Ice Dams Can Cause Big Damage

Ice dams--frozen water in a home's gutters--may seem of little concern, but they can cause plenty of damage.

Spend a little bit of time in an area with cold winters, and you'll quickly learn that certain weather-related conditions can take a serious toll on your home. Blizzards, power outages, sleet and sub-zero temperatures can""and often do""wreak havoc.

There's another cold weather problem that also causes plenty of damage, but doesn't get too much press--ice dams, or frozen water in a home's gutters.

Ice dams may not be as ominous as a blizzard or as threatening as hail the size of golf balls, but don't be fooled; they can destroy gutters, rip roofs, sabotage shingles and cause walls and ceilings to fall apart.

Homeowners would be wise to take precaution.

The bad news is that it doesn't take much for ice dams to form. Only two conditions really need to be present: heavy snowfall and about a week of freezing temperatures.

Ice dams form when heat moves up from the lower portion of a house, building at the peak of a snow-covered roof. Once the roof is warmed, the snow melts and runs into the gutters. The gutters, however, if still at freezing temperature, cause an ice dam to slowly form as the water moves from top to bottom.

This is bad enough, but bigger--and more expensive--headaches begin when the melted snow begins to pool behind the frozen dam. If this happens, the melted water moves under the shingles and enters the house.

At this point, homeowners may begin to notice peeling paint, water spots and mold on the ceiling and walls.

Not all ice dam-related problems are so obvious, though. For instance, water-soaked wood is a prime feeding and nesting area for insects. Months or years could pass before insect damage begins to appear.

Wet insulation is also a huge problem, because insulation that's been compressed by water doesn't prevent heat loss. This allows more heat to escape through the roof and brings more melted snow to the gutters. And more water in the gutters results in more ice damming and possibly more water in the house.

There is good news for homeowners, though. Ice damming can be almost completely avoided by keeping the roof cold. If you can keep the roof as cold as the outdoor air, you can prevent the ice dams from forming.

The best way to achieve this is to have proper ventilation and effective insulation. An efficient ventilation system draws cold air into roof vents and then moves the air evenly along the entire underside of the roof, ensuring it stays cold. Proper attic insulation minimizes heat loss from your home's living area.

While effective, this solution may require a complete overhaul of your attic and cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

There are other less costly options, but they are likely only temporary solutions.

Removing snow from the roof is one of those options. For about $30, you can buy a long-handled roof rake to help you reach the upper portions of your roof. You could also hire a professional to do this, but that could cost between $100 and $300 each time.

Homeowners may also try laying specially designed electric cables along the edge of the roof, and in the gutters and downspouts to melt the ice dams and create channels for the water to run off the roof. The cables do alleviate some of the problem, but they are costly to operate and usually only melt the small patches of snow around them""not the entire roof.

Other steps you can take to prevent ice dams include thoroughly cleaning all leaves, sticks and debris from your gutters and down spouts. With ice dams, though, it's best to remember that keeping heat from escaping through the roof is the best remedy.

Homeowners who do this may keep steam from coming out their ears when the winter weather rolls in.

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