Besides "What does a metal roof cost?" we routinely hear questions about which metal roof offers the “best value” or is the “longest lasting.” Another regular question most often takes the form of, “Which lasts longer, steel or copper?” While everyone asks these questions for the right reasons - trying to sort out the myriad of choices in metal roofing - the answers are (unfortunately!) not always unequivocal. Let's dive into this murky topic and clear up a few things.
There are variants of every type of metal, as they can all be alloyed (a term for mixing different types of base metals together to alter characteristics), plated, painted or laminated. Additionally, the thickness of the metal will impact (sometimes dramatically) the price and performance of a metal used as a roof. For example, two different “steel” roofs may be exactly the same profile (or shape), but one could be a “29 gauge” material and the other a “24 gauge.” The thicker roof (in this case the 24 gauge choice) should be more than 60% more expensive just due to the amount of material alone. Add a more expensive finish and a more sophisticated profile and the difference in price could easily be double. And all of these variables are just for the same metal - imagine if we add the variable of multiple metals and multiple alloys of each? How does an outsider know how to compare?
It’s useful to divide the metals commonly used for roofing materials into a few categories so you can get at least get some basic reference points. From most expensive to least, here’s the metal roofing hierarchy:
Understand that there are PLENTY of qualifiers for this list, so it would take little effort from a metal expert to take exception, but for the purposes of comparing commonly available metal roofs of the same thickness, this is a useful scale.
What makes the more expensive metals more desirable is that they have higher corrosion resistance (less likely to “rust’) and a longer life as a result. They also offer a distinctive appearance that cheaper metals can’t replicate. Especially in the case of copper and zinc, these are most often used as bare metals and are reactive with their environment. The famous patina unique to copper gives it an appearance that is just about impossible to replicate with a lesser material.
As you move down the list, you reach steel which has the least corrosion resistance of all of these - but can be painted and plated with other metals (usually an alloy of zinc). This painted or plated layer protects the base steel from exposure - and therefore corrosion - taking advantage of the strength of steel while extending its life by shielding it from moisture. The more sophisticated and thick these protective layers, the more the price of the particular steel rises. However, plated steel (like “Galvanized” steel or “Zincalume” steel) is most often among the least expensive options regardless.
As for price and performance differences, the difference can be dramatic. It’s likely the price difference from a thin steel product to a heavy copper product and be 10:1(!). While that’s a dramatic example, it’s a very possible range. The usual range for the most common choices is usually 3 or 4 to one - still enormous by most standards. Performance wise, the different characteristics of the metal means that the better options will show much longer useful lifespans than the cheaper variants in most applications.
In a desert setting, even a relatively inexpensive metal will have a very long lifespan, outlasting something like a composition roof by a factor of four or five times. The premium options in such a dry climate could last literally centuries, by comparison! As environments become more humid and corrosive (like an ocean coastline), then options like steel become undesirable, and only the best metals (like copper and stainless steel) can perform over the long term.
While all of this can be too much for some to absorb, it does explain why one metal roof might sell for $1 a square foot, and another that looks roughly the same might cost $10. Sometimes, only consulting an experience metal roofing supplier who deals in all the versions of metal is the best way to decide, but understanding why metal roof prices vary at least gives a frame of reference.
If you have a roofing project and you're unsure where to begin, download our FREE re-roofing booklet. It's a comprehensive overview of the most popular roofing materials with charts, diagrams, a formula for pricing and more.