We’ve all seen icicles overhanging a roof edge. Sometimes they’re tiny little shoestring icicles and other times they’re huge widow maker ice chunks. But what’s the difference between icicles and ice dams? Typically you will see icicles before the problem grows into an ice dam. As melting snow flows to the roof edge and then refreezes once it’s beyond the heated roof area it builds up in gutters which then overflow to create hanging icicles. If icicle making conditions continue the melt will turn into a mound of ice where the melt will pool behind. This is where the term ice dam comes from.
Ice dams become a serious problem when the water gets underneath your roofing material and begins to penetrate the roof structure. Building materials can handle a tiny bit of water when spaced out over long periods of time which allows things to dry. But a persistent leak such as from ice dams will saturate roofing, framing, insulation, ceilings and walls and can threaten catastrophic damage suddenly or slowly. Let’s explore the different ways.
Ice dams cause major structural issues
The most obvious consequence of ice dams are the structural problems that they trigger. Ice build up may cause gutters and sometimes fascia boards and soffit panels to come crashing down. But typically the structure can hold up under this weight as periodic thaws allow some ice to melt and drain away. But over the years this weight can take a toll and gradually weaken the structure. While the mountain of snow collected above the house can look alarming, it’s the water that pools underneath that does most of the damage. The small leaks from ice dams over time will soften wood and eventually nails and screws lose their gripping power so things fall under the next ice build up. Record lake effect snow falls that struck Buffalo, NY and Erie, PA in severe winters can cause extreme ice formations that overwhelm structures and cause catastrophic failures but this isn’t typical. Most of the time falling gutters and eave overhangs are the result of years of incremental damage and water penetration.
So don’t ignore icicles and ice dams. If you don’t address things it could turn into a serious and expensive matter with one bad storm.
Ice dams stain ceilings and the walls
Aesthetic damages may not be as grave as structural ones, after all it’s just some primer and paint to correct a stain. But those ugly stains on the ceilings and walls are your clue to the bigger issue. Not addressing the root of the problem will cause the stains to reappear again and again. And those repeated little water leaks may cause things to come tumbling down eventually so don’t ignore the clues those brown water stains are giving you.
Roof replacement may help prevent water back up from an ice dam from entering the home but eventually time and water will win. It’s best to target the source of water infiltration and keep it drained away such as with a heat cable system or by minimizing snow melt with improved insulation and air sealing.
Ice dams contribute to mold and mildew
A wet and moist environment is a breeding ground for mold and mildew. A mold problem may seem to develop overnight because the mold spores go dormant once things dry out. As the moisture returns with each ice dam the spores begin to reproduce. Once mold begins to grow in an area it will only get worse and soon a huge colony will form eventually causing wood to rot.
These micro invaders are not only a concern for the house, contributing to rot; they’re a health hazard for the occupants too. They can trigger lung problems and allergic attacks. So don’t just attack the mold spots be sure to get rid of the ice dam water too.
Ice dams damage gutters
As we’ve touched on earlier the sheer weight from the ice dam is a major stressor for gutters. Old gutters may not be able to handle all that ice, so they may misalign, sag or completely be torn off and fall down. Additionally, an impaired gutter system is even more problematic for a home because it can no longer move water away, causing more expensive troubles for the homeowner when water goes where you don’t want it.
There are gutter systems warranted to not be pulled down from ice dams but treat the cause of the ice dam not just the symptom of a damaged gutter. At the very least keep the melt in liquid form with a heat cable system so it can drain away through the downspout and not create that iceberg on your roof.
Ice dams damage landscapes and property
If the ice dams are concentrated to an area they can become heavy enough to cause serious damage. Falling ice on your yard, deck, air conditioner or heat pump equipment can ruin your holiday. The shrubs, trees and other perennials that you previously planted could literally bear the brunt of the fall, snap and die. Any property or equipment under the eave of the house could be in harm’s way and end up smashed. An ounce of prevention is worth a few hundred pounds of ice falling damage.
Ice dams are dangerous to people
Finally, the scariest thing about ice dams is that they’re dangerous to every person entering or exiting the house. The icicles that lead to ice dams are pointy frozen spears that hang over walkways and entrances and will cause serious injury to an unsuspecting person in their falling path. The weight of a jug size piece of ice is about 8 pounds and enough to also cause severe pain or worse. The most hazardous time is when the temperature rises and things are melting. Unexpectedly the ice dam or section can break loose and come crashing down. Avoid standing under ice dams or icicles.
Another thing that is a source of worry is when you attempt to knock down icicles or prevent them by shoveling snow off your roof. Taking a ladder to a snowy roof, shoveling the snow or picking and hacking through the ice dam conjure all kinds of accident scenarios. Breaking an ice dam apart can make it fall onto your ladder or the person who’s helping you. Stay safe and avoid these situations. Contact an insured contractor if you must deal with ice dams immediately. And better still take preventative measures to keep icicles and ice dams from creating such dangerous conditions.
Want to learn more? Read how to permanently get rid of ice dams here.