Nobody wants a roof leak to find out it’s suddenly time to spend thousands of dollars.

The roof is probably the most important reason to remember the word “maintenance,” and that means one of two things: call a roofer for a free inspection and estimate or get up there yourself.

Most flat roofs in this area will last from 20 to 30 years, if they’re maintained.

The trouble areas typically are penetrations (where vent pipes and skylights, for example, come up through the roofing material) and terminations (when there is no parapet and the roofing material extends all the way out to a drip edge).

“And the flashing along parapet walls,” said roofer Hillary McPartlon. “If you get cracks in the stucco, water can get underneath and into the roof deck. It follows gravity until it can get down.”

Gravity is annoying.

“It is,” she agreed. “And it gets so hot here and evaporates water, so it can take a really big storm, or a three-day rain, or a lot of snow melting, for a leak to show up.”

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, get up there, walk around and look for problems, including places where the roofing material has curled away from pipes or skylights or around the canales, and look for cracks.

The flat part of the roof, which roofers call the field, rarely shows problems. “Unless somebody has dropped something big or the satellite-TV guy drilled right into the roof. I’ve seen that,” McPartlon said.

There can also be pecking damage from birds. Cats, and even bobcats, like using gravel-surface roofs as litter boxes. Last year, a Brian McPartlon Roofing crew saw a hole in a canale, and it turned out there was a 3-foot-long beehive inside the parapet.

Gaps and cracks should be filled with the appropriate repair gunk. A traditional patching method is to smear on roofing asphalt with a putty knife, add a layer of fiberglass cloth, then more asphalt.

There are lots of products available. Many of them may not last long under Santa Fe’s strong sunshine.

“Coatings are hugely popular with do-it-yourselfers, but you have to follow the directions explicitly or you’re wasting your time and money,” said Hillary McPartlon’s father, Brian McPartlon.

Even with the best material, the homeowner might miss cracks that an experienced roofer wouldn’t. The elder McPartlon, owner of Brian McPartlon Roofing, said many patch jobs done by his crews will cost around $2,000 for an average house. It will be more if the house is larger or if the previous roofer was careless and there are more problems.

If there are, it’s probably time for a new roof, and that’s probably going to cost at least $15,000.

It is now illegal to put a new roof over the existing roof if there’s pumice under it. Pumice was formerly used to provide insulation and sloping for drainage toward the canales.

“Pumice is a big deal, because it adds so much cost,” he said. “Eldorado was famous for using it, and also downtown Santa Fe.”

He added that the company can do patching on a pumice roof, as long as it doesn’t encompass a whole section.

“If there’s an adobe home, there might be dirt or pumice or both,” his daughter said.

Dirt roofs — packed dirt on top of grass or yucca leaves on latillas on vigas — go back at least 1,200 years. The Spanish adapted the technology from Native Americans. New Mexicans continued to use it well into the 20th century.

The weight of the dirt layer, or torta, keeps adobe walls solidly in place.

“That’s right,” Brian McPartlon said. “Long ago, we tore off a roof on Hillside, for the nice people who owned La Fonda, and the vigas sprung up. That was a horrible mess.”

Working on dirt roofs can turn up all kinds of artifacts. Hillary McPartlon said she feels like an archaeologist sometimes.

“Especially here in Northern New Mexico, with such a difference in the ages of houses. My house in Taos was made with stacked railroad ties covered with mud. We thought it was adobe. Then when we added a pitched roof, we found dirt and newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s.”

Newspaper took the place of the brush in the traditional roof “sandwich” in more modern times.

It is not too unusual to find potsherds when you remove an old dirt roof.

“Brian has found chicken bones and ashes from fireplaces,” Hillary McPartlon said. “Because when people used to add dirt to the roof after rain, they’d take it from the yard.”

Wood shingles were once a popular roofing material.

“Most of the early pitched roofs were made with wood,” Brian McPartlon said. “When I took my roofer’s test to get my license, there were pages about installing wood shingles. When I finished, I asked, ‘What were all those questions? I haven’t done a wood shingle roof since California.’

(He moved to Santa Fe from the San Francisco Bay Area in 1971.)

“And they said, ‘Well, bigmouth, you’re now chair of the committee to change the test.’ ”

He mentioned two buildings with wood-shingle roofs are at 613 Old Santa Fe Trail and 405 Paseo de Peralta. Both have “significant” status in Santa Fe’s historic district.

Brian McPartlon Roofing currently is working with the material down south. They’re reroofing the Silver City Museum, “and because it’s historic, we have to do wood shingle,” Hillary McPartlon said.

She is the company’s CEO. She and her cousin, Matt, the company’s COO and sales manager, are planning to buy the business from Brian McPartlon.

“Also, I’m a third-generation roofer and we have our national roofing-contractor trainer, who’s a field assessor, and his dad has worked for my dad for 30-plus years and I’m basically grooming him to take over for me,” she said.

“It’s generation after generation. Matt’s son is 10 and he’s so tech-savvy, we’re like, OK, we’ll get him to do all of our drone work.”

When will McPartlon use drones for assessments? “We’re getting close,” Brian McPartlon said. “I foresee in the future drone assessments and drone roofing.

“Drones and robots.”

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