Snow and ice and roofs and gutters...

By Tom Phelan - Staff Writer
Feature Article - posted Fri., Feb. 4, 2011
Photo by Tom Phelan.
Photo by Tom Phelan.

Here in the northeast, we’re used to running into shortages. Usually, the things that run short are things we use a lot. But this time, after a record-breaking snowfall in January, that something that many of us have needed to use is a roof rake – also called a snow rake.
These items have been in short supply in recent weeks. I checked with my local home store last week, and the answer I got was, “We sold of out them last week, and we’re not getting any more in stock.”
Now that’s a concern, if you have developed the same problem many of us have. There has been so much of that white, fluffy stuff coming down from the sky that all the roofs are a foot or more deep in snow and ice.
If you are one of the unlucky ones, perhaps you can canvas the neighborhood, and see if you can borrow a snow rake from a neighbor. How do you find someone who has a snow rake? Look for a house whose roof looks like a 5-year-old with a do-it-yourself haircut. Those are the roofs that have snow on the upper reaches, toward the peak, and a severe, sudden and somewhat jagged drop-off a few feet above the edges.
Chances are those houses might have what are called “ice dams” just above the gutters, backing up onto the shingles. The owners of those houses got the job done a little too late. If it is not already obvious, there is a relationship between the snow and the ice dams. When all that snow starts to melt on the roof, it turns to ice when it hits the stone-cold gutters at the edge. The iterations of snowing, melting and re-freezing just make the ice dams worse, and, in time, your house grows icicles that are only good when you see them in pictures.
If you didn’t take care of gutter maintenance in the fall, the back-up in the gutters will have occurred sooner than on other homes. Remember that when the leaves are all raked up next fall.
If your roof was really well constructed and, therefore, very well insulated, it would keep the heat from escaping to melt the snow and begin the cycle. There’s not much you can do about that now. But do take pictures now of those ice dams and icicles, so you can remind yourself in warmer weather to fix the condition. Photograph your whole roof, so you can see where the problem areas are.
If your roof is somewhat flat or has a gradual slope, it is certainly advisable to get the snow off it. Excessive weight can result in a collapsed roof. Use the snow rake – the one you borrowed from your neighbor – to pull it down and reduce the weight. At the same time, you will avoid the chances of the snow-melt-ice cycle that can be harmful to roofing materials and perhaps other parts of your house.
Smaller roof sections and those with steep pitch are less likely to suffer a collapse. But getting the snow off is preferred.
A collapsing roof is probably the worst problem that could befall your house, but it’s not the only one. The weight and recurring build-up of the ice dammed up on the gutters and extending back onto the roof can do two things. First in jeopardy are the gutters themselves. The weight will likely pull them loose from the roof or fascia boards to which they are attached. You may wake up one morning to find sections, components or entire assemblies on the ground. (Sell them for scrap, and wait until spring to replace them.)
Dealing with frozen gutters and drains is tricky. The best tactic might be to leave them alone until the weather warms enough to melt some of the ice. Banging on the ice dams and the gutters will only cause additional damage. Gutters and shingles will be extra brittle in the freezing weather. Be patient, and be careful.
Signs your roof might be developing a water problem include discolored ceilings on the uppermost level, peeling wallpaper, and water collecting in places where you can be sure it’s not condensation. Also, icicles coming down behind the gutters – instead of in front or over the top – should tell you that water has gotten in contact with the wood, and therefore possibly other building materials.

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