What are Ice Dams and How Do I Prevent Them?

ice damming along the roof of a home
January 29, 2024

An ice dam is a ridge of ice that forms along the edge of a roof, typically at the eaves or overhangs, preventing melting snow and ice from properly draining off the roof. Ice dams can cause water to back up and seep into the interior of a building, potentially causing damage to walls, ceilings, insulation, and other structures.

Ice dams can lead to significant water damage if not addressed promptly. It is important for homeowners to be aware of the potential for ice and learn how to prevent ice dams, especially in colder climates like Wisconsin.

Understanding Ice Dams

If left unattended during a snowy winter, water damage from ice dams can be very costly. Leaking water can damage drywall, leave stains on walls and ceilings, and create moist conditions that lead to mold and mildew. If an attic has old or inadequate insulation, or is not properly air sealed, it can be rendered useless with water damage from ice dams. Learning how to stop ice dams can prevent significant damage in colder weather.

Formation and Causes of Ice Dams

Ice dams are caused by heat from the home rising into the attic and escaping through the roof. When snow accumulates on a roof, the heat from uninsulated spaces in the attic melts the snow. This snow melt flows down the roof underneath the snow until it reaches the colder eaves of the roof. On the colder eaves, the water refreezes and forms an ice dam.

As time passes, more snow melts, and the ice dam on the eaves of the roof grows. As the dam grows, icicles may form on the edge of the roof, which are a visible sign of ice dams. The newly melted water has nowhere to drain off the roof and can find its way under the shingles and into the home, causing water damage and leaky ceilings. Ice damming prevention can stop this kind of water damage before it starts.

Key Factors in Ice Dam Prevention

Ice dams are influenced by factors such as insulation, ventilation, outdoor temperatures, and roof design. Preventing ice damming includes installing proper insulation and ventilation, which helps maintain a consistent roof temperature and reduces the likelihood of ice dam formation.

Attic insulation is one of the best forms of ice dam prevention because it keeps heat from reaching the roof of a home. Depending on the type of attic insulation material, a homeowner can either insulate the attic floor to prevent heat from reaching the attic or use spray foam insulation to create a barrier on the attic rafters that stops heat from transferring through the roof building materials and warming the shingles.

Attic Insulation: A Critical Component

Insulating and air sealing an attic is a great solution for preventing ice dams and has a range of other benefits, as well.

Beyond roof ice dam prevention, upgrading attic insulation provides:

  • A more comfortable home because the house can maintain consistent temperatures
  • Lower energy bills because heat stays in during the winter and out during the summer
  • Healthier indoor air quality because of improved air filtration possibilities
  • A reduced risk of mold growth in your attic

Importance of Air Sealing in Ice Dam Prevention

When insulation is old or inadequate, it allows warm air to flow up into the attic, which is what creates warm spots that lead to ice dams. Preparing for new attic insulation by first air sealing the attic ensures that the home is not losing valuable heated air through gaps and cracks. Air sealing also helps attic insulation perform as designed, as several common insulation types do not perform as well when exposed to moving air.

DIY Tips for Managing Ice Dams

While addressing ice dams may require professional assistance in some cases, homeowners can consider several do-it-yourself (DIY) tips to manage ice dams and minimize their impact.

  • Snow Removal: Use a roof rake to safely remove accumulated snow from the roof, which helps prevent the melting and refreezing cycle that contributes to ice dam formation. Be careful not to damage the roofing material while removing snow.
  • Create Channels: After a snowfall, use a broom or long-handled tool to create channels in the snow along the eaves, which allows meltwater to flow off the roof more easily.
  • Ventilate Attic Spaces: Ensure that the attic is well ventilated to maintain a consistent roof temperature; the colder the attic, the less ice damming will occur. Proper attic ventilation helps prevent the uneven melting and refreezing of snow on the roof.
  • Gutter Maintenance: Keep gutters and downspouts clear of debris to ensure proper water drainage. Clogged gutters can contribute to ice dam formation.

Safety should be a top priority when attempting DIY solutions for managing ice dams. If you're unsure, consider consulting with professionals, like those at Wisconsin Home Improvement, to address the issue effectively and safely.

Safe and Effective Ice Dam Removal Techniques

Proper ice dam removal can be expensive, and DIY ice dam removal can pose a risk of personal injury as well as damage to shingles and the roof. In general, it is much better and more cost effective to prevent ice dams from forming in the first place by installing proper attic insulation.

If ice dams have already formed, there are some techniques to consider, although a professional assessment is always the safest route.

  • Ice Melting Products: An ice melting product such as calcium chloride can be placed on the roof inside a porous container like a discarded pair of pantyhose. The calcium chloride will create a channel for the water to run off the roof and ultimately remove the ice dam.
  • Roof Rake: A roof rake is a long-handled rake that homeowners can use to sweep snow off the roof without damaging shingles. While a roof rake cannot remove an ice dam on its own, raking the roof regularly after snowfall can help prevent further build up.
  • Professional Ice Dam Removal: A professional service can remove snow and ice dams from a roof without causing damage. Snow removal services use steam and other professional products to clear a roof safely and effectively.

Preventive Measures Homeowners Can Take

Homeowners can stop ice dams before they start by maintaining a properly insulated and ventilated attic. If DIY efforts are not sufficient or if there is significant damage, consider seeking professional assistance from ice dam prevention contractors. A roofing professional or insulation contractor can assess the situation and recommend appropriate measures.

Professional Solutions for Ice Dam Prevention

Preventing ice dams often involves a combination of professional solutions that address the underlying causes of ice dam formation, with attic insulation remaining the most important factor. The insulation professionals at Wisconsin Home Improvement Co. LLC install two types of insulation in attics: blown-in insulation and spray foam insulation.

Blown-in insulation is typically made from materials like fiberglass, cellulose, or mineral wool and is installed by blowing or spraying loose-fill insulation material into wall cavities, attics, and other spaces. It is well suited for existing structures where retrofitting is necessary and is often more cost-effective than spray foam insulation.

Spray foam insulation is typically made from polyurethane or other synthetic materials and is applied by spraying a liquid foam that expands and solidifies, filling gaps and creating an effective insulating layer. It creates an effective air barrier, reducing air infiltration and enhancing energy efficiency.

Expert Assessment and Remediation by Wisconsin Home Improvement

Choosing the right attic insulation for your Milwaukee area home's unique characteristics depends on several factors, which is why our helpful insulation team is here to help you make the best decision. The Wisconsin Home Improvement team can give a full home assessment that includes your home's vulnerability to ice dams to help improve your home's value and your family's comfort.

Comprehensive Home Insulation Upgrades

While updating attic insulation is the best way to protect against ice dams, comprehensive upgrades to a home's insulation can improve many aspects of the home. Insulation keeps the cold out in the Wisconsin winter but also allows air conditioners to work more efficiently in the heat of summer. The professionals at Wisconsin Home Improvement can provide a comprehensive review of your home's current insulation status and make recommendations to reduce your energy bill and keep your home comfortable year-round.

Reach out today to schedule an appointment with one of our experts.

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