Mention snow to school age children, and they jump with excitement. The white stuff often means a day off to play, sled and drink hot chocolate. But mention snow to homeowners—particularly a heavy snow—and you may not get the same enthusiastic response. Snow can wreck havoc on roofs and the interior of the house, especially when water from melting snow refreezes at the edge of the roofline, causing an ice dam.
What is an ice dam?
Ice dams occur because the eaves—the overhangs at the edge of your roof—tend to be colder than the rest of the roof, especially if the roof is letting heat escape due to poor insulation and/or ventilation. As the heat meets the roof, water melts off and slides toward the eaves, where it refreezes. The frozen ice at the eaves creates a dam that prevents water from draining off the roof. The dam continues to grow and icicles form.
How do ice dams cause damage?
While this is happening, the water that’s trapped behind the dam can back up underneath the roof shingles and make its way inside the home. You might not realize your home has water damage until long after the icicles have melted, and the ice dam is gone. Signs of mold, peeling paint and soggy insulation are not always immediately evident.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, ice dams cause millions of dollars in structural damage each year. Water-stained ceilings, dislodged roof shingles and sagging gutters are just a few of the problems ice dams cause. That’s why it’s important to take steps to prevent the problem in the first place.
5 things that need to be done to prevent and eliminate ice dams:
- Clean gutters and clear downspouts. An easy way to keep snow and ice off your roof is to make sure the gutters and downspouts are clear. Gutters need to be free of leaves, needles and other debris so that water flows as needed when the snow melts. This will help prevent the formation of dams and subsequent flooding. When cleaning gutters, be sure your ladder extends at least 3 feet above the roofline, and be careful not to loosen or damage gutters and shingles. Once gutters are clean, installing a system like Gutter Guard can help prevent the accumulation of debris in the future.
- Clear the roof. If you have more than a foot of heavy, wet snow and ice on your roof, be sure to get it off. This can be an arduous job that requires special tools and techniques to prevent damage to the roof. However, if your roof is prone to ice dams, you must reduce the load so the ice-melt doesn’t end up seeping into your house through the roof.
- Insulate. Prior water damage can cause insulation to become soggy, and it will shift into the bottom portion of the walls, leaving the top without insulation. This situation will not get better because the insulation has no way of drying out. Be sure to look at insulation to make sure it hasn’t been compromised. Replace it if it has.
- Ventilate. Poor ventilation in the attic can make it too warm in winter. Attics are supposed to be cold. If they’re not, the roof is too warm, creating a sliding layer of ice-melt under the snow.
- Repair the roof. Fix shingles, replace damaged areas and look for areas where heat is escaping and water is entering. Be sure to inspect your roof every six months.
Icicles—while they’re certainly picturesque—are an indication that something is wrong with your roofing and/or gutter system. Addressing all aspects of these systems is your best bet to avoid costly water damage and other expensive problems.
Getting up on a ladder to clear ice and snow can be dangerous if you aren’t used to it. If you attempt to deal with the ice dams yourself, practice ladder safety and have another person secure the ladder’s base.
If that’s not possible, consider hiring a professional contractor who can not only clear the ice dam, but also evaluate your roof, attic, insulation, gutter soffits and eaves to find out what’s causing the ice dams in the first place.