It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

The fury of the flood.

Language presents puzzling paradoxes. A statement like, “It’s raining” is, in many ways, totally inadequate. Rain covers everything from a short shower to storms so strong they change people’s lives forever. The simple noun belies a broad breadth of weather with the simple common denominator of precipitation. Not surprisingly, English has an almost endless array of idioms and names to differentiate between all the different rains and their results: “It’s raining to beat the band”, “Gully Washer”, “Rained out”, “Raining Pitchforks” (that’s a fun one), and, of course, “It’s raining cats and dogs”.

The origin of the phase: “It’s raining cats and dogs” is hotly contested – almost certainly by distracted graduate students.

A popular explanation of the famous phrase, that has been swirling through the eddies of the internet since the late 90s, rests on the idea that animals nesting in the thatched roofs of Medieval and Early Modern Europe would get washed out during especially dismal downpours. Cats, could be. Dogs, doubtful. If the saying were: “It’s raining birds, mice, and fleas”, it would be more plausible.

A more mythological explanation stretches back to Norse Mythology. Odin, the god of storms, was often depicted with wolves as symbols of windy weather. Likewise, witches and their cats were said to rides the skies during turbulent torrents of rain. Through this imagery, dogs are the wind and cats the rain. This has a nice Halloween / Wagnerian appeal to it, but the etymological record militates against any definitive argument.[1]

Odin’s Storm-bringer?

The best explanation I have read is the least palatable. Streets, from Middle Ages through the 19th century, were pretty gross places: trash and chamber pots (proto-toilets sans actual plumbing) were emptied into it, draft animals did their business there, and it wasn’t unusual to come across a dead animal or two. When the streets flooded, all the muck and mess, perished pets included, would float past houses in a pestilent parade. In extreme circumstances, I imagine this cavalcade of carnage was pretty memorable.

The Problem:

A few weeks ago, after an especially angry thunderstorm, Caroline got a surprise when she stepped into a puddle at the bottom of the stairs in the office. I have to admit my first thought was not to blame the roof but the dog. For a split second, I unfairly assumed that she had, well, rained. After all, the roof over the office hadn’t leaked before and no obvious water stains on the ceiling had ever shown themselves.[2]

A bit of clean up proved the dog’s innocence. Apologies were made.

Reputations restored, we still had a problem, the roof was leaking – and roofs are not inexpensive. And rightly so, I should add. The labor of installing a roof should not be dismissed lightly. Roofs are a system in their entirety, and it would have been ideal to have the whole office reroofed, but “saving for a rainy day” for many of us is more for things like shoes and school supplies than roofs.

For the next few days, I took a few moments here and there to research, not roofing estimates but materials: shingles, underlayment, flashing, etc. Things began to happen – quickly.

The internet awoke.

The sidebars of the web pages I visited exploded with deals from national roofing companies.

“Enjoy a new roof by Labor Day for only $99 a month!”

“A 50 year roof from ____________, now only $95 a month!”

The more I ignored them, the louder voices from the periphery grew.

“Get a roof guaranteed for life, only “$89 a month! Yes, you’ll be paying this off through your dying breath, but you’ll have a new roof!”

“Our best deal in years! A new roof for an unbelievable price. Pass the debt off to your children’s children. Just sign and be beholden to us!”

Ok. It didn’t get quite that bad, but it was headed in that direction. My favorite was the ad for a Las Vegas based company. Out of curiosity I checked; they don’t service Winchester, Virginia. Somebody’s algorithm is going to time-out for that one.

The fix:

Spurred by my unrepentant yearning for self-reliance and determination not to be herded into some unholy covenant with a national roofing company, I decided to undertake the project myself. After securing permission from Caroline and my mom (super important), Dad and I staged the materials in the garage and waited for a dry weekend.

Below, I outline the steps we took. Note: this is not intended as instruction for how to roof. My purpose is to draw attention to the elements that go into a roof and what to look for when trouble shooting.

When a roof looks like this, it’s leaking. Talented roofers can patch a newer roof with sustainable success, but patching an old roof is just forestalling inevitable replacement. The main leak, as it turned out, was not around a patched area but at the bottom of a steel access ladder that used to hang on the right side of the roof. The plate to which it was attached is in the upper right hand corner.

The old dead roof. Note the plate for the access ladder in the upper right hand corner.

Makeshift patching.

The first task was to thoroughly strip the old shingles and underlayment from the sheathing. This is an obvious step, and a deceptively simple one. It is vitally important to get all the old underlayment and nails off the sheathing. Surface preparation, as in painting, is the key to success. Nettlesome nails that remain can compromise the uniformity of the new roof.[3]

Oh look, the copper flashing at the base of the old tar paper doesn’t overlap the EPDM (rubber roofing) below. Underlayment, like shingles, needs to overlap in a cascading manner.

Poor flashing.

This roof section is unique because it abuts an area of flat roofing. The area where the sidewall of the house, the roof of the office, and the flat roof meet is known as a vulnerable area. This designation gets applied to spots of a roof where poor drainage or narrow valleys can cause leaf debris and snow can get caught.

Not only was this area not draining, but there was a hole in the EPDM. No. A bucket with a hole in the bottom does not a good roof make. To remedy this, ridged insulation was added under the EPDM to create slope.

Creating slope under the rubber roofing.

That old ladder on the roof, which ended about half way down, was acting as a kind of downspout and directing water to a single point. Important to remember: shingle roofs are not water-tight and a large volume of discharge at a single point can cause failure. This is why home inspectors grumble about downspouts that discharge onto roofs instead of into gutters. Point in case: the sheathing at the end of the ladder was rotten.

Rotten sheathing.

Water stains on the roof framing.

The sheathing (wood covering that goes over the framing) on new houses is almost always OSB, Oriented Strand Board. This material is made up of flakes of wood glued together and, for the most part, it gets used like plywood. Houses from the 1930s like ours were often made with full plank (board) sheathing.[4] We actually had some sheathing left from where we’d cut a closet door downstairs and fortuitously it fit perfectly into the gap left after the rotten pieces were removed. The poetry of the recycling almost brought me to tears.[5]

With the roof prepped, the first order of business was to install some proper flashing. The old roof was installed without the benefit of rake-edge flashing and only a hint of sidewall flashing. The purpose of flashing is to ensure that water can’t run back under the shingles.

Flashing? Who needs it?

Ah. Much better.

Flashing in place, we could install the underlayment.[6] In the mid-Atlantic, the first three feet or so is usually a thicker material – sometimes rubberized, sometimes with additional tar – called an ice shield. The lowest 1/3 of a roof is the area most vulnerable to damage from snow and ice, because it is the last to clear and dry after a storm. When snow melts during the day and then freezes again over night, it can wreak havoc on single roofs.

Conventional tar paper is cheaper, but with self-congratulatory eallmægen[7], Dad and I took the ice shield all the way up the roof.

Underlayment installation.

Finally, shingles. For those who limit the time they spend perched atop ladders on roofs, we used a composition shingle. My realtor friends often call these architectural shingles; they are one and the same. Composition shingles have more dimension and texture than a conventional three-tab shingle (this is how you can tell the difference from the ground) and usually have at least twice the life span.[8] They achieve this by being thicker and having keystone looking teeth that channel water down the roof.

Nailing patterns range from four to six nails per full shingle (almost three feet long). We went with a five nail pattern. The winds of Winchester do whip up from time to time, but can also be pretty docile for weeks on end. Composition shingles also get installed in an off-set pattern row by row. The first lead shingle is full, but successive runs begin with pieces that are cut back 6”, 11”, and 17” before returning to a full piece. This is done so that the roof doesn’t have long, vulnerable seams. [9]

At the ridge, special shingles designed for ridges or hips (convex vertical intersections) get installed. Here, a nail or two will be left exposed. It is wise to put a thick dollop of silicone caulking over the nail head.

The new section of roof.

[Dramatic music] A new section of roof. All back-patting aside, it is important to remember that the whole of the roof will still need to be replaced. For all our soreness of back, Dad and I kind of just installed a big patch. For now, though, it will buy Caroline and me enough time to save; and having a sound roof is foundational. No, wait. It is key. No, that analogy is off too. All encompassing? Maybe. Stupid language.


[1] The etymological timeline for this supposition doesn’t work well. The Old Norse term for dog is hundr, cognate with the English word hound. The term dog (Old English, docga) did not displace hound as the popular term until the 16th C. The vast majority of the Old Norse influence on English came between the 8th C. and 11th C. Yet, as far as I know, no: “It’s raining hounds and cats” is attested.

[2] The ceiling had, of course, been painted over before we bought the house. This is important lesson to remember when viewing older homes. New ceiling paint in one or two rooms may be indicative of a quick cover up.

[3] In Virginia, roofers are allowed to install a second layer of shingles over an existing one. This saves money, but often compromises the uniformity of the new roof’s slope which, in turn, can lead to premature failure.

[4] It is not an exact timeline but houses from the late 19th C. through the 1950s general have plank sheathing, plywood is most common from the 1960s through the mid 1990s, and OSB from then on.

[5] Kidding.

[6] For those wondering, the EPDM of the flat roof was reattached as the starter strip under the ice shield.

[7] Old English: All-main, as in “might and main”; full effort or going all out.

[8] Generally speaking, three-tab shingles are designed to last anywhere from 15 years to 25 years. Composition shingles fall within the 30 to 50 year range.

[9] You probably learned this lesson when making Lego walls in elementary school. Off-setting layers made a stronger wall than simple stacking.