6 Tips for Ice Dam Removal and Prevention

Ice dams are a serious threat to your home. Learn how they are formed, how to  respond safely to remove them and how to prevent them.

How Ice Dams Are Formed: A Simple Recipe

There’s a simple recipe – or perfect storm, if you will - to the formation of an ice dam:

  • take one pile of snow on the roof
  • add one warm house
  • and mix in some freezing temperatures.

When these three elements exist, you’re at risk of ice dams forming on your roof.

How exactly does that happen? The warm air of the house rises up through the attic, exits through many air leaks in the attic, melting the bottom layer of snow on the roof. This “snow melt” slides downward til it hits ice masses that haven’t been warmed, such as icicles and ice blocks along the eaves, in gutters and downspouts. The result is a mini-Hoover dam (hence the term ice dam) or pooling of water on the roof. This water can not only damage the roof, but often finds its way up and around shingles and down through crevices to the interior of the house. As you may already know, ice dams can wreak significant damage to a home.

How to Respond Immediately and Safely to Ice Dams

17' telescoping roof rake

Standard roof rakes reach 17" or 21" with 24" wide blades, some telescope and some come with a slight bend that makes it easier to reach the roof. Plastic models are going to be lighter weight. Look for a brand and model that guarantees shingles won't be damaged.

If a storm has just swept by you, dumping tons of snow on your roof and the thermostat’s gone down, down, down, you may not care about prevention right now. You’re worried about your roof and for good reason. It's time to remove any masses of ice and snow from the roof. How you do this depends on the height and pitch of your roof, the amount of snow and your expertise. There are a lot of DIY tips out there, but we want to focus on what you should look out for in deciding the right approach for you. Here are 7 tips that emphasize safety when you're dealing with the immediate threat or presence of ice dams.

6 Do's and Don'ts for Dealing with Ice Dams

  1. Consider a roof rake, but know your limitations. A roof rake, specifically designed to remove snow off roofs, comes with a long handle so you can reach your roof from the ground. Obviously this puts the roof our of reach for many homeowners. Don't use a ladder to overcome this problem and remember to stay away from electrical wires. Instead, hire a professional!
  2. Remove icicles safely. Icicles are a warning sign that your roof may have ice dams. When removing icicles, take extra precautions not to stand directly underneath. If they’re really mammoth, hire a local roofer who can steam them.
  3. Don’t attack the ice dam with a shovel or pickax or even a steak knife. You don’t want to damage your roof or yourself (maybe not in that order).
  4. Only use safe de-icers (used to create channels for water to flow down as snow melts) that are roof and shrub-friendly.
  5. Don’t be a superhero and climb up on the roof, especially when it’s covered in snow and ice.
  6. Check credentials if you hire a professional to rake your roof or steam the ice masses that have formed in your gutters or along the eaves. Make sure they’re licensed and insured.

How to Respond to Ice Dams to Prevent Them

Prevention is the universally recognized best way to deal with ice dams in the long-term. Why? Because the conditions that create an ice dam are recurring, if not every winter, frequently enough in many U.S. states across the West, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and New England. Since the water infiltration from ice dams can lead to shingle and roof damage, wood rot, sagging ceilings, peeling paint and mold growth, it makes economic sense to prevent them in the first place.

Prevention is Simple: Stop heating the attic!

Remember the third ingredient needed for the formation of ice dams? A warm house. When you heat your home in the winter, the warm air rises and finds its way through every gap and crevice into the attic. You’d be surprised how many “air leaks” there are in a typical attic, escaping through to the roof. These air leaks are the critical factor in ice dam formation, leading to melting, pooling water with nowhere to go (thanks to the ice dams) but inside the home. So the two solutions that significantly help prevent ice dams are:

  • Insulating the Attic - most attics are under-insulated and far warmer than is good for your home (or your budget).
  • Air Sealing - most attics are Swiss cheese, full of gaps in every nook and cranny, including ductwork, can lights, and chimneys, that lead to uneven melting of snow on the roof.

Preventing Ice Damming, a Dr. Energy Saver videoLearn more about ice dams and prevention by watching the Dr. Energy Saver Preventing Ice Damming video, part of our "On the Job" video series.

As a nationwide network, Dr. Energy Saver dealers are experts in attic insulation and air sealing and can be found from Washington State to Maine. Find your local home energy contractor and get a free consultation on your attic today!


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