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What's to Be Done About Ice Dams?

As the piles of snow retreat and the mercury in the thermometer continues to rise, it appears we may finally be escaping from what will be the worst winter for the formation of ice dams in over a decade.  No doubt each of you has taken more calls for roof leaks in the last three months than you did in the previous three years.  Companies (like ours) that do troubleshooting, snow removal and ice dam steaming quickly had their schedules filled up with requests for inspections, bids and immediate response.  I’m sure many of you were surprised to find out how much companies charged for these services but, what could you do?

Just as a quick sidebar in our defense and the defense of others in the same boat:  we weren’t happy about the severe ice problem either.  While it may seem like some were trying to take advantage of the situation, let me assure you, at the rates our company charges, ice steaming and snow removal are, at best, a break even proposition.  After you factor in the costs of salaries, insurance, equipment and the risk we take sending people up on icy roofs, from a pure business standpoint, it is really not worth it.  The only reason we continue to offer these services is as a courtesy to our clients.  If it was just about the money, we would have been much happier keeping our people on the ground.

I won’t bore you with a scientific explanation of why the ice dams were so bad this year.  Suffice it to say the combination of large, wet snowfalls and fluctuating temperatures took what is an unusual inconvenience and turned it into an epidemic.  In my twelve years in this business I can only remember one other year that even approached the same kind of problems (I believe it was 2004), but even that wasn’t nearly as bad.

I guess that lapse of time would be the good news.  In theory we could go another decade before we saw these conditions again, but there is no guaranty.  Next winter could be even worse.  The next five years could bring more of the same.  The best thing for you is to do what you can to prevent ice dams before next winter.

Most ice dams start inside the home as a result of heat loss through the attic.  The most effective way for properties to address ice dam issues is to have a qualified insulation company come in and make a review of the attic spaces.  There are three basic things that need to be checked:

  • Is there a proper amount of insulation in the attic?
  • Are the pipes and ducts sealed where they penetrate into the attic space?
  • Is the attic ventilation system functioning properly?  Are the soffit vents clear and allowing the intake of cool, dry air?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’ then correcting these issues will go a long way to preventing ice dams the next time winter rolls around.  Of course there will be costs in making these improvements, but when compared with how much it costs to get a roofing company out with a steamer, it will be money well spent.

If insulation and ventilation seem adequate, but ice dams persist or if the design of the roof makes some or all of the attic incapable of meeting these requirements, then the next step is to consider installing heat cable in the vulnerable areas (usually eavelines, valleys, gutters and downspouts).  As long as the heat cable is kept in good working condition and is turned on for the appropriate interval at the correct times, ice dam issues should be minimized if not eliminated completely.

If, for some reason, heat cable is not feasible for your situation, the only other practical preventative measure that can be taken is to diligently remove the snow from the roof as soon as possible after it falls.  The snow must be removed before the ice dam forms.

Don’t wait until your residents start calling next January, screaming that they have water running down their walls.  Do something now and you can rest easy knowing you won’t have to go through that again and I can rest easy knowing I won’t have to send my Service Technicians up on icy roofs.