by Will Driscoll
People who sleep in a top-floor bedroom under a black asphalt roof are likely to lose sleep on summer nights due to heat from the roof, with serious health consequences. Technically, the fix is simple—coat every black asphalt roof with a white coating—but progress toward that goal is slow. The answer: a public health law requiring white coating of hot roofs in Richmond and every city with this problem.
The issue: black asphalt roofs get really hot, keeping people from sleeping well, causing dangerous health problems
Black asphalt roofs, which are common on Northeast urban row houses (townhouses), “can reach temperatures of 150°F or more in the summer sun,” reports the U.S. Department of Energy. With or without air conditioning, a roof that hot above your bedroom will radiate heat at you all night long.
And people can’t sleep well when it’s too hot. A research study using data reported by 765,000 people over 10 years found that “increases in nighttime temperatures amplify self-reported nights of insufficient sleep.”
Losing sleep is far worse than a nuisance. “People make cognitive errors that matter when they sleep badly, whether crashing vehicles or making poor decisions in the workplace,” said UC Berkeley professor Solomon Hsiang in response to the study, as reported by Bloomberg. He added, “Students learn poorly when they don’t sleep, and consistent lack of sleep harms people’s health.”
The technically easy solution: white roof coating of asphalt roofs
Any roofing firm can apply an “elastomeric” white roof coating to a black asphalt roof, which can reduce a roof’s temperature on a 90-degree day from 150°F to 95°F. (“Elastomeric” means the coating will stretch with the roof on hot days, and contract with the roof on cold days.) A homeowner who can safely get up on their own roof, with tools and supplies, can also do the job. The cost is modest, since the job is relatively small: clean, patch, prime, and apply the finish coat.
But progress in getting black asphalt roofs coated white is slow. For example, people in Philadelphia have been talking for a decade about this problem, but the Google Maps satellite view of the city shows mostly black roofs, while the roofs that aren’t black are generally gray—a color that provides only about half the cooling benefit of a white roof.
How to persuade landlords to apply white roof coating to black asphalt roofs?
Landlords are under no pressure to apply a white roof coating to their properties to improve their tenants’ health. Cities could institute a public health measure limiting the temperature of bedroom ceilings, and requiring white roof coating if that temperature is exceeded. Such a law could presume that bedroom ceilings below black roofs exceed that temperature in the summer (and gray roofs as well, if data showed that to be the case). Then, if a landlord failed to coat the roof white—or else provide data proving the bedroom ceilings remained cool enough—the city could coat the roof for the landlord and bill the landlord via the property tax bill. (In my town, letting your grass grow tall is considered a public health problem, and if you don’t cut your grass the city will cut it for you, and bill you for the work. So a public health law to prevent sleep deprivation is a no-brainer.)
A precedent, recognizing heat as a public health hazard
A Montgomery County council member in Maryland is calling for a public health measure to require landlords to provide working air conditioning in their apartments. This proposal recognizes that heat is a public health hazard. Even with air conditioning, a hot tar roof over a row house will radiate heat into bedrooms all night long. Cooling the roof will make a dramatic difference in heat exposure.