly, membrane type, attachment method, or complicated roof details including consideration of the roof to wall interface.Partnering with the Design Services TeamIn addition to our newly expanded BRS team, GAF also offers support through its Design Services team. This group helps with traditional applications, installations, and system approvals. GAF's Design Services team is a great resource to answer any product questions, help you ensure your project meets applicable code requirements, assess compatibility of products, outline specifications, and assist with wind calculations. By serving as the front line in partnership with our BRS team, the Design Services team can help guide the design community through any phase of a project.GAF's Building and Roofing Science team is the next step for some of those trickier building projects, and can take into consideration air, vapor, and thermal requirements that a designer might be considering for their roof assembly. Through a collaborative process, our BRS team seeks to inspire project teams, as Jennifer explains, "to do it the best way possible."Engaging with the TeamsGAF has the support you need for any of your design and roofing science needs. To request support from the GAF Design Services team, you can email For additional support from our Building and Roofing Science team regarding specialty installations or how a building can be supported by enhanced roof design, contact us at Building and Roofing Science team is always happy to support you as you work through complex jobs. You can also sign up to join their office hours here.

By Authors GAF Roof Views

May 08, 2023

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