Roofing contractors express skepticism, and some shingle makers seem cautious. Still, the insurance industry has charged forward promoting impact-resistant (IR) shingles to stave off hail damage.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, hail damage accounts for nearly half of home insurance claims in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, and ranks among the most expensive insurance risks in the country as a whole. State Farm reports that eight of the company's 25 highest payouts in history involved significant damage caused by hail, and one of those — a 1992 hailstorm in Fort Worth — racked up $245 million in State Farm claims. This storm ranks fifth among the company's largest payouts, topped only by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the Northridge earthquake of 1994, and the Oakland wildfires of 1991.

Test Standards In 1996, two arms of the insurance industry — the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) — set out to develop a test standard for rating the impact resistance of roofing materials. The result, known as UL 2218, measures the impact damage caused by different-sized steel balls dropped from various heights. The damage, measured by fractures in the shingle mat and the loss of surface granules, is used to classify shingles: Class 1 shingles are the least resistant and Class 4 the most resistant.

The standard, however, has strong critics, reports Mark Graham, associate executive director of the National Roofing Contractors Association. Graham charges the test is “not technically sound,” citing industry critics who think UL 2218 does not account for cooler shingle temperatures likely during hail storms, and that steel balls do not transfer the energy like hail stones. Representatives from several manufacturers echoed the same response. Nevertheless, many top shingle makers have developed products to meet the stringent Class 4 standard, using a softer SBS-modified asphalt to absorb the blow, or a fiberglass mat to distribute the impact load, or a combination of both.

“In general, the thicker the shingle, the more abuse it'll take,” explains Certainteed's Rick Brinton. Certainteed's Class 4 shingles rely on a cross-woven fiberglass scrim, slightly embedded in the heavyweight mat. “In addition to reinforcing the mat, buyers can see it, and know what they're paying for,” says Brinton.

Paying Premiums Cost is clearly the issue. Material costs for IR shingles run 50% to 100% more than for conventional composition shingles. To help offset the higher costs, the Texas Department of Insurance initiated a plan that requires all insurance carriers in the state to offer premium reductions to homeowners opting for impact-resistant roofs. Some major carriers are voluntarily offering premium discounts in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado, as well.

While these measures are intended to promote more resistant homes in hail prone regions, and will presumably help control rising insurance costs by reducing payouts, the effect has been underwhelming. According to Pat Morgan, a roofing contractor in Houston, people aren't buying many IR shingles and he's not pushing them.

“No matter what you do to a composition shingle, it's never going to be a premium roofing material,” Morgan says. “It's what it is — a composition shingle. Before someone pays that much money, I'll recommend metal or concrete tile —materials that are inherently more impact resistant.”

“We don't really sell many Class 4 shingles,” concurs roofer Marc Santos of Colorado Springs. “But hail is a real concern here. I feel I can still offer a roof that stands a good chance of weathering all but the worst hail. I can't guarantee it, but I can sell it.” Santos always relies on heavyweight shingles, stiffer sheathing (5/8-inch preferred), and thinner underlayment (namely, full-coverage peel-and-stick) to get optimum hail resistance. “I always discourage reroofing over shingles, too. The softer the backing, the more the top layer will give way.”