Mother Earth News Blogs > Homesteading and Livestock

Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

There's a Freight Train Sliding Off My Roof!

Last night a 747 landed on my roof. Or at least that’s how it sounded. But first, some background.

As we were preparing to move in to our century-old farmhouse (it was built in 1888), we were passing around some photos at a social gathering. Someone at the gathering took one look at the metal roof and said, “You’re going to hate that metal roof!” They suggested that we wouldn’t be able to sleep during rainstorms. Well, turns out we love the metal roof, and nothing sounds nicer than a heavy rain on a metal roof. Especially since the rain is either watering the garden or filling up the pond. I love rain!

When we first came to look at this house, the metal roof was a mess. The green paint was flaking off and there were large patches of rust. The previous owners arranged to have the roof painted, as a condition of the sale, before we moved in. But in no time, the paint was flaking off again and so we knew we needed to do something about it. We didn’t know whether or not we should completely replace the roof or just fix up the existing one. We had a couple of contractors look at it and they both suggested that since it was the original “tin” roof, we shouldn’t replace it. They pointed out how thick the metal is and said that none of the new metal roofs would be anywhere near as thick. They asked if it leaked, and at the time it did not, so they both suggested that it was best to leave it in place and fix it up.

Luckily our neighbor Ken knew of a company that did sandblasting and painting, so we hired them to work on our roof. First they sandblasted off the many layers of old paint and rust and took it right back to the bare metal. Then they sprayed on a layer of epoxy primer, and then a couple of layers of good quality paint. What a difference. Years of crappy paint over crappy paint that just flaked off finally came to an end.

Now the roof looked great, but there was a new problem. The sandblasting process not only removed all of the old layers of paint, but it also removed the many bits and pieces of “roof patch” in all of the various places where old chimney holes had been patched. During the first rain after our new roof paint job we discovered some new leaks in the roof.  But really, when you live in an old house, what’s a rain storm without the musical “drip drip drip” of a leak?

So we began the process of trying to patch up the new leaks. It took a few different tries by a few different people, but finally our friend Greg was able to slap enough patching material on to stop the leak. At least in one spot… we need to ask him back to patch up a new leak in a different part of the roof.

I have always been attracted to metal roofs. There is a feeling of permanence with a metal roof. I can never figure out why country folk, who can usually least afford it, often choose to install a metal roof even though they are more expensive. I think it’s because they last so much longer, and country people have roots. They have permanence. They plan on being around in that home long enough to get their money back.

I often think about some of the realities of peak oil, and these images of decrepit neighborhoods are perhaps a glimpse into the future.

 Check out the roof. The shingles are often one of the first things to deteriorate. Asphalt shingles are going to be the “Achilles heel” of many homeowners in the future. They are made of petroleum products. Lots of petroleum. And they never seem to last as long as the manufacturer suggests they will. On our house in suburbia, the 20-year shingles that we used on our roof started to look kind of ragged after only 10 years. So what happens when oil hits $200/barrel and no one has any money left after buying gas for their vehicle to replace their roof shingles? Or $300/barrel?

I like my metal roof. I will admit though that a metal roof can amplify sounds. Our house is a 1-½ story, which means it has an upper floor, but no attic. So there isn’t much space between my head and the roof. As I sleep in my upstairs bedroom, the angled ceiling is right above my head with just a layer of drywall and insulation between the metal roof and me.

During the winter, snow builds up on our roof. Then eventually we get a warm spell and gravity being what it is, the snow starts sliding down. I think of the theories on what’s causing the rapid deterioration of glaciers in places like Greenland. Many of the glaciers sit on rock, and warm weather creates lakes, which trickle down to the glacier base, lubricating the rocks so that the glaciers can slide off into the ocean more easily.

And so it is at our house. The weather warms up, often accompanied by rain, and the “glaciers” that have formed on our roof, slide downwards. And they do it quickly, without warning. And man, are they loud! They are deafening. When hundreds (thousands?) of pounds of ice and snow go racing down a metal roof it sounds like a freight train is suddenly in my bedroom... for about 5 seconds.

Sometimes it breaks off in smaller chunks and that noise is manageable, but sometimes it all just goes in one fell swoop. I have a theory that the big breakaways tend to happen at night, when I’m in bed, often in a quasi-dream state where my brain can temporarily incorporate the sounds of a 747 jumbo jet crashing into my home like a special effects scene from “Inception.”

Is it enough to get me to move? Nope. Does it scare the crap out of me? Yup. Can I see an upside to it? Well, it’s just life with a metal roof that has a steep pitch. Our guesthouse has a metal roof but it’s not as steep and it’s much newer and has screw heads sticking up, which seems to make it less slippery. The metal roof on the guesthouse never has big avalanches like the roof on the house. But it, like the roof on the house, will be around for decades. I know that the roof on the house has been around for a century. And I like that permanence, because it’s my last house.

Metal roofs are also great because I can tell exactly when Santa has landed. The kids can sleep through it, but I’m a light sleeper so when a sleigh and 8 reindeer land on my roof, I know it’s just about time to get up and check out my loot!

* * * * * * *

Photos by Cam & Michelle Mather. 

Have you read our new book "Little House Off the Grid" yet? For more information about Cam or his books please visit or

michael kratky
2/21/2012 1:12:04 PM

Somethings to think about when it comes to metal roofing: I have have been in construction for 48 years and Professioal Home Inspector here in Northville, New York for the last 20. Metal roofs take a lot of thought; standing seam types are best because they have no exposed fastners as opposed to the screw or nail heads on the corrugated steel types that get pulled out and leak from the sliding ice and snow. Also, any roof penetration suchs as a plumbing vents, metal chimneys, or a an electrical riser will get sheard off if they are too low on the roof. In addition forget rain gutters for the same reason. Don't forget that any lower porch roofs had better be beefed up to handle the additonal weight of the tons of ice and snow off the upper roofs. Another item is all that ice and snow accmulating next to the foundation up to the window sills that will last until July melting into to your basement.

russell morris
2/18/2012 6:53:40 AM

Hi, I live in Australia, and metal (Tin) roofs have been the norm, especially in rural areas almost since white settlement. I have never seen ashfelt shingles used as roofing material in Australia. Many homes have either Concrete or clay tiles too, althought the thinking behind this is a mystery to me. Modern metal roofing materials are VERY DURABLE. They are generally steel galvanized with Zinc or Zinc / Aluminium coatings, and then coated again with a multi coat formula that chemically bonds to the galvanizing, creating an oxidized film that prevents any more rusting, even where it is cut. The factory painted final colours are very resistant to fading, and although the metal is thinner than in the "Old Days" it will probably out perform the old material. While metal roofs are noisy in rain, it is great to listen to it pounding on the roof. I don't understand the desire to be completely disconnected from our natural environment, and seasonal rythms. Rain is something to be rejoiced at!!!!! Especially when you live in the dryest inhabited continent on the planet. Metal roofs are also very good for hot climates. (Much of Austrlia is semi arid, and VERY hot!!!!) The thin metal roof doesn't hold the heat, and cools down very quickly at night, allowing the whole house to cool down too. Tile roofs on the other hand, stor a LOT of heat, and keep radiating that heat into the house long after the sun has gone down. They are Much heavier too, requiring more expensive and stronger roof structures to support them. They also fade, crack, and break!! They are also vulnerable to hail damage, whereas a metal roof will only sustain a very small dent, even from the largest hailstone. One of the most expensive disasters in Australian history was a freak hailstorm in sydney that destroyed the tiles on many thousands of tile roofs in Sydney a few years ago. The hail simply bounced off the metal roofs!!!!! A similar hailstorm here on the Gold Coast also smashed the tile roofs of many hundreds of roofs, and among other things killed ALL the pelicans in the local wildlife sanctuary!!!! Many people replaced metal roofs after that too, but the damage was only cosmetic. They still shed water properly, and didn't leak!!! Thousands of cars had to have nearly every panel and glass window replaced!!!! But the metal roofs all held up!!!! .................... Did I mention that I kind of liked metal roofs????? And just to throw in a couple of quotes..... Always remember, .... Just because you are paranoid, ..... It doesn't mean that everyone isn't out to get you!!!!! Nothing you learn is any weight to carry, so never give up an opportunity to learn something new.

jan steinman
2/17/2012 5:58:20 PM

I would not have sandblasted it. Scrape the minimum needed to take off the really flakey stuff, then use a silver tar on a hot summer day. I grew up in a 150-year-old house with a metal roof that was probably original. We maintained it -- and all the barn roofs, too -- for over 40 years that way. The more layers of hot tar you have on it, the better off you are! And multiple layers reduce the noise factor, as well -- as will an attic full of blown-in insulation.

andrea miller
2/5/2012 3:41:17 PM

We are currently looking for our own older farm house to fix up and my husband and I have had many conversations about tin roofs. I agree that older things are of better quality and I love the idea of not having to re-shingle. The only complaints my husband can come up with against the tin roof is the noise during rain and the rust. I did not know, however, that the rust could be sand blasted off and the roof could look so good afterwards. Since my husband is a heavy sleeper and I don't mind the sound of rain, I will stand my ground for the tin roof and use your pictures as my back up. Thanks for all the info and great pics. Beutiful property!! I hope we have a similar one soon. Susan, thanks for the tip on the gutters!

susan laun
2/5/2012 1:55:41 PM

It's not just metal roofs! Our old slate roof does the same thing, and I can completely vouch for the noise and the shaking of the entire structure. It only takes one winter to learn that gutters must be hung differently with these roofs. When you sight up along the slope of the roof, the outer lip of the gutter MUST be below this line. If it sticks up higher, the first 10-ton load of snow sliding off will take your gutter off with it. This is not the way it's done with asphalt shingles, and most gutter hangers will think you are nuts, but you need to stand your ground... or get them to warranty the installation 100%.