Winter home maintenance

Winter Home Icicles
By Liz Clancy Lerner

We've had our share of icicles at the Lerner household this winter -- and all the work involved with removing them, breaking up ice dams, and removing feet of snow from the roof has taken much of our free time. And we know we're not alone.

The Capital Region has seen its share of home, barn and sports dome collapses because of snow. The press had a field day with roof rake stories. And James recently asked for recommendations for contractors for roof snow removal.

So, I talked with local home inspector Lawrence McGann of Spire Inspections for some winter home maintenance tips... because belaying my husband as he digs away at snow on our roof was fun, at first.

Ice Dams

Home Winter Water Bubble What are they? According to Larry, this is the time of year when ice dams form more easily on the eaves of roofs. It basically happens when snow melts and then that water freezes again -- forming the sections of ice and icicles, usually at the edges of roofs.

What damage can they do? These buildups of ice can be massive and when they fall they can "damage the roof, siding, windows and any item that may be below them." Watch out, cars.

Also, when the snow and ice continues to melt and freeze it can "actually push water back up underneath the shingles and tar paper and cause leaking on the interior walls of homes." And create these glorious paint bubbles (unfortunately that pic to the right was taken in my living room).

How to get rid of them: Larry suggests that when we get hit hard by snow, we should remove snow from 2-3 feet of the roof up from the eaves. The theory is that when the melting starts, the eaves stay clearer than the rest of the roof and prevents the ice damns from forming. "It's better than having to refinish interior walls" he says.

You can hire a contractor to remove the snow, get a roof rake to remove the snow (know where the snow will fall before you do this), or get up there and attempt the job yourself. (Though this is no suggestion to get up on your roof to remove snow. You can easily fall and get hurt.)

Some other methods that I've heard of include: spraying down the area with a garden hose that is attached to a hot water spigot, keeping your attic cool for prevention (so the heat doesn't melt the snow which will then get to the colder edge of the roof and freeze), or alternately, heating the attic for temporary melting relief.

Winter Home Panty Hose Calcium ChlorideYou could also follow the advice of v, who commented on James' roof contractor question, to "fill pantyhose or a tube sock with rock salt and lay it over the edge of the roof/dam. It melts a nice little channel for the water to escape."

I vouch for v's method, though you may want to try calcium chloride (sold at local home stores as products such as "Blizzard Wizard"), as it is less erosive on your roof than rock salt.

Oh, and using a torch or some sort of flame on the ice? Bad idea.

While you're in the home maintenance mindset, Larry offers some more winter home maintenance tips:

Carbon Monoxide Check

Larry suggests that homeowners check to see if their heating system has a side vented exhaust pipe, (through the side of the house). If it does, make sure that after a heavy snow fall that pipe is not covered or clogged. This causes the venting system to vent in the interior of the home, leaking carbon monoxide and flu gases inside.

On that note, he also suggests that this time of year it's particularly important to make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working properly.

Furnace Filters

Larry also suggests changing the disposable filter on your hot air furnace. Doing this minimizes the amount of dust, lint, and pet hair and fuzz that can get caught on the interior parts of heating and air conditioning systems. This allows the furnace to be more efficient (and gives you a lot cleaner air to breathe).

One more we'll add to Larry's list: frozen pipes. Like a lot of these issues, prevention makes for a happier homeowner. A few things to keep in mind:

+ Turn off the supply to outside spigots, and then turn on the spigot to drain what's left in the pipe (you should do this at the end of fall).
+ If you have pipes up against outside walls, they should be insulated. You can get foam insulation that's slit down one side so you can wrap it around pipes -- it's cheap and easy to install.
+ Keep your basement (or wherever the pipes are) heated to at least 55 degrees.
+ When it gets really cold, you might want to leave cupboard doors or access panels open so warm air can circulate where the pipes are. Also, letting faucets drip a bit is supposed to help.

If you do get a frozen pipe, you can try using a hair dryer to thaw it. There's also electric "heat tape" you can buy that's made for the purpose. And if that doesn't work: call a plumber. (Remember: torches = bad.)

The Red Cross has more frozen pipe tips.

Do you have any winter home maintenance tips? Please share!


After spending about 7 hours on/near my roof over the past weekend, I can very much vouch for the fact that Ice Dams suck. A lot. But, on the up side, I have a ladder and an Estwing Handy Bar now!

Day 1 was my attempts including using older snow rake, hammer, screwdriver (most abused tool in the tool box) and my hatchet to remove snow... Also, a softball bat... ~5 Hours...

Day 2 was much quicker, with the added purchase of my Handy Bar... it's a flat pry bar which very easily got under the edge of the ice without damaging my roof. (Yay!) I was able to remove a whole 1.3m section of ice which was about 10-15cm thick, and went about 30cm up the roof... lookout below! ;)

This is also not an endorsement to do this yourself. It's cold, it was wet, and is most certainly not for the faint of heart. If you can pay someone to do this for you, you probably should. Heck, I probably should have! ;) Stay safe people!

Will that pantyhose trick still work if I already have a foot-high formation of ice at the tip of my eaves? Any advice you can give a stupid Southerner who's still not used to this stuff?

Andy, I'm glad to hear you prevailed!

Eric, I'd say yes. The third photo in the post is a picture of the pantyhose trick on about a 1 foot dam. It fell through (after about 6 hours) and put a nice big hole in the dam that we could easily break up with an ice axe.

@Andy: Metric? Really? We have apocalyptic snow and ice, and you're going all Canadian on us measuring in meters?

I have to say that I've been lucky. I decided to go up on my roof and remove the snow after the "noblizzard" last week. My attic has about 20" of blown in insulation so I didn't have any problems with ice dams. Five hours of back-breaking labor though. As a bonus, I now have a snow pile that I can walk up if I need to get on the roof again.

I'm concerned about what's going to happen when all of this snow melts though. I should probably invest in a pump for my basement.

Ice. Damn!

So I guess the secondary question is where to find calcium chloride? No Home Depots in a 30 mile radius have any. Lowes has just told me that they expect a winter.

Eric, I was at the Home Depot (Schenectady) and Lowes (Niskayuna) and picked up 4 bags of Bilzzard Wizard. It's calcium chloride... under a "fancier" name.

(I asked for calcium chloride when I walked in the store, was told they didn't have any - and that no stores did - and then was told that they did have Blizzard Wizard, which is calcium chloride - go figure)

I just got a bag of calcium chloride from BJ's over the weekend. Check them out!

I'm of the "let's fix what's causing the problem" school of thought. Note comment by "Greg on Feb 9, 2011" above. He has a well insulated attic and has no icicles nor ice dams. Heat from house leaking into attic (which also means $'s thru the roof) will melt the snow when it's still below freezing outside. The water runs along the roof till it hits the cold outer edge and re-freezes either adding to a dam or creating icicles, depending on how much heat is leaking out and what the ambient outside temperature is. Therefore - insulate the heck out of your attic and you'll not only prevent ice dams / icicles and all the potential damage that can come from them, but you'll also be saving your self many $'s starting as soon as you put it in.

I got Ice dam on my roof and water is leaking into my walls... Any of you know any reliable contractor around the Troy NY area? Many thanks!

I have some follow up questions. I did get an ice dam, and now I have damaged walls similar to the picture. So, now what kind of repair work is needed? Do I need to call a roofer, a general contractor, or is this something I could take care of cosmectically with some sandpaper, wall spackle and paint? Does the sheet rock need to be replaced? Is it probable that mold will form? This is not an area with an attic under it, so I can't add insulation - anything else I can do? Should I except to see long-term roof or wall damage?


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