What Are Ice Dams?

ice dam on a gutter

Each winter, ice is back with a (not-so) brand-new invention: ice dams. These frozen blockades in your gutter system can wreak all sorts of havoc, from cracking the gutters themselves to causing water leaks inside your home to mold and mildew formation on exterior walls, among other things. Take a proactive approach to handling them — prevention is best, but there are ways to get rid of ice dams if they’re already there, too. Keep reading to find out how.

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What Is an Ice Dam?

When melting snow (or meltwater) refreezes in your downspouts or where your gutters meet the edge of your roof, it’s called an ice dam — it’s literally a block of ice that’s damming, aka obstructing, the free flow of water and other runoff through your gutter system.

Signs of an ice dam include:

  • icicles dangling from roof overhangs (eaves, soffits, soffit vents)
  • water damage inside your home
  • ice buildup around skylights
  • ice accumulation on exterior walls
  • roof damage to shingles/structural damage to gutters and fascia

How Do Ice Dams Form?

winter icicles and ice dam forming on roof
Photo Credit: YinYang / Canva Pro / License

A cozy fire and central heat make for a comfy refuge from winter weather. But, without proper attic insulation, all that warm air can lead to a warm roof, which, in turn, can induce the thawing of roof ice and snow. 

The resulting meltwater will run down the roof until it hits cold air, out of reach of the warmer section of roof just above the attic. That colder air, if it’s at least 32 degrees Fahrenheit, will refreeze the water; as more and more melted snow and ice flows down the roof, it’ll build up and freeze into a ridge of ice, ultimately stopping up the gutters and downspouts. And there you have it — an ice dam.

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The Dangers of Ice Dams

Besides bringing physical harm to yourself (falling icicles can cut you or cause a head injury or even death, and you could slip and fall off a ladder trying to DIY ice dam removal), ice dam damage can also include:

  • cracked roof shingles, gutters, and downspouts
  • mold/mildew formation and water stains on exterior walls
  • interior water damage from roof leaks
  • damage to insulation; wet insulation reduces its R-value, or level of effectiveness
  • concentrated loads of snowfall and ice can damage roof deck; severe cases may cause collapse

Hence, it’s important to make sure ice dams don’t have the chance to develop in the first place.

How to Prevent Ice Dams

Ice dams
Photo Credit: State Farm / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

What’s the adage? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? That holds true for ice dams, too. Here are a few mitigation methods homeowners can use to keep ice dams at bay:

  • Fix warm air leaks by sealing all gaps with caulk or insulating spray foam.
  • Thoroughly clean gutters before winter arrives.
  • Improve attic ventilation by installing more vents or reconfiguring interior vents away from the attic.
  • Use a roof rake to remove snowfall from your roof before it turns to ice.
  • Add heat cables to your roof; they’ll melt ice and snow before ice dam formation begins.

How to Remove Ice Dams

A little too late to prevent an ice dam problem? No worries, we’ve got a few ideas on how to get rid of ice dams, too. Take note though, it’s not the best idea to go at them with an ice pick. First of all, using a ladder and climbing on your roof are extra dangerous in icy conditions; also, ice picks can cause structural damage to your home, as well. Instead, try the following DIY methods:

  • Lay an old pair of pantyhose filled with calcium chloride ice melt on top of the ice dam. (Never use rock salt to do this, as it’s corrosive. Also: cover plants underneath areas where ice melt is being used.)
  • Cool your attic with a fan to counteract the warm air coming from other parts of your home.
  • Pour hot water over the dam.

FAQ About Ice Dams

Does homeowner’s insurance cover ice dams?

It all depends on your policy, but in general, expenses incurred due to damage from an ice dam — like cracked gutters, broken roof shingles, interior water damage, and the sort — will most likely be covered. One caveat: If said damage is the result of lack of upkeep over years, whether by an ice dam or not, that probably won’t be covered.  

Is there a type of roof that naturally prevents ice dams?

Metal roofs can help prevent ice dams because snow and ice are more easily able to slide right off of their slick surfaces. Not only that, but the sun can heat up metal pretty quickly, making it harder for snow and ice to stay stuck for long.

When to Hire a Professional

If your ice dam is severe, it’s best to call in expert help from a gutter cleaning professional near you. They’ll be equipped with the proper training and equipment to safely access your roof and use steam to melt the ice dam swiftly.

To ensure a recurrence doesn’t happen, enlist the help of a snow removal company to clear snow from your roof, so you don’t have to. Together, these methods will keep your gutters, your home, and your landscaping free of damage.

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Main Image Credit: zerocattle / Canva Pro / License

Andréa Butler

Andréa Butler is a writer and editor. And while she hasn't been blessed with DIY skills herself, she is adept at writing and enjoys sharing home improvement tips and pool care guides for the true DIYers out there.