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What Is Tar Paper & How Does It Protect My Roof?

Posted July 8, 2016 by Jerry Becker
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Key Takeaways

  • Like roofing felt and roll roofing, tar paper is an underlayment used in roofing and siding construction. It is usually made with fiberglass and fortified with asphalt for strength and water resistance.
  • Tar paper is water-resistant and can provide insulation, promote energy efficiency, and protect against wind, rain, snow, mold growth, and roof deck rot.
  • To maintain tar paper, ensure proper installation, keep the surface clean, regularly inspect for damage and deterioration, make prompt repairs, and apply a protective coating if the manufacturer recommends doing so.
  • Signs of improper tar paper installation include visible deformities, moisture intrusion, poor adhesion, inadequate coverage, and premature deterioration. Depending on the health of the wood below, just the tar paper may need to be updated, or you will need a complete replacement.

Understanding Tar Paper and How it Protects Roofs

Tar paper is a heavy-duty underlayment that usually consists of fiberglass and asphalt. For centuries, tar paper has been used to fortify roofs and siding on homes, keeping them waterproof, insulated, and energy efficient. It also protects houses from natural forces like wind, rain, and fungi growth.

When installed correctly and properly maintained, tar paper can last decades, supporting the longevity of your home. To get the most out of your tar paper, ensure proper installation, keep it debris-free, routinely inspect it, make repairs as needed, and cover it with a protective coating if the manufacturer advises.

If you notice improper tar paper installation, such as visible defects, water leaks, and poor adherence, consult a trusted roofing company and have them survey your roof’s underlayment. Depending on the condition of the wood underneath, you might only need to replace the tar paper, or you might need quotes for a full replacement.

Tar Paper Composition and Structure

Tar paper has evolved since its inception in the 1800s. As its name suggests, it initially took the form of paper covered in tar, but this design had problems—sometimes, the paper would rip or start to rot if water penetrated the asphalt coating. To combat this, most contemporary tar paper forms are made of a blend of fiberglass and asphalt.

Present-day technology has allowed us to hone the design of tar paper and develop several different types. The following three forms of underlayment are commonly seen in the construction of roofs.

1. Asphalt-Saturated Felt

Black felt paper soaked in asphalt is one of the most popular underlayments in steep-slope residential settings. Fiberglass or organic, cellulose-based substrate can be used to make this type of felt underlayment, though organic substrate is more prevalent. This type of tar paper is water-resistant but is not 100% waterproof. It comes in 15 lb. and 30 lb. sizes, allowing you to pick a thickness that meets your home’s needs.

2. Synthetic Roofing Underlayment

Polypropylene or polyethylene are often used to make synthetic underlayments that are not bitumen-based. These same materials can be found in everyday products like some food storage containers or undergarments. Most synthetic roofing underlayments are lightweight and durable. Plus, they can include anti-skid qualities and a resistance to UV rays. Considering they are moisture-resistant, they usually stay wrinkle-free and combat the formation of fungi.

3. Rubberized Asphalt Membrane

Underlayment can also be created from a group of rubber-like materials called “rubberized asphalt.” This type of underlayment is usually self-adhering because it features adhesive shielded by a peel-off barrier on one side. These underlayments are flexible and self-sealing so they can be easily secured around fasteners like nails and staples. Plus, some versions can withstand temperatures up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, making them great for metal roofs in hot climates.

Without the proper expertise, figuring out which type of tar paper your house has or needs installed can be challenging. Have a highly qualified roofing company inspect your roof to see how you can get the most benefits from tar paper.

Tar Paper Function and Benefits

Tar paper serves several functions and offers helpful advantages. The following features of tar paper can help you keep your home safe and long-lasting.

Water Resistance

Many people wonder, “Is tar paper waterproof?” Not all types of roofing tar paper are 100% waterproof, but they are usually water resistant. Still, tar paper works as a barrier against moisture intrusion, offering an additional layer of defense between roofing materials like shingles and the supporting framework like plywood. Its water-resistant nature minimizes leaks and protects the roof deck from water damage.

Insulation and Energy Efficiency

Although most tar paper is vapor-permeable, many forms offer thermal and UV resistance, keeping extreme outside temperatures from penetrating through your roof. By using tar paper to supplement other forms of insulation, you can promote energy efficiency and reduce cooling expenses.

Weather Protection

Tar paper can mitigate the adverse effects of wind, rain, and snow. When appropriately installed without gaps, it can prolong the roofing system’s life. Thanks to its moisture resistance and durability, tar paper adds an extra line of defense against damage brought on by extreme weather.

Protection Against Fungi

Fungi, like mold, can eat away at organic building materials, such as wood joists or cellulose insulation. However, fungi require moisture to survive, just like all living things. So, water-resistant tar paper can prevent mold from building up on your roof. It can also impede the growth of other harmful forms of fungi, like xylophagous fungus, which causes wood rot.

Tar paper can offer many benefits, but maintaining it is essential to preserving its helpful properties. If you neglect maintenance, tar paper can prematurely deteriorate and leave your roof vulnerable.

Tar Paper Maintenance and Lifespan

If installed and maintained correctly, roofing tar paper can last over 20 years. Proper maintenance is critical to getting the most out of your tar paper. Some examples of helpful practices to prolong the life of your tar paper are:

  • Use reliable roofing specialists to ensure correct installation without openings.
  • Check for damage often and fix it quickly.
  • Keep the surface tidy and debris-free.
  • Put on a protective coating if the manufacturer advises it.
  • Keep an eye out for any indications of wear and replace as necessary.

Your tar paper will naturally deteriorate over time, but taking the above initiatives will extend its lifespan. Still, periodically look for signs of deterioration, such as warping, tears, or detaching adhesive. If you notice that your tar paper is breaking down, contact roofing professionals to have it fixed so that it doesn’t lead to water damage or other costly repairs.

What To Do If Your Tar Paper Was Installed Incorrectly

Unfortunately, inexperienced contractors may improperly install tar paper, voiding some of its benefits and making your property more vulnerable to damage from external forces like stormy weather. Search for signs of improper tar paper installation and have it fixed as needed. 

How to Check for Proper Tar Paper Installation

If you know what you are looking for, you can search for signs of improper tar paper installation and have them fixed before more problems arise. Some examples of potential indicators that your tar paper was installed incorrectly are:

  • Rips, cracks, or creases in the tar paper
  • Water leaks or moisture getting into the attic
  • Inadequate adherence to the surface beneath the tar paper
  • Insufficient coverage 
  • Incorrect sheet overlap
  • Premature material degradation

Some of the above signs may not be visible to the naked eye, especially without going on top of the roof to check. DIY roof inspections are dangerous and should be avoided. Instead, consult a well-educated roofing company—they can survey your property, quickly diagnose the issue, and present solutions.

Next Steps After Suspecting Tar Paper Was Installed Improperly

If you suspect that your tar paper was placed on your roof wrong, you should have it repaired as soon as possible to minimize further problems. However, the following steps depend on the condition of the wood below the tar paper. 

If the wood is solid and sound, adept roofing specialists can lift the existing shingles and simply install new tar paper. Solely replacing the tar paper is usually a relatively low-cost repair. 

However, if the wood has rotted, then you will likely have to get quotes for a complete roof replacement, which can be more expensive. Still, it is essential to prevent further structural damage to your home—the longer water damage sits, the higher your risk for mold growth and other problems.

Schedule A Well-Care Checkup With Roof Life

If properly installed and maintained, tar paper can protect your home’s wooden framework from the harmful effects of nature, keeping water, wind, and fungi at bay. It can also support your home’s insulation, making it easier to achieve energy efficiency.

Still, if tar paper is poorly installed, it can negate the material’s benefits. If you suspect improper tar paper installation, it is best to consult with an experienced, considerate roofing team like Roof Life of Oregon. We proudly serve the greater Portland, Oregon, area, performing roof inspections and helping countless people like you address their roof-related concerns. 

Contact us today for a free roof inspection. We’ll thoroughly examine your tar paper and other roofing components and provide you with a reasonable estimate for any necessary repairs.

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