Ice Dams 101: How to handle winter roof hazards

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Photo credit: Wikimedia

We notice that a lot of searches for “ice dams” on our blog this year. While ice dams are a winter peril that we New Englanders have become all-too familiar with, some of our southern neighbors may be meeting them for the first time. We’ve updated information from a prior post to offer some key facts.

How do you know if you have ice dams?

Essentially, if you have large icicles hanging from your roof, you probably have an ice dam problem -see the photo above. The icicles are the symptom, not the underlying problem, which is generally one of insulation. The University of Minnesota Extension offers a solid explanation of what ice dams are and why they occur, as well as information about prevention. Don’t miss the excellent diagram that shows why they form.

If you have ice dams on your house, you need to address them with a two-fold strategy:

First, you need to get rid of the ice dams and minimize the immediate damage.
Your best bet is to hire an experienced professional to do this – it can be a risky task. Some folks want to go out and chop away at icicles, but it’s not a good idea to be climbing on snow- and ice-covered roofs or using ladders on slippery ground. Plus, using the wrong tools to remove snow or chunks of ice from your roof may cause further damage to your shingles or your gutters. Not to mention damage to you: flying ice chunks can be very heavy and sharp. Many people also use salts or other chemical concoctions to deal with ice dams, a less-than-ideal “fix” because chemicals can damage or discolor your roof and can leach into the ground, damaging plants and greenery. If you have a low roof, one of the most common ways that people deal with ice dams is by purchasing a specially-designed roof rake and removing snow from directly above the ice dam. Again, this can pose risks to both you and your roof.

Second, you need to diagnose the underlying problem and take steps to prevent ice dams from forming.
While ice dams can sometimes occur as a result of freezing rain, more often than not they are a symptom of an insulation problem which should be addressed because there are other problems besides ice dams that can occur, such as a build-up of moisture that could lead to rot, mildew or mold. Not to mention that with poor insulation, heating costs are almost literally going through the roof. While there are a number of products that can treat the symptoms and prevent ice dams, the best way to protect the value of your house would be to enlist the expertise of a weatherization, insulation, or energy conservation contractor to diagnose the and remedy the root problem. Builder and consultant Paul Frisette offers his thoughts on why ice dams form and how to prevent ice dams by treating the root cause, not just the symptoms.

Ice dams and homeowners and rental insurance
The Insurance Information Institute discusses what’s covered and what’s not in terms of water damage: “Standard homeowners and renters insurance provides coverage for burst pipes, wind driven rain and damage resulting from ice dams on your roof.” III also offers this helpful rule of thumb: “Generally speaking, water that comes from the top down, such as rainfall, is covered by a standard homeowners insurance policy, while water that comes from the bottom up, such as an overflowing river, is covered by a separate flood insurance policy.”

In a separate article on recent severe storms, III discusses winter water damage:

“Melting snow that seeps into a home from the ground up is considered flooding and would be covered by flood insurance, which is provided by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program and a few private insurers. Federal flood insurance is available to both homeowners and renters. Flood damage is not covered by standard homeowners or renters insurance policies.”

“Freezing conditions such as burst pipes or ice dams—a condition where water is unable to drain properly through the gutters and seeps into a house causing damage to ceilings and walls—is covered. There is generally a requirement, however, that the homeowner has taken steps to prevent these losses by keeping the house warm and maintaining pipes, drains and gutters.”

When in doubt about your coverage, call your agent – that’s what we’re here for!

Here’s more information from Wikipedia and from a few of our insurance partners:

Travelers: Tips to help remove an ice dam from your roof

Liberty Mutual: Ice Dams