Preparing for Winter Weather Winter Snow Buil-up, Ice Damming and Water Infiltration Issues

Preparing for Winter Weather

 What could be nicer than being safely home on a winter’s day, enjoying a cup of hot chocolate while snow falls outside your window?  That is until you hear the drip, drip, drip more often associated with a rain  event and find that the pretty snow from outside your home has transformed into  the leaky headache inside your home.  

 Snow build-up and ice damming on rooftops are a leading cause of winter season  woes: causing water damage inside a home or building. Water infiltration not  only can damage the contents of your home but can also cause delamination of  the roof sheathing and wood rot of the building’s rafters and framing, creating a structural safety issue. It also causes attic  and wall insulation to fail, which can increase heating bills substantially.  Furthermore, wet insulation is a prime location for the development of mold  growth, which can lead to a number of health problems such as asthma,  allergies, colds and sinus conditions. With so many risks, it is important to  understand the causes and prevention methods for snow build-up and ice damming.    

 It’s Not a Snowman  

 Snow build-up occurs anywhere that snow can accumulate on a roof and remain  without sliding off, such as valleys and on flat roofs. The most common area of  concern is wherever a vertical wall exists, such as at a chimney or the  junction of a step-up from a lower roof to an upper roof. The vertical wall creates a space for snow to sit for extended periods of time  and to extend up above the step flashing installed during standard roofing  construction, which generally reaches only a few inches up the vertical wall.  If the building paper is not installed correctly, the problems are further  exaggerated. As the snow melts, the moisture can travel behind the siding,  dripping down the inner wall behind the step flashing and into the building.  The same problem occurs behind chimneys whenever the snow builds up higher than  its crickets.  

 What is an Ice Dam?

 An ice dam is the thick layer of ice that builds up along the edge of a roof and  clogs the gutters, and moves up the roof and under the shingles. Normally, snow  build-up melts and flows off the edge of the roof or through the gutters. When  the air temperature is very low, however, this water refreezes at the edge and  in the gutters because these areas are not warmed by any attic space below  them. This rim of ice traps runoff water, which then backs up on the roof,  travels under the shingles and leaks inside.  

 Improper insulation and a lack of ventilation accentuate the problem. Both  improper insulation and insufficient ventilation allow heat to migrate into the  attic and warm the underside of the roof causing the snow to melt. Furthermore,  short sheathing at the gutter location creates a gap between the roof sheathing  and the fascia board at the eave lines, allowing backed-up water to enter  directly into the attic space.  

 One solution which does not address the causes of ice damming but does prevent  the intrusion of water into the interior space is the installation of eave  flashing. The use of a membrane such as Ice and Water Shield is recommended.  Such membranes have adhesive backing that stick to the roof and wall sheathing,  are self-sealing and will not allow water penetration at the fasteners.  

 The best way to prevent ice dams and curtail water infiltration problems is to  decrease the heat in the attic space below the roof deck. The cooler the attic  is, the less melting will occur. Improving insulation and ventilation is one of  the most effective means of keeping the temperature of the space directly below  the roofing at an appropriate level. This area should be the same temperature  as the outside temperature.  

 Without adequate ventilation, heat will build up regardless of the amount of  insulation. There are many ways to increase ventilation such as gable vents,  ridge vents, soffit vents and box or dome vents. Although increasing attic ventilation will take some time, effort and money, the  movement of air it creates substantially cools this area of the home or  building and helps protect the owner from potential damage from snow build-up  and ice damming.  

 Quick fixes, such as removing the gutters or sweeping the snow off the roof  after each storm, are not a replacement for long-term solutions. Both  alternatives ignore the cause of the problem and threaten life, limb and roof.  Another option is to mount heating cables on the roof which will not allow the  formation of the ice dams. However, heating coils not only have the tendency to  burn out if not properly regulated but, also, in some cases the ice dams form  above the coils. Ironically, cooling the roof, rather than heating it, is the  best way to prevent snow and ice dam problems.  

 Snow build-up and ice dams can be a nightmare, causing water infiltration and  subsequently extensive interior wall, ceiling and personal property damage.  However, by consulting with a professional engineer, and informing yourself  about solutions–such as installing eave flashing, correcting inadequate attic ventilation and  ensuring that insulation is properly installed–you can find effective methods of contending with winter’s less wonderful attributes.   

 Mitchell H. Frumkin, PE, RS, CGP is the president of Kipcon, Inc., a  full-service New Jersey-based engineering firm specializing in community  association services.  

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