What is an Ice Dam and How to Prevent It.

It's cold and blustery outside, and much of the nation is under snow cover. And worst of all, this winter weather just doesn't seem to want to give us a break. You look up and notice brown "spots" on your ceiling or on your walls. And it looks for all the world like someone poured ice tea all over the place. You may even have water dripping through a window. Well if there is snow cover, you likely have what is called an "ice dam." And it is a potentially serious problem - it could cost thousands of dollars to repair the interior damage. And while this damage is covered under your homeowners insurance, the frustration and disruption of your home and life is not.

So what is an ice dam and what causes it? In simple terms, an ice dam is a phenomenon that results when differentiations in temperature allow some of the snow or ice cover on your roof to melt, but allow other areas to remain frozen. So you have melt water that can't run off of the roof - the ice dam prevents the normal shedding of water. And when this occurs, water will find its way into your home. Roofs are not waterproof - they are water resistant. And this is a very important thing to remember before you get into a fist fight with your roofer. You can have a perfectly installed roof with no shingle defects - nothing wrong - and if water stands long enough on it, it will leak.

Interior water damage from ice damming
Interior water damage from ice damming

So what can I do to prevent an ice dam? There are several relatively inexpensive "improvements" you can perform to you home that may prevent ice damming down the road.

Making certain your attic is properly insulated is probably the most important thing you can do. And again, it all comes back to the temperature differentiation I mentioned earlier. A properly insulated attic will prevent heat from "bleeding" into your attic space. If your attic is maintained at a fairly uniform, "cold" temperature, snow and ice won't melt at different rates, and in theory everything will melt at the same rate and water won't leak into your home. It is also important to make certain your roof is properly ventilated. If you have overhanging soffits at the end of your roof, cold air is allowed to enter through the soffit vents and circulate throughout your attic space. If you don't have soffit vents you likely have gable vents. These are vents at the end of your home and allow air to circulate throughout your attic space. The bottom line is this: you want to keep your attic as cold as possible. This prevents the problem from occurring in the first place, and the old adage about "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" has never been truer.

It's interesting to note that homes with the "old fashioned" two foot soffit overhang don't tend to have problems with ice damming. It's the newer homes with steep and angled roofs without soffit overhangs that suffer the worst from ice damming.

 

What do I do now? It's too late - I already have an ice dam. You may want to remove snow and accumulated ice from your roof. But that is easier said than done. The prospect of climbing on a roof that is snow or ice-covered is appealing to no one. That said, there are contractors who will clear the ice and snow off the roof for you. But a word of caution - standard shovels can damage your roof. It's better to gently "push" the snow off your roof than to shovel it. Another solution is salt, and admittedly this sounds a bit wacky, but it works and is recommended by many professionals. Take a large man's sock or a pair of panty hose and fill it with commercial ice melt or salt. Tie off the open end and throw or place the sock in the area where the ice and snow is located. This will cause the snow and ice to melt and open up the path for water to flow down the roof. And again, this "salt" solution does work and it works quite well so don't dismiss it.

Interior damage, depending on the degree of saturation of the drywall and/or insulation, may require professional remediation. Several national companies such as Serv-Pro and Service Master specialize in the the dry-out process. Ask you insurance carrier - they can recommend a local and competent service provider.

As for the damage to the interior of your home, it may be as simple as applying a shellac-based sealer such as Kilz to your drywall once it has dried-out and repainting the affected areas. If your drywall was saturated, it may have been removed by one of the aforementioned service providers. If this is the case, you will need to hire a contractor to replace the damaged drywall, etc. Again, check with your insurance company - they can recommend a trusted contractor in your area.

The next time you have your roof replaced, ask your roofer about the following product: ice and water shield. This is self-adhesive material that goes on the roof deck before the shingles are applied. It acts and an additional barrier between the water and your home. It is required code in many areas of the country. Unfortunately, due to cost, some roofing contractors may have "skipped" this step when your home was built.

Comments 4 comments

QudsiaP1 profile image

QudsiaP1 5 years ago

I know I love snow but I never thought it can be that problematic. Thank you so much for the information.


DTR0005 profile image

DTR0005 5 years ago from Midwest Author

Well you probably don't get snow like this in Pakistan - except maybe high up in the mountains. But around here, it happens quite often. Thanks for reading Qudsia and commenting.


Fay Paxton 5 years ago

Thanks for this very informative article. So far I've been really lucky...no leaks yet. I'd say I'm more concerned about those mean icicles hanging from the downspouts.


livelonger profile image

livelonger 5 years ago from San Francisco

Fascinating - and understandable, after you explained it. Very useful advice for millions of homeowners!

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