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By Kimberly Duncan
An ice dam is a common problem of building maintenance in cold climates. Ice dams occur when snow accumulates on the slanted roof of a structure with inadequate insulation and poor attic ventilation.
Ice dams can lead to a leaky roof, wet or ineffective insulation, stains and cracks in plaster or drywall, rotting wood and peeling paint.
What Causes Ice Dams?
Warmth coming up through the roof melts the snow that has accumulated on the roof during winter. Melted water flows down the roof, under a "blanket" of snow, into the gutter, where it freezes due to cold conditions. Eventually, ice accumulates in the gutter stopping melting snow from draining properly.
For ice dams to occur there must be snow on the roof and, at the same time, higher portions of the roof's external surface must be above 32° F while lower surfaces are below 32°F.
Preventing Ice Dams
Generally, ice dams can be prevented by controlling the heat loss from a structure. To control heat loss from your home you must check the insulation periodically and make sure that it is properly installed and not damaged or wet.
Once wet, insulation must be dried out. In some cases, and depending on the extent of the damage, you might need to discard the insulation and replace it with new insulation.
Dealing with Ice Dams
Dealing with ice dams may require standing on the roof during winter, which is extremely dangerous. It is important to hire professionals to perform this job.
Immediate action is required if an ice dam creates immediate problems such as water flow into the structure. In this case, have snow removed from your roof. By doing so you will eliminates one of the causes of ice dams.
To eliminate the second cause you will have to create channels through the ice dam to allow water behind the dam to drain off the roof. Try running tap or warmer water into the drain to melt down the ice. Work upward from the lower end of the dam.
Keep in mind that the solutions mentioned above are only temporary and that they will become ineffective within days.
For longer-lasting solutions, increase the roof insulation on both sides to reduce heat loss by conduction. Tighten up the ceiling air so no warm air can flow from the house into the attic space.
This solution may create another problem - structural instability. As these techniques will increase the snow load on your roof, you will have to make sure that your roof can carry it because of the additional load. However, if your roof is built to current codes, there should not be any structural stability problems.
Preparing Your Roof and Gutters for Winter