Ice dams: how they form, quick fixes, and prevention

If you fail to clear the ice dam on the edge of your house now, you could be looking at serious problems later.

Icicles forming along the roof of your house may look picturesque but they could be a big problem and lead to an even bigger one if you don't solve them and also prevent them from happening again. 

Over the past few weeks, the snow has piled up outside southeast Michigan. Now that the temperatures climb above freezing, you'll notice icicles dripping off your gutters or the edge of your roof. When they fall, they can rip the gutter off, loosen shingles, and cause water to leak inside.

Not only that, as the dams form, they can lift shingles and the water will push into your home. Once inside, you could be looking at a soggy problem in your attic, stained ceilings, peeling paint, and much worse as it drips down.

"Once the water is inside your house, it can cause paint to peel, floors to warp, and soggy insulation that could lead to mold and mildew," says Adrienne Woodland, spokesperson, AAA – The Auto Club Group. "Additionally, ice dams can cause major damage to the roof by loosening shingles or tearing off gutters."

What causes ice dams

Ice dams form when heat inside your home enters the attic and melts the snow. As the water drips down your roof, it re-freezes as it reaches the colder eaves (the part of the roof that overhangs your wall).

"They develop because of the architecture of the home, ventilation, as well as insulation and heat loss that is escaping into the attic," said Mike Giacalone, service manager for Butcher & Butcher Construction in Rochester.

The ice is called ice dams and, as more snow melts, it piles up and refreezes sooner and higher up the roof. 

"Ice dams are the build-up of the ice at the edge of the roof," said Giacalone. "The water is gonna want to go somewhere and it's more than likely gonna be inside your home."

Eventually, these ice dams force their way in between and under shingles. Then they find holes in the deck of your roof - like where the plywood sheets meet or around nails - before it then drips inside your attic.

How to get rid of ice dams fast

You may be tempted to go out and chisel away with a hammer. But you definitely should not do that.

Put the hammer down.

Whatever you don't try to break it up with your hammer. You could smash your gutters (not cheap), chip a shingle, or create other havoc. It's also dangerous to you. 

Instead, get your leaf rake (the big wide one you used in October) and pull down the first several feet of snow. You want to shoot for the first three feet - more if you can safely reach it.

"Removing the first 3+ feet of snow off the roof gives the melting snow and ice a place to go without having it accumulate right at the gutter line," says Derek Michalak, Claims Manager for AAA – The Auto Club Group.

They make roof rakes that are specially designed for this. It's kind of like a reverse shovel only you pull the snow down towards - so be sure to get out of the way. 

Giacalone says the key to preventing ice dams is to remove the snow before it turns to ice and, if you have a multi-story home, you shouldn't do it yourself. 

"I only recommend homeowners do that on lower-pitched roofs with maybe one story," he said.

When in doubt, hire someone to come out and take care of the job. They're the pros.

"AAA never recommends that homeowners get up on the roof and shovel snow off," Michalak said. "And when utilizing a roof rake, keep in mind that you are pulling snow off the roof. Make sure no one is underneath the location you are working on and that there is no fragile vegetation or objects that can be damaged by the weight of the falling snow. Always watch out for overhead power lines when doing any type of home maintenance and stay away from that area."

If you have a leak inside your attic, aim a box fan at the leak and the cold air will freeze it in minutes. This prevents more water from coming in as you address the problem outside.

How do to get rid of ice dams in gutters

With the snow out of the way on your roof, the above-freezing temperatures will help melt the ice.

If you want to speed up the process, you can create a channel for the ice to travel down. There are products that you can toss on the roof and, while they work, they can be harmful to your plants or soil once they wash away.

Instead, get an old pair of pantyhose and fill it with calcium chloride (aka rock salt), and tie it off. Then lay the filled pantyhose across the dam so it overhangs the gutter and creates a channel for water to flow through. 

This will keep the water moving without leaking chemicals into your grass.

How to prevent ice dams

Of course, the best thing to do is prevent it so that when the snow melts, you can watch it from the comfort of your couch and rest easy.

Remember how heat from the attic melts the snow? That's a great spot to start to prevent this.

Increase ventilation through the use of soffit, gable, and ridge vents. Moving air helps circulate air through the attic to ensure a consistent temperature.

Check your insulation - is it blocking any vents? Is it deep enough? you may need more to keep the heat from the inside of your house from escaping to your roof.

Quick tip: improving your insulation will also save you money on your gas or electric bill as it should be cheaper to heat your home.

If you've still got ice dams or want a cheaper solution than blowing insulation, heated cables work as well. You can line them along the first three feet of your roof and plug them in to heat up before the snow. This will prevent snow from stacking up at the edge of your house and over the eaves.