How To Get Rid Of Ice Dams

By
Home Inspector with Structure Tech Home Inspections

 

While I've already written about how to prevent ice dams from happening, I've found that I get far more inquiries about how to get rid of ice dams.   There are plenty of 'hack' methods out there, so I decided to try them out and blog about it. The methods I'm going to discuss involve axes, ice picks, pantyhose, salt, heat cables, and a blowtorch.  Of course, the most effective and safe way of getting rid of ice dams is to hire a professional ice dam removal company.

I originally posted this blog almost a year ago, but here in Minneapolis we're currently in the middle of our fourth snow emergency, and I've already seen wicked ice dams all over town.  It's time for a reminder.

Ice Dam 3

Axe

The most obvious way to get rid of ice dams is to just take a blunt instrument and hack away at the ice dams.  I tried an axe.

Axe

Pros: Fast results - I hacked through several feet of six-inch thick ice dams in a matter of minutes.

Cons: Unsafe and cumbersome.   I had to set up a ladder on the icy ground and swing an axe while standing on a ladder.  The ice also really flew in my face - I should have been wearing goggles.  I was only able to remove the ice down to the gutter, and only able to get close to the surface of the roof without risking damage to the shingles.

Verdict: This is a high risk, but fast and effective way of getting rid of a lot of ice, but leaves the job incomplete.  You'll probably damage your roof doing this.

Ice Pick

This sounds like a natural choice, doesn't it?  I actually used my awl, but close enough.  I gave it my all.

Reuben's Awl

Pros: Very fast results, very little effort.  It's as though this tool was made for picking at ice.  Oh, wait...  Still, I was genuinely surprised at how fast and accurate this method was.

Cons: Unsafe.  Again, I was jabbing at ice dams while standing on a ladder, which was sitting on the icy ground.  I also had to be very careful to not damage the roof.

Verdict: This is definitely my method of choice.  Nothing else worked nearly as well... but again, you'll probably damage your roof doing this.

Roof Tablets

Yes, this is a product designed specifically for preventing damage from ice dams.  Contrary to the name on the container, the product doesn't actually melt your roof (whew).  The instructions say to toss the tablets on to your roof and they'll melt through the ice dams, allowing for "water to drain safely".

Roof Melt Tablet Container

Roof Melt Tablet Instructions
Roof Melt Tablets

I tried tossing the tablets on the roof like the instructions said to do, but it didn't work out very well.  I consider my tablet tossing skills to be above average, but I still couldn't get the tablets to end up in a good location - they all just slid together in one place.  If I didn't get a ladder out to take pictures, I never would have known that the tablets didn't end up in a good spot.

Roof Melt Tablets Tossed

Just to give the roof melt tablets the best possible chance for success, I hand-placed them on the ice dam and I used about four times as much as the directions called for.

Roof Melt Tablets Placed Day 1

By day two, I had some pretty dramatic results - the tablets had melted all the way through the ice dam.  btw - for anyone in a southern climate that might be reading this blog, that white stuff on the ice is snow, from a very light snowfall the night before.

Roof Melt Tablets Day 2

By the third day, not much change.  There were definite holes in the ice dam, and some channels had formed for water to drain through, but the majority of the ice was still there.

Roof Melt Tablets Day 3 #2 Roof Melt Tablets Day 3 #1

Pros: If you had perfect aim and tablets didn't move after you tossed them on to the roof, this would be very safe.  Some channels were created for water to drain through.

Cons: The tablets don't stay where they land, which negates the whole safety thing - I still had to set up a ladder on the icy ground and move the tablets around myself.  This method was also pretty ineffective - it created a bunch of holes in the ice dam, but so what?  Most of the ice dam was still there in the end.

Verdict: This might be a nice way to get down to the roof surface, and it would be nice to follow up with an ice pick after a day or two, but the tablets alone aren't great.  Sure, it's safe... but so is sitting inside a warm house.  Neither gets the job done.

Salt Filled Pantyhose

This is a simple, straight-forward approach.  Take off your pantyhose, fill 'em up with ice melt (calcium chloride or something similar), and toss 'em on your roof.  The idea is that the salt will leak through the pantyhose and eventually melt the ice dams away to nothing.   This is supposed to work better than just putting salt directly on the roof, because salt applied directly to the roof will just melt a bunch of tiny holes, much the same way the tablets melted large holes.

Salt Filled Pantyhose Day 1

By day two, there were several tiny holes in the ice dam.  Whoop-de-doo.  Salt alone would have done this.

Salt Filled Pantyhose Day 2

By day three, the pantyhose had started to melt in to the ice dam, and had completely melted down to the roof.   The part that hadn't melted down to the roof basically had a hard, crusty layer of salt(?) formed on the bottom of the pantyhose, and nothing else was happening.  I picked up the pantyhose, broke up all the chunks of stuck together salt, and placed it back down.

Salt Filled Pantyhose Day 3 #1 Salt Filled Pantyhose Day 3 #2

On day four, I tried moving the pantyhose again to loosen up the stuck-together chunks of salt, and the pantyhose ripped apart, leaving a big mess of salt on the roof.  Yuck.

Salt Filled Pantyhose Day 4 #1
Salt Filled Pantyhose Day 4 #2

Pros: This is pretty safe.

Cons: Took way too long and didn't do much.  Waste of time.  I wonder if I can return the pantyhose to Walgreens?

Verdict: Better than nothing.

Heat Cables

For the record, heat cables aren't supposed to be placed directly on ice dams, but some people might try it anyway.  My friend did this at a house he owns in Saint Louis Park... so I took pictures.  These photos all show the heat cables after about one day.

Heat Cables #2

Note the creative way of keeping the cables from touching each other.  Pretty cool, huh?

Heat Cables #3
Heat Cables #4
Heat Cables #6

Pros: Gets the job done, and will prevent the formation of ice dams throughout the rest of the year.

Cons: Heat cables aren't made for this, and I'm sure the manufacturer would tell you that this poses some type of safety hazard.  Stringing up the cable was also very unsafe.  It's a good thing my friend owns a jet pack.

Verdict: Don't do this.

Blowtorch

I received a request to use a blowtorch on an ice dam, so I tried it.  You can see the video here.

Pros: You can tell your wife you tried everything, even a blowtorch.

Cons: Cold fingers, waste of propane, waste of time.

Verdict: I think you get the picture.

Summary

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  My favorite method was definitely the ice pick, but this was also very unsafe, and there's a good chance that the roof surface could get damaged this way.  I'd rather not have to deal with ice dams at all.

After a good snowfall, rake the snow off your roof.   This takes the least amount of effort and it's safe.  I've been asked whether a roof rake will damage the roof, and the answer is no.  A good roof rake will have little wheels at the bottom of the rake , which prevents the bottom of the rake from even touching the surface of the roof.  Rake away.

Roof Rake Head

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, hiring a pro is certainly the best way to get rid of an ice dam.  The Ice Dam Company uses steam to get rid of ice dams, which is fast, safe, effective, and complete.

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Re-Blogged 5 times:

Re-Blogged By Re-Blogged At
  1. Robert Butler 12/14/2010 08:54 AM
  2. Teri Eckholm 12/14/2010 10:26 AM
  3. Kathleen Cooper 12/14/2010 11:37 AM
  4. Jason Channell 12/16/2010 12:40 AM
  5. Dan Edward Phillips 12/21/2010 11:57 AM
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Show All Comments
Rainer
102,222
Jan Stevens
Coldwell Banker Pittsburgh - Cranberry Township, PA

Entertaining AND educational! Brings back memories of my Minnesota childhood. Don't often need that information in PA but we did last winter -- and this one is starting out the same way!

Dec 14, 2010 03:53 PM #39
Ambassador
1,101,399
Melissa Zavala
Broadpoint Properties - Escondido, CA
Broker, Escondido Real Estate, San Diego County

Ice Dams. My first house, an insurance claim, happy memories brought back by reading your post.

Dec 14, 2010 04:11 PM #40
Rainmaker
229,465
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Jan - ours is starting out pretty brutal too.

Melissa - :)  so glad I could refresh those pleasant memories!

Dec 14, 2010 08:21 PM #41
Rainmaker
420,595
Leslie Ebersole
Baird&Warner Fox Valley - Saint Charles, IL
REALTOR - Chicagonulls Western Suburbs

Insulation. Ventilation. Insulation. If a homeowner is going through this dangerous set of gyrations then a visit from a local insulation guy is essential.

Ice dams make me shivery.

17 years ago (the winter my son was born) a neighbor of my (now late) mother in law was killed poking away at ice dams with a broom handle at her home in PA. Snow and ice piled down on her and since she lived alone on a large property no one found her for a day. It was a lovely home on a lovely property, plenty of money was available -- what a very sad way to die from a preventable problem.

 

Dec 14, 2010 09:05 PM #42
Rainmaker
229,465
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Leslie - WOW, what story.  My jaw is on the floor.  What a great anecdote about why you should hire a professional for this.

Dec 14, 2010 09:10 PM #43
Rainmaker
71,029
Nate Gerard
Keller Williams Premier - Stillwater, MN
CDPE, East Metro Twin Cities Realtor

This is truly awesome. I'm bookmarking this and will send out the link to all who need it.

I can only imagine after our large storm last week that this will be a huge problem for many folks real soon.

Thanks for all the hard work in set up, analysis, and reporting!

Dec 15, 2010 12:02 AM #44
Rainmaker
1,287,228
Carla Muss-Jacobs, Principal Broker/Owner
BuyersAgentPortland.com | (503) 810-7192 Portland Metro Exclusive Buyers Agent | 100% Buyer Representation ~ 100% o... - Portland, OR
Buyer Focused ~ Buyer Results

That ICE MELT was hilarious.  Only melted in the exact size and diameter of the disk.  Too funny.  We don't get that c-c-c-c-c-c-c-cold here.  I can't even imagine having to deal with ice dams.  Interesting to learn about other parts of the nation. 

Dec 15, 2010 12:55 AM #45
Rainmaker
103,346
Robert Slick
Beach and River Homes - Georgetown, SC
NRBA, RDCPro, Trident/CCAR MLS

Another great post with cool pictures. It's cold here this week in South Carolina but no snow yet! I actually heard a born and raised South Carolinian say yesterday, "It's too cold to snow." What?

 

Dec 15, 2010 01:10 AM #46
Rainmaker
229,465
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Nate - thanks, I was just as interested in the different results.  

Carla - I know, right?  I always chuckle when I see those in peoples garages now.

Robert - Thanks!  Check this out: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2051/does-it-ever-get-too-cold-to-snow

Dec 15, 2010 06:33 AM #47
Rainmaker
220,029
Jeremy Wrenn
Wrenn Home Improvements - Wake Forest, NC
President, Wrenn Home Improvements

Thanks, I wondered exactly what ice dams were.  I had a picture but never really understood it.

And nice pun on the awl.  LOL!

Dec 15, 2010 09:58 AM #48
Ambassador
515,290
Cindy Marchant
Keller Williams Indy NE 317-290-7775 www.marchantteam.com - Carmel, IN
"Cindy in Indy" , Realtor, Fishers Real Estate

This must have taken FOREVER to write!  It's like a tutorial...lol

And you are dangerous close to a milestone yourself in points!

Cindy in Indy

Dec 15, 2010 09:42 PM #49
Rainmaker
17,626
Gabe Fitzhugh
Florida Homes Realty & Mortgage - Lake City, FL
REALTORĀ®

Thank you. This is a very informative and interesting blog post.

Dec 16, 2010 01:22 AM #50
Rainmaker
229,465
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Jeremy - I couldn't help myself with the awl pun.

Cindy - This did take a while, but I only write one blog a week.  I certainly couldn't do this every day!  Yes, I'll get another one of those cool little badges really soon!

Gabe - thanks for reading.

Dec 16, 2010 06:31 AM #51
Rainmaker
220,029
Jeremy Wrenn
Wrenn Home Improvements - Wake Forest, NC
President, Wrenn Home Improvements

It was good.  I totally enjoyed the "awl"ful pun.  :)

Dec 16, 2010 08:00 AM #52
Anonymous
Anonymous
Anonymous

Reuben, thanks for the in depth post.  You're always a great source of excellent information!

Dec 16, 2010 09:52 AM #53
Rainmaker
229,465
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Jeremy - thanks :)

Frank - glad to help.

Dec 17, 2010 01:00 PM #54
Rainer
62,307
Mary Jo Quay
Remax Advantage Plus - Minneapolis, MN

Reuben, as you well know, the Tudors in Minneapolis are prone to ice dams because of roof angles. I have one spot where the gutter filters water through my bathroom window when it begins to thaw.  This week water started dripping through the bathroom vent.  It is 10 degrees out, and the first floor bath floor was soaked from water filtering through the vent.  It MAKES ME CRAZY!  Can't picture me on a ladder on the 2nd floor with an ice pick at 10 degrees.

Dec 18, 2010 06:54 PM #55
Rainmaker
229,465
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Mary Jo - I sure do.  I bet you have some wicked ice dams at bottoms of the valleys, right?  That water is probably leaking in through the vent because it's actually in the ceiling, and the hole in your ceiling for the vent is the first place the water has to drip out.   I took a great photo of this same thing happening just a couple days earlier this week, and posted it on the Structure Tech business page - http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=476943334225&set=a.404565154225.183657.77586164225 .  This house had water dripping out of the bathroom fan, but as you can see from the thermal image, most of the water was in the ceiling and wall.

I'm guessing that's what's happening at your house.  I've done a lot of ice dam inspections lately...

Dec 18, 2010 09:49 PM #56
Rainer
62,307
Mary Jo Quay
Remax Advantage Plus - Minneapolis, MN

You better get back out there and take more photos.  The icicles are now several feet long, and dripping like mad forming a thick sheet of ice on top of the snow.

My problem is where the knee wall meets dormer forming an acute angle trickling into one downspout that looks like Minnehaha Falls with six foot icicles.   Every Tudor in town seems to have the same problems. There is no way I'm trecking up to the 2nd floor via shaky ladder, ice pick in mitten, to attack ice blocks in clogged gutters.

Got a better solution?

 

Dec 26, 2010 06:52 PM #57
Rainmaker
229,465
Reuben Saltzman
Structure Tech Home Inspections - Minneapolis, MN
Minneapolis Home Inspections

Mary Jo - I've taken so many photos in the last week!  I've never seen ice dams this bad, or heard from so many people that have water leaking in to their house.  

If you'd like to share a photo of your icicles / ice dam with me, I'd use it for a blog that I'll be posting on Tuesday.

Really, your best solution is to contact an ice dam removal company.  If you can't wait for them, do the nylon stocking thing and lay them perpendicular to the ice dams; this will at least create channels for the water to drain out.

Dec 26, 2010 08:36 PM #58
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Rainmaker
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Reuben Saltzman

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