GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted
Green Building News

Highlighting the Benefits of Light-Colored Roofs

The New York Times and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory spotlight the energy-saving characteristics of cool roofs

A smooth, reflective surface. Resistant to rot, fire, and insects, standing-seam metal roofs feature factory-applied coatings in any of several colors, including white and other light shades.
Image Credit:

One of the oldest, simplest, and least expensive ways to reduce the heat absorbed by a sun-exposed roof or other exterior surface is, as Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently put it, to “make it white.”

As noted in a story about white roofs in Thursday’s New York Times, Chu made that observation during a July 21 appearance on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

True, most of Chu’s chat with the show’s host, Jon Stewart, focused on the merits of the cap-and-trade provisions of the American Clean Energy and Security Act. But near the end of the conversation, Chu briefly discussed the energy-saving potential of white roofs (and white roads). And the topic seemed to strike a chord with folks who heard Chu’s remarks: almost all of the viewers who posted comments on The Daily Show Web page featuring the Chu segment focused on the benefits of white roofs and roads.

Chu’s comments were timely. A draft presentation on the subject was released on Wednesday by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in a document titled “Cool Roof Q&A.”

A primer on roof color

The Q&A offers both consumer-oriented information and technical descriptions of the ways roofing materials and their color affect their “radiative” properties – their ability to reflect solar radiation (on a scale of 0 to 1) and emit thermal radiation (on a scale of 0 to 1) – when exposed to sunlight. The coolness rating of a material, known as its solar reflective index, is often compared to that of a reference black roof, which is assigned an SRI of 0, and that of a reference white roof, whose SRI is 100. That doesn’t rule out the possibility, however, that some materials may earn index values above or below the references.

The Q&A cites as an example a roof with a clean, smooth bright white surface that reflects about 85% of incident sunlight (giving it a reflective, or “R,” value of 0.85) and emits thermal radiation with 90% efficiency (giving it an emittance, or “E,” value of 0.90). This surface, the document explains, has an SRI of 107 and will be only 9°F warmer than the outside air on a typical summer afternoon. Meanwhile, the surface of a standard gray roof that has the same emittance value but reflects only about 20% of incident sunlight (R = 0.20, E = 0.90) would have an SRI of just 19 and a surface temperature elevation (surface temperature minus outside air temperature) of 69°F.

Rosenfeld’s big picture

The document does note that exposure to weather over a three-year period typically does not change the thermal emittance but does reduce the reflectance of a low-sloped bright white roof to about 65%, pushing its SRI down to 79. After similar exposure, the reflectance and thermal emittance of a standard gray roof remain unchanged – but so does the roof’s relatively poor SRI.

California Energy Commission member Arthur Rosenfeld, who, the Times notes, is one of Secretary Chu’s heroes and a longtime advocate of cool roofs, recently wrote an opinion piece for the Huffington Post that cited one of his favorite illustrations of cool-roof efficiency.

“From a global perspective,” Rosenfeld wrote, “replacing dark roofs with cool ones would be equivalent to taking half the world’s cars – 300 million vehicles – off the road for 20 years, or reducing 24 billion tons of CO2 emissions for the same period.”


  1. BudH | | #1

    Cool Roof Cleaning
    I have a 300K sf building with a cool roof that is about 3 years old. The roof isnt as white as it used to be. I have a proposal to clean the roof, but need to supply an estimate on payback savings. Does anyone have any idea how I can determine this?

  2. Roy Brophy | | #2

    Proper Roof Venting
    Proper roof venting is an important part of a cool roof. I use window screen and battening at the soffit and a continuous ridge venting. There are low profile ridge vents that work quite well. I consider 1 sq. ft of venting per liner ft. at ridge and soffit a minimum. Keeping a tight seal at screen edges is important or wasps and bees will move in.

Log in or create an account to post a comment.



Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |