When I first heard the words “ice dam” last year, I thought of a babbling brook blocked by snow and ice. Or maybe a stream under ice. A sparkling frozen river. I thought this even though my friend said: “It sounds like you have an ice dam” when I told her that I had a leak in my sun room. An ice dam is not beautiful. An ice dam is a destructive force of nature. An ice dam occurs when the snow on your roof begins to melt, then freezes again, creating beautiful icicles hanging off your house and a block of ice on your rain gutters. Then the next day, the snow begins to melt again but it can’t drip off your roof because it’s blocked by the bank of ice that has formed on the edge of your roof. The water has to go somewhere. It seeps around the frames of your doors and windows. It oozes underneath the siding and down the walls to a ceiling. Those beautiful icicles are a sign that your house is susceptible to water damage.
Last year I encountered my first ice dam. Ice formed on an overhang, and then water seeped into my sunroom. Even though I poked a hole in the ceiling, allowing the water to gush into a bucket, the plaster on the ceiling peeled. Wood around the sliding door warped. I called a roofer. I called a handyman. I called a painter. I called a contractor. I got all kinds of advice. I had the repairs made. I even did some upgrades to the sunroom. Life was good.
In the fall, I bought a roof rake. For my California readers, a roof rake is used for pulling the snow off your roof—one or two feet from the edge. The basic idea is that you remove the snow from the edge of the roof so that this snow does not melt slightly and then freeze into ice. If it freezes into ice, then the remaining snow will melt and have nowhere to go. The water will have to ooze around the ice. It will come into your home. The first good snow storm we raked. The next one was a blizzard. I raked the sections I could reach. Even though the rake has a seventeen foot stretch, I could not reach the second floor except for one small section (and I stood on a stepstool to reach that). Then I went to visit my sister in law for a week and missed two storms.
On my return, everyone was talking about ice dams. You heard about it in restaurants, the grocery store, and the library. Everyone was worried that they would get one or upset that they had one. We had four small leaks: the sunroom, the kitchen (where I was having some work done), the family room and my office, all places where the additions meet the original house. My house was weeping. This suited my own mood, but I had to take action.
I raked what I could. I opened windows and knocked down icicles because someone told me that would help. I threw sodium chloride on the overhang outside my office where the sunroom leak was. I hung out the window of a second floor bathroom and banged on the ice on the kitchen roof. Most of what I did helped some but did not solve the problem. My husband got on a ladder and chiseled the ice from the gutters. Torrents of water poured down. We bought a bigger ladder so he could climb up to the second floor and hack at bigger sections. I wondered why we thought moving to New England was such a great idea.
I learned about Tyvek, rain gutters, soffits, and insulation. The latter two may be the most important: ventilation and insulation. Our house has inadequate insulation. This allows the warm air to escape and melt the snow. Then since it is so cold, the melted snow freezes, forming ice dams. We learned that two sections of our roof may not have any insulation. They are additions that do not have attic space over them.
Yesterday we woke up to six or eight inches of newly fallen snow and rejoiced. We were supposed to get three inches of snow and freezing rain. Freezing rain would have turned the new snow into a sheath of ice. Nature smiled on us even more. Yesterday was a warm 40 degrees. I raked the edges of the roof and my husband chiseled large blocks of ice from the roof (until he dropped the chisel, but that’s another story). While we did not completely clear the roof, my husband was able to create channels for the water in the sections where we have had the most problems. We were thankful for the reprieve from snowstorms and artic cold. We watched the deer carefully traverse the woods behind our house and relished the sunshine.
Even though today is a chilly 22 degrees with a wind chill warning until tomorrow, we have no leaks. The world outside is lovely, pristine and enchanted. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.