You Can’t Always Stop Ice Dams From Forming, But These Tips Can Help

D.P. Taylor
Written by D.P. Taylor
Reviewed by Ami Feller
Updated April 7, 2022
Ice dams and snow on the roof of a house
Photo: Maudib / iStock / Getty Images

Ice dams are a pain in the gutter, but these tips can make life easier

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Ice dams can be the bane of a homeowner's existence when winter rolls around. Removing and preventing ice dams is challenging, but their risk is twofold. On the one hand, meltwater that builds up along the ice dam can leak through the roof and into your home, causing major water damage. And on the other, the ice dam itself becomes quite heavy and can cause significant damage to your gutters and siding.

While you can’t always prevent ice dams from forming, you can take measures to keep them somewhat at bay. If they do show up, it’s wise to remove them. These five tips can help.

1. Accept That You Can’t Completely Prevent Ice Dams

The reason ice dams are almost impossible to completely prevent is that it only takes minutes for snow to melt on your roof, run down to your gutters, and then refreeze if the conditions are right. If it is below freezing but the sun is beaming down on your roof, you're likely going to get ice dams.

Theoretically, you could prevent them by immediately removing snow on your roof before it has the chance to melt, but most people don't have the time to do that. The most you can do is minimize the amount of ice dams you get, and immediately remove them when they form.

2. Take Immediate Action to Remove Ice Dams

If ice dams do form, it's time to take action before they cause damage to your gutters, siding, or interior.

The problem you're dealing with comes down to less-than-ideal temperatures in certain areas—either too hot or too cold. There are a few ways to manage temperatures in and around your gutter system.

Blow Cold Air

Blowing cold air may seem counterintuitive—don't you need heat to melt the ice dams? Not always. Set up a box fan in the attic and point it at the roof where water is starting to leak in. This will freeze the water very quickly and prevent further damage.

Rake the Roof

Scrape snow off the roof with a long-handled roof rake, which you can buy at a hardware store or online for about $50 to $200. If you can remove the snow soon enough, you may prevent the ice dam from forming altogether. But even after the fact, removing snow will change the roof's temperature and alter the dynamic so ice dams don't continue to build.

Use Calcium Chloride

Calcium chloride is used to melt ice on driveways and sidewalks, and it will also melt ice dams. But instead of sprinkling on the roof, fill some pantyhose with the material and align them vertically over the dam, with one of the ends hanging about an inch over the edge of the roof. This creates a channel in the ice that will allow water to flow and prevent more ice dam build-up.

3. Avoid Risky Methods to Remove Ice Dams

Dangerous ice dams on a red brick house
Photo: LegART / iStock / Getty Images

There are a few methods you should avoid when removing ice dams.

Don’t Manually Remove Them

One thing you don't want to do is to try to dislodge the dam with blunt force, such as with a shovel or a chisel. This is more likely to damage your roofing, and it's not safe for you either.

You may need to do some physical removal of ice dams if the problem is bad enough, but in that case you should hire a professional gutter cleaner or local roofer to do the job. Just make sure they use the right equipment: if you get a contractor who uses hammers or even a blowtorch and causes damage, your homeowners insurance may not cover it.

Don’t Use Hot Water

Hot water may seem like a good idea for dislodging ice dams, but they have some key problems. Hot water takes a long time to melt an ice dam, so you'll have to run it for a long time. This will flood the area around your home. In addition, if the ice dam is already causing damage through leakage into your home, blasting the area with a ton of water will probably make the problem worse. Steam is a much better option, but you'll need a professional with the right tools to do the job.

4. Implement Gutter Ice Dam Prevention Methods

If you want to prevent ice dam build-up from happening in the first place, there are a few tried-and-true methods to implement.

Install Ice Shields

One of the best things you can do to get ahead of ice dams is to ensure that your roof has ice and water shields installed at key areas, like on the eaves and rakes, in the valleys, and around penetrations. This is often part of building code in Northern climates, but even in parts of the South, most contractors put ice and water shields in the valleys. 

“Ice dams are going to form no matter what, and the ice and water shield acts as a barrier against the water that does get in underneath the roofing materials,” says Ami Feller, Expert Review Board Member and and owner of Roofer Chicks in New Braunfels, Texas. When your contractor is installing the ice and water shield along the eaves and rakes of your home, check with the manufacturer and building code, but generally the material should go at least 24 inches past the outside wall. Depending on the slope of your roof and the width of your soffits, this is likely two rows of ice and water shield.”

Avoid 3-Tab Shingles

If you’re worried about ice dams, you should avoid using three-tab shingles on your roof. That’s because they have multiple breaks in them—you guessed it, three per shingle— that allow flowing water to get under the shingles. Architectural shingles (also called laminated or dimensional shingles) have fewer openings and therefore less opportunity for water to get in—and freeze.

Rake the Roof

Just as raking the roof is a good ice dam removal method, it's also the best way to prevent an ice dam from forming. If you can immediately rake the last three to four feet of your roof of any snow using a roof rake, you can prevent an ice dam from forming when the sun starts shining.

Add Insulation

Temperature management is key for ice dam prevention, so some of the best steps you can take are inside the home, not outside. Add extra insulation in the attic to prevent heat from escaping and melting the snow.

Seal Air Leaks

Cracks and gaps can cause warm air to escape even if you have properly insulated your attic. Seal attic gaps and vents with an expanding foam and reroute any vents somewhere else.

Install Heating Cables

You can hire a general contractor to install heat cables on your roof, ideally in the summer months. It generally costs between $500 and $1,300 to install deicing cables, largely depending on the size of your roof.

Install Heated Gutters

Installing a heated gutter system—which consists of an insulated and heated cord through your gutter—can stave off ice formation. Heated gutters cost $13 to $26 per linear foot, including professional installation.

5. Call a Roofing Contractor

Ice dams are a tricky problem, so if you feel like you're out of your depth trying to deal with the issue and these methods just aren't cutting it, it's time to hire a professional.

Contact a roofing contractor near you and tell them about your problem. Ask them what methods they'd use to remove the ice dam. If it involves hammering and chiseling, choose another contractor, as they could cause damage that your homeowners insurance may not cover.

Your best bet is to find a contractor that uses steam techniques on your gutters. Once you are happy with the contractor, ask for a quote.

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