How to Identify Ice Damming

Monday, February 15th, 2016 by Ben Kershner

Anatomy of an Ice DamWhat’s Wrong with Icicles?

Icicles on your home look beautiful on a Christmas card. 

Kids think they’re the coolest thing, too. “Wow, this one goes almost to the ground!”

Besides, so long as they don’t hit anyone when they fall, or rip the gutters off, or tear the roof off, or smash the air-conditioner, or destroy the deck, what harm can an icicle do?

Icicles can be a sign of a bigger problem: Ice damming.  That occurs when liquid water runs down the roof and re-freezes at the gutter or eave of your roof.  Usually, it’s because heat that you paid for is escaping up into the attic where it can melt snow on your roof.  The solution is to keep the “paid-for” heat inside your home where it belongs.  But before we work on solving it, let’s make sure we’ve properly diagnosed the issue. 

So, to mis-quote Van Halen, “How do I know when it’s Ice Damming?”

damage from ice dammingAny new water-stain on your ceiling should be investigated immediately.  If you’re getting water damage on an upstairs ceiling in the wintertime, it’s almost certainly ice damming.  Even on lower floors, water can run down the inside of walls and sometimes even pour into the basement.  Check your calendar.  If it’s June, and the water gets in during a big rain storm, you’ve got a leaky roof.  If it’s February, and you’re getting water damage on a cold sunny day – Ice damming.

Unusual melt patternHead outside and check your roof.  Is the snow melted more on the north or south side?  How much melting do you have compared to your neighbors?  Are there any spots where it’s melted more, or where it melted fastest?   Look around skylights, chimneys, dormers.  Is there any particular shape to the melt pattern?  Stripes? Squares? Circles?  More at the top, or more at the bottom? 

Melt patternsRemember, melted snow at the very PEAK of the roof will flow downhill as water, and cause damming at the lowest point.  Just because the symptom is at the wall, doesn’t mean that the source of the problem is as well – Just like bad shoes can hurt your back.

Icicles from the ventAre any of your icicles discolored?  Uh oh.  You’ve got it bad.  That’s not dirt from on top of your roof – that’s dirt from INSIDE.  Are they coming off the edge of the gutter, or are those brown icicles coming out of your attic vents?  Yeah, that’s not good.

The last thing you can look for is the obvious one:  The dams themselves!  They appear as large “hills” or “mounds” of ice along the bottom edge of your roof.  You may have a puddle of standing water on the uphill side of the slope. 

brown icicles

You can pay big bucks for someone to climb up on your roof in the middle of winter and start chipping or sawing away at the ice.  Maybe you go out every morning and shovel the roof after you finish with the driveway!  I’ve even heard of some kind of roof salt that you throw up there.  Even heat-strips are just addressing the symptom, not the cause.

Want to address the cause, then?  It’s simple:  stop paying your utility company to melt snow on your roof.  (umm, you know, by heating air in your furnace that then escapes into the attic where it heats up the roof.) 

How do you do that?  After rounding up the usual suspects, “Air-sealing” and “Insulation” are probably your “go-to” solutions.

…and we could write a BOOK on those topics!

About the author

Ben Kershner

Ben Kershner is a home energy advisor at True Energy Solutions, and is a regular contributor to our website. He lives with his wife and family in Greece, NY.

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