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Your Home in the Winter

The Ultimate Guide to Ice Dams

It’s that time of year again: temperatures are dropping and people are trading in bathing suits for winter coats. It’s pretty clear what to do when the seasons change in regards to what we wear. However, other winter checklist items feel a bit more abstract. Winter proofing is one example of things we tend to overlook. Forget it not! Neglecting this vital precautionary measure often leads to extensive damage – and expensive gutter repairs.

During the cold months, snow and ice can cause serious problems when it comes to roofs and gutters. In fact, approximately 1 in 50 insured homes files a claim due to frozen water damage each year. While many of the costs are covered by insurance, there are some large costs that are not. Ice dams are a bit tricky and fall into that coverage gray area, which is why it is so important to stop them before they begin.

mountain village

Ice dams? What are those? What do we do about them? Fear not! This ultimate guide to ice dams has all the answers. In this guide, you will learn everything you need to know about protecting your home against ice dams. We will cover everything, from what they are to how you can get rid of them and, most importantly, how to prevent them altogether.

If you’re ready to protect your home from ice dams, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s make like a snowball and roll.

Chapter One: The Avalanche of Winter Costs

First things first. Before we learn everything about ice dams, we’d first like to discuss why the information is so important. What better way to do that than by talking about how it can decimate your wallet?

Winter is a perfect example of nature’s punishing balance: a season that brings both beauty and destruction. According to the NatCatSERVICE, “winter storms and cold waves” are the sixth most-destructive natural disasters in the United States every year. Destruction ranges from minor property repairs to complete structural failures.

A destructive winter’s costs might be its greatest consequence. Let’s walk through an example scenario together:

You forgot to prepare properly and the storms this winter were long and incessant. Ice dams, leaks, and structural failures left half of your property uninhabitable. The insurance policy will take months to determine whether the damages were caused exclusively by the storms or if your lack of proper maintenance is also to blame. Maybe you are one of the lucky few with enough savings to cover the damages up-front while the insurance policy pays out, but odds are that the contractors in your area are booked solid and are probably charging many times their normal rate anyway. When you finally find someone to do the work, you might still need to pay for temporary housing. You might just move altogether.

This might have been an example, but situations like this are common in the United States. Extreme cold seasons can leave parts of or entire homes uninhabitable, leaving homeowners stranded. Additionally, insurance companies will fight every claim, even the smallest ones. Did your furnace fail from old age, or did you fail to maintain it properly? They will take time to investigate.

The best way to deal with a situation like that is to do your best to prevent it altogether. We will discuss ice dam prevention in detail further ahead. However, there are some general weather proofing activities that you should do whether or not they specifically target ice dams. Let’s give them a quick look.

Gutters, for example, need to be clean and sturdy before the first winter storms. Cluttered, frozen gutters are nearly impossible to clean since leaves, sticks, and other debris slow the de-icing process. They also need sturdy hooks and supports. Remember that your gutter will probably be an elongated ice tray during the snow and ice storms, so make sure they can hold the weight of all that ice. Furthermore, make sure that your gutters are structurally intact and encourage the steady flow of water. Any structural defects, such as holes, warps, and cracks, will slow down the thawing process and ease ice dam formation. See our guides, The Ultimate Guide to Gutter Cleaning and The Ultimate Guide to Gutter Maintenance, for all you need to know to be prepared for winter’s wrath.

Proper roof inspections and maintenance also require your utmost attention. Damaged shingles, fading adhesives, weakened beams, and rotten soffits all increase your risk of suffering structural setbacks winter come. During the coldest seasons, your roof is like your home’s skin. If you had open wounds, would you not want to see a doctor before entering a triathlon?

Whatever repairs or maintenance you end up doing, make sure to thoroughly document it all. If by some bit of rotten luck your diligence is rewarded with damages, your thorough documentation will at least speed up the insurance processes and will hopefully leave you with a higher payout as well.

Now that we understand the importance of preparing for winter, let go into detail about the sly culprit of many a winter crime: ice dams.

Chapter Two: What Is An Ice Dam?

In order to solve the problem of ice dams we have to know what they are! So, what exactly is an ice dam?

An ice dam forms when radiating heat coming from the home below melts the bottom-most layer of snow on a roof. The melting snow then drips and runs under the still-frozen snow layers until it reaches the soffits (the part of the roof that hangs past the side of the house). Soffits do not come in contact with the heat radiating from the home so they stay at much lower temperatures than the rest of the roof, thus causing the dripping snow to re-freeze and create a dam-like build-up of ice on the edge of the roof.


Ice dams present several problems. First, the weight of ice dams alone causes structural problems. Second, water from snow melt has nowhere to go but dam up behind the ice dam and potentially leek into the unprotected parts of the house: the sub roof,  insulation, sheet rock, the interior wall framing. When the ice dam eventually melts, additional water may leak into these unprotected parts of your home. These serious problems usually cause a snowball effect that can quickly sour the season and dry up savings accounts.

Although insurance policies usually cover the actual damage caused by ice dams, they do not usually cover the removal. Additionally, insurance companies will try to fight the claim and pin the damage on improperly installed roofs or gutters to avoid paying out. Situations like that can lead to thousands in roof damage that are only partially covered or even completely denied by your insurance.

Not all houses are created equal. Just like different body types are more susceptible to disease, some roofs are in greater danger than others of suffering due to cold weather problems. How do you know if you’re at risk? Read the next section!

Chapter Three: Ice Dams and Roof Damage

We asked: how do you know if your roof is more likely to suffer from snow storms? The answer is to find out how your type of roof reacts with the elements. However, most roofs do not come with owner’s manuals. The nerve of some fabricators, right?

Where others have failed you we have served. This section explains in explicit detail if and why your roof is at risk.

Snow on roof tiles

Flat vs. Pitched (or Sloped)

The degree at which your roof slopes is perhaps the greatest risk factor. The theory is that the steeper the slope of the roof, the easier water runs off. However, as is typical of the ongoing battle between form and function, the emphasis of one trait usually equals the neglect of the other.

Flat roofs become more prevalent every day as they gain popularity in the modern minimalist design era. However, they are also at the greatest risk of losing structural integrity in the winter. This is especially true with an ineffective drainage system.

Just like a meadow in a mountain, water pools easily on a flat roof since it has nowhere to run, causing penetrating leaks, pressure bubbles, and massive ice dams. Sometimes the weight of accumulated snow and ice alone is enough to capsize a home. If you have a flat roof covered in snow and are worried about the pressure on your structure, perform the door test! Simply open and close your doors, especially the ones closest to the center of the house – if they are harder to move than usual, the door frame might be warping under the weight of the snow.

Yes, flat roofs are at higher risk of structural damage, but a roof that has too steep of a slope is also discouraged. Steep roofs make it easy for snow to naturally fall off in sheets, like mini-avalanches, so they can help to prevent ice dam formation. However, depending on the amount of snow, the weight of the falling snow can also damage people and property alike.

Snow guards, can help to prevent damage from falling snow. They control sliding snow and prevent major accidents from happening. When snow melts, it can pull off your roof in very large sheets, like an avalanche.  Snow guards are installed in a staggered pattern to hold snow in place as it melts.

Metal and Slate

Roofs with a metal or slate outermost layer grip snow less effectively than other types, which means they can prevent ice dam formation but are also more prone to causing mini-avalanches. Snow guards can help to mitigate problems caused by sliding snow on these types of roofs. Professionals recommend the use of snow guards on metal and slate roofs.

Snow guards help to “organize” snow building up on a roof in a way that prevents mini-avalanches from damaging you or your property. When installing snow guards, we recommend hiring a professional; they will know where and how to install the device to avoid causing structural damage when the snow piles up.

Solar Panels?

Roofs with solar panels are also at greater risk of suffering or causing damage than those without panels. Solar panels usually create irregular distribution patterns for melting snow, which can lead to leaks, breaks, and ice dams. Panels can even fall off and take a piece of the roof off with them. Solar panels also present the same risk as metal or slate roofs since solar panels are too smooth to hold on to snow as it starts to melt.

Yes, some roof types are more prone than others to suffer from cold weather problems. The fact remains, however, that any home in a snowy climate is at risk, even if only slightly. Therefore, even homeowners who are completely confident in their prevention systems should know how to remove ice dams when they form.

How Do You Tell If Your Roof Is In Good Shape?

Earlier, we mentioned winter-proofing activities relating to your roof.  Lets get into the details.  Proper roof inspections and maintenance are imperative.  When at the roof line, here are a few key things to look for:

How is the roofing material holding up? Roofs age and begin to show their age over time.  Check your records if you’ve replaced the roof in the past and keep track of this information in a convenient location.

Time goes by faster than people realize. Thicker shingles will last longer.

Look at the amount of granules on the shingle. Older shingles will have fewer and, at some point, granules will shed faster, indicating an older roof.

Are any parts of the roof covered with moss, black algae or lichen?  These organisms eat the limestone in the shingles and age a roof faster.

Are any shingles missing?  Do they droop, curl or are they cracked anywhere?

Bring in a roofer to repair any missing or broken shingles and consider treating your roof against moss, algae or other spore-based organisms.

Has the roof been maintained? Look for trapped debris on your roof.

This can often happen in roof valleys or areas where wind pushes debris into but can’t blow debris from.

You’ll notice on low sloped roofs, roofs that meet up with a wall or corner, or roofs that extend over other sections of a roof are places this is more likely to occur. Don’t allow debris to remain in these locations or it will decay and eventually break down into compost.

Make sure your roof is clean of debris before the cold season because you don’t want to trap organic material under snow or ice.

How is the flashing holding up? This is really a job for an expert to assess, but water is likely to leak into a home after a snowstorm from a point in which the flashing was poorly installed.

This occurs when snow builds up and then melts above where rain typically flows during other seasons. This can be at chimneys, where roofs meet second story walls and more.  Proper flashing maintains your siding, your home’s wood sheathing, the insulation in your walls and your drywall.

Take a Look at Your Soffits. The soffit is the part where your roof extends beyond your house. Take note of the following:  are they ventilated? As we will discuss below, a key factor in icicles and ice dams formation is improper or insufficient ventilation and insulation in an attic.  If there are unvented soffits, the roof cannot breathe effectively.

Are the soffits shallow or deep?  Shallow soffits are much closer to the heated part of a home.  Deep soffits are not. Icicles and ice dams tend to form near an under insulated attic when you heat your home.  In addition to lowering heating bills, adding insulation to an attic while the weather is cool can lessen icicling from heat loss.

Gutters in the Winter

If snow and ice can exist, don’t expect a gutter to work in the cold. Consider it shut down and hibernating until spring. There’s nothing to stop heavy snow and ice from building up in them, except perhaps a gutter guard, but that depends on what type of snow you have. The key is to make sure that the gutters can survive the cold and be ready to continue to perform during thaws as well as the other three seasons.

Tip 1:

Make sure you gutters are hung with sufficient hidden hangers to carry the weight of ice. Keep in mind that ice weighs more than snow.

Tip 2: 

Avoid buying gutters made from a thin gauge aluminum coil.

These are two items that a homeowner doesn’t typically check for or know what quality level of gutter they’ve got on their home. If someone buys based solely on price, it’s where an installer uses a thinner gauge gutter coil to cut corners and the homeowner has no idea that it’s happening.

If you live in a new home, you probably have cheap gutters and hangers. It’s an easy place for a builder to keep costs down.

At a minimum, reinforce your gutters with extra, stronger hangers and try to get the hangers hung into the rafter tails. If you can, insist on 0.32 gauge aluminum for a good quality gutter.

Take a look at how the hanger was installed.  The best hangers hook over the back of the gutters and then screw through the gutter system.  Rehang anywhere you find both sides of the hanger installed in the gutter. Gutters can sag between hangers so in places with snow and ice, space the hangers 18 inches apart.

Keep reading our guide to find out exactly how to deal with ice and gutters.

Gutters in Snow Country

There are many places where people just don’t install gutters because of winter weather, and that tends to be in snow country, places far enough north that get a lot of snow. Instead, they line their roof edges with a small section of metal roofing. This is designed to pull snow down and off the roof.

The only issue in choosing not to install gutters is that homes in snow country typically have basements. All of the snow that falls, and all of the water that will melt from it, drains from the roof during a thaw and soaks into the ground right near the foundation. This can cause very expensive foundation issues like cracked foundations, the separation of the poured concrete floor from the walls (leading to a leak point) or water seeping through the walls.

Better to install rain gutters properly with good quality hangers reinforced with snow guards than risk a wet basement, it’s a costly repair and can impact homes of any age.

Chapter Four: Ice Dam Removal

Like we mentioned, ice dams are formed when melting snow re-freezes. Eventually, as the process continues, it creates a large dam of ice that grows heavier and mightier as water fails to reach the gutter. This can then cause leaks, breaks, and failures.

Professionals promote prevention as the best removal method for ice dams. However, even the most prepared homeowner cannot control the weather. Ice dams are sneaky and can find a way to trouble anybody. if you’ve found an ice dam forming on your roof, there are a few ways to remove them:

Remove the Ice Dam’s Source

When an ice dam is left alone, it will continue to build on your roof until the spring warmth melts it away – a process which usually takes too long and causes your roof and walls to leak. Therefore, the first, most important step to remove an ice dam is to use a snow rake to get the snow off of your roof. A snow rake is a retractable rake that extends long enough to enable you to rake your roof from the ground. Homeowners can usually take care of small buildups on their own, but hiring a professional with the right tools and insurance is always recommended.

Powder snow removes the easiest, but procrastination runs rampant in 21st century America. Odds are the snow on your roof has already turned to solid ice. Don’t worry, modern Da Vinci’s! There are still ways to remove ice dams, even for the serial procrastinator.

Chip the Ice Dam Away

For this method, you can use either an ice pick or an ice awl. Carefully climb up to your roof using a sturdy ladder and chip away at any ice buildup within your gutter. Start at it and work your way back up the roof to chip away a channel where the melted snow can funnel through and exit your roof instead of creating more buildup. As you probably guessed, this removal method is dangerous; you should always use caution when it comes to using ladders and avoid walking on the roof. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: if at all possible, hire a professional!

De-Ice, Ice Baby

You can use a chemical de-icer if chipping away seems too difficult or impossible for you. De-icers typically contain urea fertilizer, ammonium sulfate, or something similar that will help melt any ice on your roof. You especially want to distribute de-icer along your gutters to create a clear channel for the rest of the ice. Eventually, the ice will melt and drain through your gutters. 

Pro-Tip: You can also use socks or pantyhose! Simply fill either item with the de-icer and place it in the gutters. This speeds up the process!

Want Long-Term Ice Dam Removal?

Each of the ice dam removal methods above will work, but every time it snows you’ll have to get your snow rake back out or climb back up to de-ice your roof. If you’re looking for long-term ice dam removal, you should consider MasterShield’s High Flow Filter for your gutters. The High Flow Filter has a more open weave than the traditional MasterShield guard, which means that the snow melts more quickly and less it’s likely for icicles and ice dams to form.

Additionally, you can even heat MasterShield by using standard heat cables. The cables go under your gutter filter where it impacts the bottom layer of snow. This can completely eliminate gutter guard ice dams. Adding in heat cables to your gutters can be done at any time, so if you’re not sure if you need them or not, you can always install them later on. 

How Much Does it Cost to Remove Ice Dams?

If you want to have your ice dams professionally removed, it can be quite expensive, with some companies charging a few hundred dollars per hour. This is why it’s so important to understand how to remove ice dams on your own, or better yet, how to prevent them entirely.

Chapter Five: Tips & Tricks for Ice Dam Prevention

At this point, it’s pretty clear that no one wants ice dams to form on their roof or in their gutters. Ice dam removal can be tough, time consuming, and quite costly. The best way to spare yourself of the headache that is ice dams is to prevent them forming in the first place. 

The best time to make sure that your home is prepped and ready to handle snow fall and not create ice dams is the fall. The summer months are beginning to fade into the rearview and Jack Frost is on his way into town. While there are many things that you should be doing to winter proof your home, making sure that it’s ready to prevent ice dams is one of the most important. 

So, how do you prevent ice dams? Keep reading to find out!

Proper Ventilation and Insulation 

The soffit is the part of your home where the exterior side of the home becomes the roof. Keeping the soffit of your home properly ventilated can help draw air upwards into the attic or towards the top of the home which will lower the overall temperature to something similar to the outside air. When the roof temperature and the outdoor temperature are similar, it becomes less likely that the snow on your roof will melt and form an ice dam.

Proper insulation also means that the heat in your home is not escaping through the roof, which means that your home will feel warmer. When your home feels warmer, you’re less likely to crank up the heat and therefore, you might even cut back on your heating bill! It’s a win-win. 

But, how can you make sure that your home is properly ventilated and insulated? There are a few things that you can do:

  • If it’s already cold, make a note of the places around the exterior of your home where you see that the snow is not melting consistently. Do you see open pockets of roof begin to show in the snow.  Do you see areas on the edge of your roof where ice dams are forming? These are clear signs you need more insulation. These observations will help you to find where you need to emphasize proper ventilation and insulation.
  • The first place within to insulate within your home is the attic. Make sure that any doors or windows in your attic are properly lined with weather stripping. You can also cover your attic access point – this is likely where the most heat is escaping up into your attic and roof area. 
  • Within your attic, replace canned light fixtures with air tight, high energy LED lights. LED lights make it possible to insulate the light itself, so there is no opportunity for unwanted hot air to pass through to your roof and melt any snow. 
  • If your home has a chimney, that is a very likely spot that heat would be escaping your home through the roof. In order to keep the heat in while still sending the smoke out, use a fire safe rock wool insulation to seal off the chimney. 

If your home has already been properly insulated and ventilated, the fall is a great time to double check that there isn’t any serious wear and tear or damage to the sealing. It’s important to have a well sealed and ventilated home before winter is in full swing in order to properly prevent ice dams from forming.

Chapter Six: Heated Gutter Guards

Gutter guards are great when it comes to rainfall and getting water off of your roof and down to the ground. However, when it comes to snowfall, covers can be the perfect spot for an ice dam to form. There are some guards that are made with a reverse curve that can even cause ice dams to form higher up on the roof than a normal guard. Ice dams that are formed over this type of barrier will inevitably result in water damage in the home and roof. So, how can we prevent these ice dams from forming? Heated gutter guards.

Ice Shield by MasterShield

Installing a gutter guard system, gutters plus gutter guards, is the best way to prevent clogged gutters year round; but just like your ordinary gutter, gutter guards are still susceptible to freezing and icicle formation during frigid storms. However, there is a product where you can get the best of both worlds.

With Ice Shield you get all the gutter protection from a micro-mesh gutter guard while having the heating element that prevents icicles and ice dams. Even before adding the heating elements of Ice Shield, MasterShield gutter guard is better at handling snow and ice than other guards:

  • MasterShield gutter guards tend to release snow and ice better than most guards because it doesn’t create a new angle or flat surface where ice would have a tendency to form. It’s pitch allows snow and ice to release towards the ground rather than back up the roof line. 
  • MasterShields’s High Flow Filter is designed to address areas where icicles form as it has a more open weave than a traditional MasterShield panel with 50% open air space, and, because of the more open area, snow melts more quickly and therefore the section tends to have less icicles form off of it as a result.

Ice Shield by MasterShield is a  heated guard, so it’s all-in-one. This means that you can protect your home from water damage year-round with one simple cover. If you live in an area that experiences a great amount of snowfall, investing in heated gutter guards is definitely something that’s worth your consideration. 

When it comes to ice dam formation, unfortunately, there’s no way to physically stop them from forming – only to make sure that they don’t stay around for too long. This is true regardless of whether or not your gutters have a gutter guard. Ice dams will form. That’s why it’s important to have a system that can heat any ice that tries to linger on your roof or in your gutters in order to prevent an ice dam from forming over time. 

It’s important to note that heated guards are incredibly helpful at preventing ice dams, but the most assured way to prevent them from forming is to ensure that your home is properly insulated and ventilated. In order to make ice dams a thing of the past, a heated gutter guard is a great addition to an already well-sealed home. 

Now, we might be a bit biased, but if you’re looking to ice dam proof your home, Ice Shield is simply the best gutter guard option on the market. Some of its features include:

  • 100% Higginbotham technology with MasterShield’s patent-pending approach to heating guards. 
  • Adaptable to have one continuous cable used outside the guard so that troublesome spots like roof valleys and areas around skylights can be addressed. Many gutter guard companies place the heating cable in a channel which does not allow for this flexibility.
  • Ice Shield provides maximum heat disbursement due to its thin profile. Ice Shield’s under filter heating system allows more heat to go where you want it. Other gutter guard companies completely enclosed the heat cable in a channel so the heat must disperse through solid metal before coming in contact with the snow or ice that you’re trying to melt and thus are less efficient.
  • No loss of any water receiving area with the addition of a heated element.  Many companies place the cable where it reduces the area that water flows through.
  • Ice Shield can be added retroactively, so it can be added later on if you decide that you need heated guards and you can add it only to sections that need it.

Benefits of Heated Gutter Guards

Using heated gutter guards can help prevent the formation of ice dams, but they can also provide a number of additional benefits.

  • Adaptable. If there are certain areas of your roof or gutter system that needs extra attention, Ice Shield’s heated cable can be added to a single panel providing sufficient protection from icicle formation keeping your gutter guards functioning properly.
  • Great Price. Ice Shield gives you the best bang for your buck because each system is tailored to suit your specific needs. 
  • Flexible. Heating cables can be added to your MasterShield gutter guard at any time, including retroactively. 

Say Farewell to Ice Dams Forever

While it’s difficult to guarantee that you’ll never have to deal with ice dams again by following the steps listed in this guide, you are definitely a lot less likely to experience any of the damage that is associated with ice dam leakage. As long as it snows, ice dams will attempt to form on your roof. That’s why it’s so important to be prepared. 

This fall, remember to take the necessary steps to ensure that your home is ice dam proof. This includes double checking that your home is properly sealed in order to ventilate and insulate well, regardless of the weather outside. The primary goal when it comes to sealing your home is to keep warm air inside and keep cooler air out. 

Investing in MasterShield’s Ice Shield will help melt any lingering snow on your roof. Melting snow on the roof will allow the excess water to drain properly and that will mean that your roof is a lot less likely to leak due to cold weather damage. 

We hope that this guide helps you and your family to stay safer and warmer this winter. Be sure to call MasterShield for a quote today. Your future ice dam free self will thank you. 

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