Hello, I’m a suburban Chicago homeowner and I suffer from ice dams.
This is not an uncommon problem at the moment: All those pretty icicles you see hanging from house roofs are possible indicators of the problem caused when snow and snowmelt gathers on the edge of rooftops and freezes in such a way that a ridge of solid ice forms, trapping water and more melting snow behind it.
What happens next isn’t pretty. According to PBS series-turned-home improvement brand This Old House, “ice dams can tear off gutters, loosen shingles, and cause water to back up and pour into your house.” The pooled water works its way under shingles and ends up inside your ceiling or running down walls.
“It’ll wick its way inside,” says Joe Majerick of Village True Value Hardware in west suburban Western Springs, local ice dam expert. The weight of the water finds a path under the shingles, he told me Monday, “and once it starts, it just follows that path.” A roof in good condition isn’t immune.
Snow melts on the roof due to heat escaping upwards from your home; the edges and eaves don’t have that heat so the melt refreezes. If you have a problem area, there are a few things you can do to remedy the problem longterm but let’s save those for later. With all the snow and warming temperatures, you and I have ice dams right now.
My wife alerted me to this late Sunday, showing me the water pouring into our enclosed porch. There are worse places to have water leaking than a porch — when we lived in Oak Park an ice dam caused a waterfall in our living room.
In our current house in LaGrange, the ice over the porch was bad but the one above the bedroom was worse. So was another ice dam in front. In desperation, I got up on the roof and tried to break it up with the claw end of a hammer. Don’t do this. In Oak Park, I tried duct-taping a hair dryer to a mop handle and holding it out of a window for a long time. Don’t do this either.
Here’s Majerick’s genius solution: Pantyhose. Pantyhose! Better, I’m sure you’ll agree, than a hammer or hair dryer. Fill pantyhose with a calcium chloride product like Snow Joe or End Ice until you have more or less a sausage of crystals and then heave it up onto the ice. Just tossing handfuls of ice cutter will scatter.
“You’re trying to melt a channel,” Majerick said, “so that any water behind it can get out.”
Most importantly, he said, do not, do not use ordinary rock salt. It will ruin your roof, drying out the asphalt shingles, rusting the metal nails and attacking anything else it touches. “Salt is so corrosive,” he said.
His store is out of ice cutter at the moment but should have more in soon; they sold 50 bags on Friday as well as 300 buckets of roof pucks. Roof pucks are tablets of calcium chloride in easily tossable form; he finds them effective but a number of Amazon reviewers say they can just burn a tablet-sized hole through the ice where they land.
I found a 50-pound bag of calcium chloride at my local Menards and got to work. You should avoid touching calcium chloride with your skin but COVID meant I had latex gloves around. My wife donated two pairs of pantyhose, so four, um, devices.
How did it work?
First, you’ll ask, did it feel strange filling up pantyhose with End Ice? It did! Thank you for asking. But not half as strange as then slinging the pantyhose tubes up onto the roof. A neighbor walking her dog slowed down just enough to suggest she didn’t want to get caught watching.
You’ll want to have the pantyhose legs more or less filled but not overstuffed, Majerick said, then tie off the ends. The calcium chloride leaches out and attacks the ice in a line that makes a channel. If it’s a long ice dam, place them every four feet or so, perpendicular with the gutters.
I think I got mine more or less right, but they were heavier and more unwieldy than I would have guessed. I used at least 30 pounds from that 50-pound bag to fill four legs and ended up with two tubes of black pantyhose filled with blue End Ice, two off-white. I opted for the off-white for the front of the house but your fashion choices will be your own.
Within a few hours, the stockings had created valleys and water was already leaking through.
Those looking for a more long-term solution can consult a roofing company or an ice dam specialist. Additionally, quick-response services around Chicago can clear away ice dams with pressurized steam much more thoroughly than with a sock but it can cost hundreds of dollars.
Insulate: If you have problem areas, more insulation under the roof can slow the heat escape that starts the cycle. Look for any gaps, inside and out, that suggest heat escape and fill them, such as with foam or caulk. Chimney areas and old-style recessed can lights can also cause problems, says This Old House.
Pinpoint the problem: Though icicles may be an indicator, ice dams aren’t always visible from the ground. They can form above skylights, says the Ice Dam Company of Minneapolis. Our roof has a flat section where two slopes come together and has had ice dams before, I put down a heat mat on an extension cord every fall and plug it in when it snows.
Electrical systems: Less DIY options are permanent, professionally installed networks of heated wires and cables that follow eaves and gutters all along the edges of your roof.
Do not use a hammer (as I did) or heat source (ibid) to try to solve the problem. Hitting an ice dam with a hammer will not break up solid ice, it’ll just shower sharp shards into your face. Both methods are dangerous and can damage your roof.
I lost a shingle myself. I’ll cover it later with pantyhose.