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Democrat and Chronicle
( August 25, 2001)
Home and Real Estate Section, page 1

Prevent Ice Dams by Venting

Last call for roofs

Take steps now to lessen chances of damage to your home this winter

By Richard Mullins Democrat and Chronicle (September 21, 2002)

As the saying goes, there's no better time to work on the roof than when the sun is shining.

So, as fall arrives, experts in home maintenance suggest a few steps for getting houses ready for the coming months of snow, sleet and ice.

Caulk does a wonderful job of sealing doors and windows against the weather. And driveway sealing is best done before winter to prevent ice from splitting the pavement surface.

But, besides an ice-covered tree falling on the roof, one of the worst things that can happen to a house is an ice dam.

Like their evil twins icicles, ice dams start with a light coat of ice in the gutters, but form over time into heaping waves of heavy ice hanging off a roof. They can drag the gutters clean off a house.

Edward Bell said ice dams form on his house in Brighton every year.

''On one side of the house, the gutter hangs over the driveway, and we basically had a skating rink there all the time,'' Bell says. More attic insulation and better venting fixed the problem in some areas. But dams still formed in other areas, pulling the stucco off the house in one spot.

The problem starts when heat radiates from the house into the roof and melts the snow, even in frigid weather. The freshly melted water trickles down the roof to the gutters, which are very cold, and freezes in place. Over time, layers of ice form and, with nowhere to drain, grow up the roof.

In nightmare cases, the gutters simply buckle under the weight and are ripped off. Or, the ice grows under the shingles and melts, rotting rafters and the wooden house frame.

People do all kinds of things to try to stop the onslaught, said Fritz Gunther, president of Gunther Home Inspection. ''Some people end up getting on the roof with shovels to sweep the snow away, but I really don't recommend that,'' he said.

The best fix is not on the roof, but inside the attic. Experts suggest these approaches:

  • Vent, baby, vent: While it may seem counter-intuitive, a warm attic in the winter can only cause problems. So, experts say, the best solution is to properly insulate the attic and install vents that allow cold air to circulate in the rafters, keeping the shingles cold.
    This also has the benefit of keeping the roof cool in the summer. If an attic heats up to more than 100 degrees, it ''cooks'' the shingles and can cut their life span dramatically, Gunther said.
  • Getting hot, hot, hot: Install wire heaters along the gutters and downspouts. These can keep the gutters just warm enough to allow water to drain away. Some contractors consider this treating the symptom rather than the cause. But for houses with difficult-to-insulate roofs, or unusual roof lines, wire heaters can help prevent ice from forming.
    As a note of caution, Gunther says, ''This is really a project for an electrician. Do not simply plug these into an extension cord hanging out the window, since you can overload a circuit or cause a fire.''
  • Shining armor: A common approach in the Northeast is to install metal snow ''slides'' along the roof line. This gives the roof a two-part look, with shingles at the top and a metal armor at the bottom.
    The slick metal surface gives the ice and snow more of a chance to slide off. Since this involves replacing shingles with metal, it's best done during other major roof work.

In the case of Bell's house, he has hired contractors to blow more insulation into parts of the attic.

As a stop-gap, he hired Mike Mincher of Sun World Construction to install heating wires, a job that required upgrades to the house's electricity.

''So, we're hoping the wire heaters in other places will do the trick,'' Bell said.



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