Why are we still building black roofs?

by ​Garfield Marks​

We are into construction season and summer and the heat is starting to be an issue. We will have some heat waves and we will notice the “Urban Heat Island Effect”.
The city will seem hotter than the county, but we will also notice differences in temperature between light coloured vehicles and darker coloured vehicles, and even the coolness of a white fence.
During heat waves some of the most vulnerable people are those living on the top floor of a building with a black roof.
My biggest question is why are we still putting black roofs on our buildings? Black roofs do not absorb heat in the winter under a foot of white snow. They absorb heat during the hot days making it hotter.

Let’s start at the beginning, by hitting the Google button.

What is the Heat Island Effect?
The elevated temperature in urban areas as compared to rural, less developed areas is referred to as the urban heat island effect. As cities grow and develop, more buildings and people are added. The process of urban development leads to this phenomenon.

What are the Implications of Heat Islands?
Heat islands are considered a form of local climate change as opposed to global climate change. The effects of heat islands are confined to specific areas, and do not have a larger impact on climate change. Despite being confined to a certain locality, heat islands can still make a significant impact.
Of course, one of the most noticeable impacts on urban dwellers is an increase in hot, summer weather. On particularly clear and hot days, when the heat island effect is at its worst, inhabitants of larger cities will notice hotter and more uncomfortable temperatures. When people are hot, they often crank up their air conditioners. Increases in air conditioning use not only results in more heat being released into the air, this also contributes to air pollution, as more greenhouse gas emissions are discharged. This negatively impacts air quality and can also lead to a surge in urban smog.

How Can We Reduce the Heat Island?
Since the impact of heat islands is mostly negative, scientists and researchers are searching for ways to reduce and reverse the effects. Dark roof surfaces are one of the major culprits of temperature increases. One popular technique for combating the heat island effect is installing green roofs on urban buildings. Green roofs, which are lined with soil and certain types of vegetation, can actually help cities regain some of the cooling and evaporative effects that the natural landscape once provided. As this idea becomes more popular, there is more and more scientific evidence that green roofs can reduce heat in urban areas.
Dark building surfaces that absorb more heat account for some of the rising temperatures in urban areas. One simple method for reducing this effect is to paint buildings with light or white colours that do not absorb nearly as much heat. Some cities are also using paint treatments that reflect light to combat the heat island effect. White, Green or Black Roofs? Berkeley Lab Report compares economic payoffs looking strictly at the economic costs and benefits of three different roof types—black, white and “green” (or vegetated)—Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) researchers have found in a new study that white roofs are the most cost-effective over a 50-year time span. While the high installation cost of green roofs sets them back in economic terms, their environmental and amenity benefits may at least partially mitigate their financial burden.
A new report titled “Economic Comparison of White, Green, and Black Flat Roofs in the United States” by Julian Sproul, Benjamin Mandel, and Arthur Rosenfeld of Berkeley Lab, and Man Pun Wan of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, provides a direct economic comparison of these three roof types. The study will appear in the March 2014 volume of Energy and Buildings and has just been published online. “White roofs win based on the purely economic factors we included, and black roofs should be phased out,” said study co-author Rosenfeld, a Berkeley Lab Distinguished Scientist Emeritus and former Commissioner of the California Energy Commission.
The study analyzes 22 commercial flat roof projects in the United States in which two or more roof types were considered. The researchers conducted a 50-year life cycle cost analysis, assuming a 20-year service life for white and black roofs and a 40-year service life for green roofs.
A green roof, often called vegetated roofs or rooftop gardens, has become an increasingly popular choice for aesthetic and environmental reasons. Rosenfeld acknowledges that their economic analysis does not capture all of the benefits of a green roof. For example rooftop gardens provide storm water management, an appreciable benefit in cities with sewage overflow issues, while helping to cool the roof’s surface as well as the air. Green roofs may also give building occupants the opportunity to enjoy green space where they live or work.
Berkeley Lab Distinguished Scientist Emeritus Art Rosenfeld.
“We leave open the possibility that other factors may make green roofs more attractive or more beneficial options in certain scenarios,” said Mandel, a graduate student researcher at Berkeley Lab. “The relative costs and benefits do vary by circumstance.”
However, unlike white roofs, green roofs do not offset climate change. White roofs are more reflective than green roofs, reflecting roughly three times more sunlight back into the atmosphere and therefore absorbing less sunlight at earth’s surface. By absorbing less sunlight than either green or black roofs, white roofs offset a portion of the warming effect from greenhouse gas emissions.
“Both white and green roofs do a good job at cooling the building and cooling the air in the city, but white roofs are three times more effective at countering climate change than green roofs,” said Rosenfeld.

White roofs are most cost-effective

The costs and benefits difference stack that has the highest net present value shows the roof type that is most cost-effective.
The 50-year life-cycle cost analysis found that even the most inexpensive kind of green roof (with no public access and consisting of only sedum, or prairie grass) costs $7 per square foot more than black roofs over 50 years, while white roofs save $2 per square foot compared to black roofs. In other words, white roofs cost $9 per square foot less than green roofs over 50 years, or $0.30 per square foot each year.
The researchers acknowledge that their data are somewhat sparse but contend that their analysis is valuable in that it is the first to compare the economic costs and energy savings benefits of all three roof types. “When we started the study it wasn’t obvious that white roofs would still be more cost-effective over the long run, taking into account the longer service time of a green roof,” Mandel said.
Furthermore while the economic results are interesting, it also highlights the need to include factors such health and environment in a more comprehensive analysis. “We’ve recognized the limitations of an analysis that’s only economic,” Mandel said. “We would want to include these other factors in any future study.”

Black roofs pose health risk

For example, black roofs pose a major health risk in cities that see high temperatures in the summer. “In Chicago’s July 1995 heat wave a major risk factor in mortality was living on the top floor of a building with a black roof,” Rosenfeld said.
For that reason, he believes this latest study points out the importance of government policymaking. “White doesn’t win out over black by that much in economic terms, so government has a role to ban or phase out the use of black or dark roofs, at least in warm climates, because they pose a large negative health risk,” he said.
Rosenfeld, who started at Berkeley Lab in the 1950s, is often called California’s godfather of energy efficiency for his pioneering work in the area. He was awarded a National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Obama in 2012, one of the nation’s highest honours.
Rosenfeld has been a supporter of solar-reflective “cool” roofs, including white roofs, as a way to reduce energy costs and address global warming. He was the co-author of a 2009 study in which it was estimated that making roofs and pavements around the world more reflective could offset 44 billion tons of CO2 emissions. A later study using a global land surface model found similar results: cool roofs could offset the emissions of roughly 300 million cars for 20 years.
So if black roofs are detrimental to our health, contribute to the issue of Urban Heat Island Effect and costs more, why are we still building black roofs?

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