Ice Dam Removal Strategies – What You Need to Know

By: Diana Rodriguez-Zaba
Updated on: February 9, 2024

Heavy snow, freezing temperatures and winter winds take a toll on the roof. Add ice dams to this winter equation, and you have a frozen phenomenon that threatens the integrity of shingles, eaves and gutters.

Are you ready to get out the ladder and head up to the roof to remove your ice dams?

We haven’t met a homeowner yet who says DIY ice dam removal is easy. You need smart strategies that make this tough job a little less challenging. As Chicago’s leading ice dam water damage repair company, we can help.

This guide covers everything you need to know about ice dam removal.

What is an Ice Dam?

ice dam

If you didn’t know how damaging they are, you could almost enjoy the frozen beauty of those icy stalactites hanging off the roof’s edge.

However, ice dams pose a serious threat to your home’s exterior and interior because their formation backs water underneath shingles and into the house. It starts with snow accumulated on the roof that melts from the heat radiating up through your attic.

As the underside of the roof’s snowpack starts to thaw, water trickles down to gutters and eaves. These overhangs are exposed to cold air, so the melted snow freezes again and accumulates in a solid mass along the roof’s edge.

This process forms the ice dam, and water continues to cycle through melting and freezing as it backs up and flows under shingles and into the house.

What Damage do Ice Dams Cause?

Ice dams inflict twofold damage on your home with both their weight and the backflow they create on the roof.

Gutters, downspouts and eaves sag and crack under the frozen load, and heavy sheets of ice break loose crashing down on windowsills, sidewalks, porches and people.

As accumulated water behind ice dams floods your roof and loosens shingles, it seeps around flashing and penetrates beneath underlayment.

Water leaks into the attic where it saturates insulation and soaks through the ceiling into your home. In very little time, you’re faced with soggy interior walls, wet flooring and ruined belongings that need professional cleanup and water damage restoration.

What Are the Signs of Ice Dams?

While most ice dams form on eaves, they can also build up in other locations.

These tips can help you identify signs of ice dams on your roof.

  • The style, orientation and slope of a roof are important factors. Routinely check valleys where two slopes meet. If these areas seem to be covered with excess snow, they’re probably developing ice dams.
  • Routinely check eaves on the north side of the house. Minimum direct sunlight and exposure to freezing winds make them ideal locations for ice dam buildup.
  • Pay attention to where icicles are forming on the eaves. Icicles along roof edges where there are no gutters are often early signs of ice dam formation. Icicles don’t always indicate an ice dam, but they’re warning signs of a potential problem. If you see icicles on gutters that you know are clear of water, then they probably aren’t contributing to ice dam formation. However, icicles pose an overhead hazard, so it’s a good idea to get them down.
  • After a snowfall, check the attic for overhead leaks or moisture forming on walls. Both are indications of melted snow backups caused by ice dams.
  • Local weather forecasts can help you predict the chances of ice dams. Cycles of warm days and freezing nights often set up conditions that create snow melts and ice dams on the roof.

How to Remove an Ice Dam: 3 Don’ts

It’s tempting to attack an ice dam with muscle and salt, but you can actually cause more damage.

  • A shovel isn’t effective, and it can easily cause you to lose your balance on a ladder or the roof.
  • Trying to break up the ice with a hammer can damage gutters and shatter roof shingles
  • Do not use rock salt; while it melts ice, it also kills garden plants, corrodes metal gutters and peels paint.

How to Remove an Ice Dam: 3 Do’s

how to remove ice dam

Now that you know what not to do, let’s look at smart strategies for busting ice dams.

Start by taking care of personal safety before heading up the ladder. Check your equipment, and ask someone to keep an eye on you while you’re working. The buddy system makes a big difference in case of an emergency.

If you have any doubts about DIY ice dam removal, call a local handyman or roofer. If you’re comfortable tackling it yourself, try one of these three methods for busting ice dams.

1. Rake the Roof

This technique keeps you safely on the ground. Using a roof rake to clear snow eliminates the water source that builds ice dams. Raking down snow also raises the roof temperature by uncovering shingles so that they absorb sunlight. The warmer surface reduces the chances of water refreezing.

Power Tip: A wheeled roof rake makes clearing snow easier.

2. Break the Dams

As we noted previously, it’s dangerous to smash ice dams with a hammer. However, you can get the job done safely with a rubber mallet. Make sure the ladder is secure and no one is standing below.

Work slowly with the mallet, and break the ice dam into small chunks. This method takes time, but it pays off in ice-free eaves without damaging the roof.

3. Use an Ice Melter

Clear as much snow as you can with the roof rake. Fill old pantyhose with calcium chloride, and position them vertically across the ice dam. The ice should melt in 30 minutes to an hour. Unlike rock salt, calcium chloride ice melter won’t damage roof materials. However, don’t use it on metal gutters or a metal roof.

Power Tip: Use plastic sheeting to protect plants and shrubs beneath the melting ice dam.

How Do You Prevent Ice Dams?

If heat never leaked out of the attic and through the roof, chances are good you’d never have to deal with ice dams. You can’t stop warm air from rising, but you can minimize its effect on a snow-covered roof.

1. Keep Roof Vents Clear

Make sure ridge and soffit vents aren’t clogged with leaves and debris. The vents allow cold air to circulate under the roof and keep snow from melting and forming ice dams.

2. Seal the Attic

Keep attic pull-down stairs and hatches tightly closed. Seal them against heat loss from below with weather stripping around edges and foam board secured to backs.

4. Insulate Air Ducts

The attic air ducts that deliver warmth to your home also release heat into the attic space, so wrap them with foil-faced insulation. This tip can hold down heating and cooling bills year-round.

5. Protect Valleys and Gutters

It’s important to practice prevention strategies in roof valleys and gutters. Thermal breaks and snow melt cables help the eaves stay clear. Winter gutter maintenance also minimizes water damage from backed-up ice dams.

Dealing with Ice Dam Water Damage in the Chicago Area? We’re Here to Help!

Now that you understand how to bust ice dams without busting the roof, be sure to share the information with friends and family. We’re always happy to help homeowners deal with winter weather, so check back soon for an upcoming post about strategies that prevent ice dams from forming.

If you’re facing soaked ceilings and soggy floors, call ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba first. We’re ready to respond 24/7 to any emergency with the best water damage restoration services in Chicago and many of the surrounding suburbs: 773-647-1985