The Homeowners Guide to Ice Dams: Prevention and Removal

There’s nothing like witnessing the first snowfall of the season. Beautiful white flakes fall from the sky, collecting on the ground to form a large, fluffy blanket. While snowfall can be a wonderful experience, it can also unfortunately cause serious damage to your home if you aren’t taking the proper preventative measures. 

Ice dams, in particular, can lead to mold, rotting, and major leaks since they prevent melting snow and ice from draining properly. Even worse, ice dams can be difficult to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for, leaving you completely blindsided by expensive home repair bills. 

But, don’t worry! Keep reading to understand what an ice dam is along with how to identify, remove, and prevent them. Your home and wallet will thank you. 

What is an Ice Dam?

As heat escapes from your home, it can cause the surface of the roof to be above freezing. So when ice or snow on your roof begins to melt, it follows the downward slope of your roof until it reaches the edge. If the edge of your roof is below freezing, this water will then refreeze and create a little dam. As more and more snow melts, this dam will get bigger and bigger, preventing any runoff water from draining off the roof’s edge. 

Once the dam is big enough, the area of the roof that is below freezing will become completely covered by ice. Eventually, the runoff water won’t be able to freeze anymore and will instead become standing water behind the ice dam. This is where trouble really starts.

Why are Ice Dams a Big Deal?

Standing water on your roof will find its way through cracks and crevices in the shingles and start leaking into your home. Sooner or later, you’ll start to notice the water damage, which can lead to mold, mildew, rotting, and even structural instability. Plus, these ice dams can form in other places around your house, like the gutter systems or around skylights. Yikes!

Most importantly, ice dams can cause water to seep into your attic, soaking your insulation and foundation. This can lower your home’s heat-retaining capacity or even cause structural damage if ignored. This can create a breeding ground for mold, mildew, and rotting. It can also blister the interior and exterior paint.

And that’s not even the end of it. Heavy clusters of ice formations can make your gutters and downspouts fall off or crack and damage your shingles. Eventually, if it becomes too weak, your roof can collapse due to too much heavy ice. 

How to Spot and Remove Ice Dams

Ice dams can be challenging to spot, especially if they’ve been accumulating for a while. In colder climates, fresh snow will continue to fall and cover the ice dams, making them invisible to the naked eye. But, you shouldn’t ignore ice dams just because you can’t see them! Take some extra time and follow the steps below to avoid any long-term damage. 

First, look for any signs of water damage (i.e., stains, paint flaking, etc.) around the ceiling of your home, especially where the ceiling begins to meet the wall. Check your attic for any signs of a leak, like dripping water or stains around the rafters and roofing underlayment. Be sure to take some photos so you can reference the images later. 

If you have a chimney or any skylights, be sure to check around the edge for signs of water damage or leakage. These areas of your ceiling and roof should be fully sealed to prevent water from seeping in and damaging your home. If you see any sign of daylight through the seal, you’ll want to have that resealed as soon as possible. 

Once you’ve done a full inspection, you should be able to pinpoint the spots on your roof that may be forming ice dams. But, how do you get rid of those pesky dams? 

First, try using a snow rake to remove the excess snow on your roof, especially after a heavy snowfall. If you remove enough of the snow from the top of the roof, it won’t melt and travel down to where the ice dams are forming. Be very cautious not to scrape the shingles on your roof, as they can become very brittle during cold temperatures. Always use caution when raking your roof, as it can be slippery from the ice and snow. Rather than standing on your roof for this step, try doing it from the ground or a tall ladder.

The most popular method for ice dam removal is to steam it off. If you have a commercial grade steamer that you’re comfortable using, you might be able to attempt this yourself. However, we would encourage you to call your local roofing company instead. As professionals, they’ll be able to quickly and easily rid your home of any ice dam formations, without the risk and trouble of trying to do it yourself. 

Calcium chloride is another easy way to remove ice dams. This compound can be used to melt ice and encourage the water to flow again. It can be helpful for especially large and stubborn ice dam formations. Don’t use rock salt for this step since it can damage the metal or paint on your home’s exterior. 

Another quick fix is to mount heat cables around the perimeter of the roof and along your gutter systems. Heat will melt the snow and encourage water flow through the proper channels. You shouldn’t leave these on for too long, as it can become an expensive power bill. Instead, just use them as needed. 

If you didn’t notice any signs of ice dams during your inspection, then you might be off the hook. But, don’t let something that isn’t a problem now become a problem later.

Use Precaution and Prevent Ice Dams

Ultimately, the best way to prevent ice dams from ever forming is to keep your roof cold. If the surface of the roof is below freezing, the snow and ice won’t even begin to melt until the entire roof is above freezing, eliminating the possibility of ice dams forming. In a perfect world, the insulation of your home should trap heat inside the main parts of your home rather than allowing it to seep out through the attic and eventually the roof. If your attic’s venting system is functioning properly, your attic should be cold—almost equivalent to the temperature outside. 

If your attic is warm and leaking hot air out through the roof, you might need to increase attic ventilation, upgrade your home’s insulation, or seal any air leaks. You might need a professional to help with one or more of the below suggestions; however, these are long-term solutions that will prevent ice dams from ever forming on your roof, much less causing damage to the interior or exterior of your home. Plus, it will make your space more energy-efficient. It’s not a bad deal!

Here are key steps to take to reduce the chances of ice dams forming along your roof: 

  1. Check Your Insulation
  • Have a contractor come out and inspect your insulation. Your ceiling and/or attic floor might need more insulation to trap hot air in your home and out of the attic. This will also save you money on your heating bills, as you’ll waste less heat!

  1. Increase Ventilation
  • Your ridge and soffit vents are created to keep cold air moving under the roof. Have these vents inspected to ensure air is able to flow properly without restrictions. If not, you might need to have them replaced or repaired.

  1. Cap Your Attic Hatch
  • Your attic hatch should be completely sealed. If not, you might need to add a weather stripping cap to prevent heat from seeping into the attic. This hot air can enter the attic and rise (as hot air does) to the attic ceiling and out through the roof. 

  1. Install Chimney Flashing
  • If you don’t see a metal strip separating your chimney from your home, then hot air is almost definitely escaping, and water could easily start leaking. Use a fire-safe product to seal any gaps and prevent ice dams from forming around your chimney. 

  1. Check Exhaust Systems
  • Your home probably has a few different exhaust ducts in the bathroom, kitchen, or near certain appliances. For ice dam prevention purposes, you’ll want to make sure they aren’t vented to the soffit. 

  1. Caulk and Seal Leaks
  • This one may seem obvious, but it has to be said! Ensure any areas around your home that have gaps are as airtight as humanly possible. You’ll want to double check electrical cables, vent pipes, and satellite dishes. Add some caulk to these areas to eliminate air leaks. 

  1. Maintain Your Roof
  • Cracked and damaged shingles are more susceptible to ice dam problems. You should have your roof inspected by a professional at least once every few years. Plus, you can consider installing a metal roof next time you have work done. This will minimize your risk even further. 

  1. Install an Ice-and-Water Barrier
  • Likewise, installing an ice-and-water barrier on your roof is another effective layer of protection you can add. It’s most cost effective to do this step when you are already having your home roofed. So, keep this in mind when the time comes. 

  1. Check Your Lights
  • Any light fixtures around your ceiling should be fully sealed. If not, heat will surely seep into your attic and out through the roof. You are also risking a house fire. If you haven’t done so already, consider changing your lights to an IC-rated fixture. This will allow your lights to come into direct contact with insulation. 

  1. Check Any Ducts
  • Finally, be sure to check the ductwork around your attic for proper sealing and insulation. This step is especially important if you live in an older home. 

Ultimately, prevention is key here. Ice dams can be quite the pain to deal with once they’ve formed and start to wreak havoc on your home’s exterior and interior. Save yourself time and money by taking a few extra preventative measures. 

Are Ice Dams Covered by My Home Insurance?

Lucky for you, ice dams are covered by most homeowner insurance plans. It is most commonly referred to as accidental damage due to ice, snow, or sleet. However, you should contact your insurance company to double check your plan before making any assumptions. 

Overall, ice dams may seem like a minor inconvenience. However, the truth is, they are no joke. These little barriers are hardly noticeable, but they can lead to expensive home repairs as a result of water damage, mold, mildew, rotting, and even structural damage. Rather than being shocked by a costly home repair bill, take some time to prepare and prevent the damage from even happening in the first place.