Handling Ice Dams: A Property Manager’s Guide

Ice damming on roof

By Shannon Skeels, General Manager, FSCM

One of the most common roofing issues that a property manager hears in wintertime is about leaking inside the home. Sometimes this indicates there’s a problem with the roof, but frequently the roof itself is sound but a buildup of ice, called an ice dam, is causing water to back up inside the home. Persistent leaks can cause the insulation to be damaged, mold to form in the house and walls to buckle. The manager will need to work with a contractor like FirstService Construction and Maintenance (FSCM) to diagnose how the ice dam was created, how to treat it and how to prevent it from occurring next time.

How Ice Dams Are Formed

Poor insulation, freeze/thaw cycles and uneven roof temperatures cause ice to build up around the soffits and gutters, and then produce a ridge of ice called an ice dam. As snow and ice continues to melt off the roof, the water can back up behind the ridge and the roof shingles. Roofing materials are designed to shed water moving downward off the roof, but when it moves upwards, it finds its way into the roofing materials and causes leaks into the attic or down walls. In this case, there could be nothing structurally wrong with the roof, but action still needs to be taken to prevent further damage.

Some areas of a roof are more likely to form ice dams than others. Ice and snow melts quickly on warmer parts of the roof, such as an area that gets a lot of direct sun or a section where poor insulation lets interior heat outside. Once the melt hits the unheated edge of the roof, it freezes and the ice ridge forms on the overhang. Gutters, especially those that don’t drain well, will also retain water that will freeze and contribute to the ice dam. Additionally, a thick blanket of snow actually insulates the home, but this adds to the surface temperature of the roof and snowmelt can be backing up underneath the snow layer.

We’ve Found an Ice Dam, Now What?

FSCM can attack the problem with several solutions. One is to remove as much snow as possible after an ice storm using an ice rake, a special tool like a sideways shovel. This can be a cost-effective solution if an association has had ongoing issues with ice damming. We can remove at least four feet of snow off the bottom edge of the snow layer so that water can flow freely as the rest of the snow melts.

Another solution is to accelerate melting the ice dam by putting a layer of salt or calcium chloride in the affected area. Finally, a roofing professional can cut channels into the ice dam to allow water to flow off the roof. These solutions are best left to professionals, since it requires getting on ladders during slippery conditions. Some DIY articles may recommend using a blowtorch, hammer and chisel, or chainsaw to remove the ice dam, but this approach is dangerous, and we do not recommend it.

The leaking may have caused damage inside the house. A contractor like our Construction and Maintenance division will need to clear out the damage, install better insulating materials, and mitigate any mold penetrating the walls and ceiling. The property manager and board may need to get involved to determine who is responsible for the interior repairs. If the water intrusion is not the result of a failure in the roof, the association homeowner might have to pay for the cleanup.

Preventing Ice Dams

Ice damming is often preventable. The first step is to diagnose how the dam was created. A contractor will look for hot spots on the roof that are not naturally occurring; for example, insulation might be missing or insufficient to keep the heat inside. Heat can also escape from heating ducts, bathroom vents, attic openings or heat-producing equipment like furnaces or water heaters in the attic. FSCM knows the proper insulation thickness for our temperature zone and all local building codes to fix these heat-producing sources. We are also expert at installing the best ventilation to make the most of a building’s insulation and heating.

Ice dam prevention starts when the roof is built. First, builders should install a water and ice shield layer under the first few rows of shingles on the lower edge of the roof, approximately 2-3 feet. This adds an impermeable barrier at the edge where ice dams are most likely to form and ensures that any water getting under the shingles won’t make it inside the attic. As discussed above, proper insulation around all areas of the roof is a must. Additionally, a contractor can add special heat tape to roof to build channels where ice may form, but this route can be expensive and works best with light layers of snow.

Get the Experts Involved

Ice damming is important for every property manager to understand since it can happen on even the most well-built roof. Once a roof leak is reported, get the experts involved quickly before the damage becomes severe. FirstService Construction and Maintenance, an ancillary company of FirstService Residential, has the expertise and equipment to take care of your roof issues – and many other maintenance work orders as well!