What are ice dams?
An ice dam is a ridge of ice that forms at the edge of a roof and prevents melting snow from draining off the roof. Spotting one quickly can help curb the damage to your home.
During periods of freezing and thawing and refreezing, water becomes trapped above the ice and finds its way beneath the shingles causing a leak inside the home. The lower the pitch of the roof, the more likely there is to be this problem.
Ice dams can lift roofing shingles and let water filtrate in. They can also pull gutters off, which can cause structural damage and lead to potential internal flooding. Hanging icicles might indicate ice dam formation.
How ice dam starts
Although ice dams can form on nearly any roof simply due to a particular freeze-thaw cycle of the weather, there can be other causes as well.
Chiefly, poor ventilation and temperature control within the attic can make one house prone to ice dams while neighboring houses are not. This happens because too much warm air in the attic contributes to the snow melt on the roof even if the outdoor temperature is not warm enough to cause it. Blocked by the ice, the water pools up and eventually finds its way beneath the shingles.
Ice buildup also happens if the gutters were poorly cleaned in the fall. A clogged downspout causes melting snow to accumulate in the gutters and refreeze. More ice forms as icicles hanging from the frozen gutters. In addition to the risk of ice dam leaks, the weight of the ice can bring down the gutter or make it sag — causing it to drain poorly even when there is no clog.
Ice dams dos and don'ts
1. Hire a professional. Removing snow and ice dams from a roof is quite dangerous. A good place to start is with a reputable roofing contractor. Check Angie’s List and get estimates and references from contractors in your area. Gutter cleaning companies may also offer this service.
2. Remove snow from the roof. If you’re tackling the job yourself, there is a special tool for removing snow called a “roof rake.” Carefully pull it down the slope of the roofline. Never pull snow across the roof. You could damage the shingles.
3. Chip away at the ice. For immediate action, you can chip away through the ice dam so the water can flow through. Stop when you get close to the roofing.
4. Properly ventilate and insulate the attic. The main cause of ice dams is an overly warm attic.
5. Never walk on a snow-covered roof. Make sure you work from a ladder to access/fix the damage.
6. Do not install mechanical equipment or water heaters in attics. These are a fire hazard. Stick to insulation to help keep heat in your home.
7. Do not use salt or calcium chloride to melt snow off the roof. These chemicals are very corrosive. The runoff of these chemicals can also damage grass and plants.
Ice shields and heated gutters
You can also have an ice shield installed along the lower edge of the roof line. This is relatively inexpensive to do when a new roof is being installed, but much more expensive to add to an existing roof.
Another trend is heating the gutters. If improving the ventilation of your roof to prevent icicle formation isn’t in your budget — or if you've already tended to that and still get ice dams — consider a heated gutter system. You may have seen — or used yourself — heated cables used on roofs to prevent ice buildup. Heated gutters follow the same principle. With a cover to help keep leaves and debris out of your gutter, it’s an all-seasons bonus for this investment.
You will, however, need to hire a separate electrician to do the wiring for the heating element. But the time, energy and worry you’ll save during the winter months could be worth the investment. Large icicles can rip your gutters off, which requires an expensive fix.
Roof snow removal
If you know ice tends to form in a section of the roof, minimize the problem by raking or shoveling snow off the roof before it freezes. Sometimes this can be done from ground level by the homeowner using a special rake made for this purpose. However, it’s not a good idea to climb up on your roof in winter. Instead, hire a highly rated professional to remove heavy snow.
If an ice dam already formed, you can carefully chisel out a furrow to allow the water to escape, but this is risky. Make sure you stop before you reach the shingles or you may cause more damage.
For those who want to go the DIY route, roof salt products that thaw ice are available. However, don't use salt or calcium chloride as both are corrosive and any runoff will damage grass and plants.
Joe Palumbo, owner of Ice Dam Guy, uses a steam machine to remove an ice dam. (Photo courtesy of Ice Dam Guys)
Cost to remove snow and ice dams
Expect to pay between $60 and $180 for a suitable roof rake, depending on the type you use. Choose one with small rollers, bumpers or wheels near the blade to keep it from scraping the granules off the roof shingles. The granules help the shingles resist fire and protect the roof from UV rays.
Prices vary by location for heat cables. However, a 100-feet cable from a home improvement store starts at about $75 and $22 a linear foot if installed by a professional. The price doesn’t’ include the cost to install a dedicated GFCI outlet or the electricity to power the cable.
If you hire a professional, prices range from $175 to $250 an hour. Contractors say the clock start the moment they arrive at your home.
Hiring a professional ice dam, snow remover
Removing snow and ice dams from a roof is quite dangerous. Hire someone who has experience and can prove it with photos and references. Check Angie’s List and get estimates and references from contractors in your area.
In regions prone to heavy snowfall, there are some company whose only service is removing snow and ice dams from roofs. In other areas, contact roofing and gutter cleaning companies provide this service. A reputable contractor should be able to find the source of the ice dam and propose a solution. Otherwise, you can find yourself shelling out hundreds of dollars each winter when snow accumulates and ice dams forms.
Before the contractor arrives at your home, ask specifically about their experience removing snow and ice dams from a roof. Ask about the equipment they use. You don't want your roof damaged by their work. Also, ask them to provide proof of insurance that protects you from liability.