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Rubber roofing offers plenty of benefits

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"ll admit it. I do like rubber roofing.

I'm not prepared to say it's sexy, as one fellow editor did about tires years ago—and became the butt of jokes from his peers for that innocent comment. But I do like the product, for a number of reasons.

Since this issue has a significant feature story on roofing, what better time to comment on the subject.

I've been around long enough to see if not the birth of rubber roofing, certainly its early, chaotic years. Rubber roofing had all the elements of a good story: innovation, market potential, brutal competition. For a journalist, heaven.

In the early 1980s roofing membrane, typically EPDM rubber, and Carlisle SynTec were synonymous. Carlisle pretty much created and dominated the market.

A rubber sheet that had significant advantages in installation, performance and cost compared to traditional asphalt flat roofs grew rapidly in popularity in construction.

One oft-cited study by an EPDM supplier forecast roofing membrane would become a $1 billion business in 10 years. And many rubber product companies wanted a piece of that action.

The potential drew in virtually all the tire companies, from Goodyear to General Tire to Uniroyal, at a time when diversification was considered a good thing—although Michelin never bought into that. A variety of other companies joined the fray, from small firms such as Plymouth Rubber to larger concerns like J.P. Stevens.

The most noted entrant, however, was Firestone.

Harvey Firestone once saved his company and set a pattern for the tire industry by unloading tires at a huge discount at the start of a recession. His company continued the practice of price-cutting in the 1980s with roofing membrane, setting off a huge shakeout in the business.

The brutal price competition killed off one player after another, ultimately leaving Carlisle and Firestone to dominant the market.

The business continued to innovate. A variety of other polymers, from Hypalon to PVC, found spots in the market, as did thermoplastic elastomers. Now even the Big 2 offer TPE roofing.

An interesting aspect of roofing today—and the topic of that story in this issue—is the argument that TPO roofing is being oversold as an energy-efficient product, with the government backing or demanding its use in northern climes where a white roof isn't necessarily the right roof.

Ah ... rubber roofing continues to create good copy.

Noga is the editor of Rubber & Plastics News.