It has been very cold here in Prescott lately, so as your local home inspector I want to share a few tips concerning ice dams.
What’s an ice dam?
An ice dam is a mass of ice that gathers along the lower edge of roof lines in climates with cold winter temperatures and regular snowfall. Severe ice dams can weigh many hundreds of pounds, compromising the structure of the roof eaves. More critically, ice dams can cause melt water to back up under the shingles, where it can flow down and ruin ceiling and wall surfaces. If ignored, ice dams can cause serious damage to your roof, gutters, paint, insulation and interior drywall and other surfaces. On some houses, ice dams are a pervasive and damaging winter roofing problem, but other houses may have no trouble at all. There is no mystery as to why some houses are plagued with ice dams while others are immune: the answers can be found in the attic. Houses with good attic ventilation generally do not experience ice dams, and the physics are quite simple: By circulating cool outside air in the attic space (or in the rafter spaces just below the roof deck), the roof surface remains below freezing and cannot melt the snow on the roof.
In addition to improving attic ventilation, the next best method to lower temperatures against the roof deck is by insulating the ceiling in living spaces below the attic or against the inside surface of the roof. If you have an open attic, this means insulating the floor of the attic. If you have a finished second-story in which a finished ceiling is directly against the roof, this means insulating the rafter spaces (in combination with ventilation baffles). These methods of insulating will prevent heat from rising up to the roof deck and heating it to a point where it can melt snow lying on the roof.
Preventive efforts are best conducted during the spring, summer, or fall, but if you’ve neglected to take these measures and are facing serious ice dams in the winter, there are several options for minimizing or eliminating them:
- Use a roof rake after heavy snowfalls: Ice dams appear quickly after a heavy snow because of the insulating properties of snow. Using a long-handled roof rake to removing the snow from at least at lower 4 feet of roof edge can help prevent ice dams from forming.
- Use calcium chloride or an ice-melt product: If you have an ice dam forming, you can apply an ice melt product to the ice.
- Chip off the ice: Although climbing onto the roof is never advised, you may be able to chip away some of the ice by hand if you can reach the eaves with an extension ladder. It is usually not necessary to remove the entire ice dam, since opening up a channel may be enough to allow additional melt water to flow off the roof.
- Hire a professional: When ice dam buildup is too much for you to handle, the solution is to call in a firm specializing in this service. Some roofing contractors offer this service during the winter when there is little roofing work to do.