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Dam That Roof! How to Get Rid of Those Pesky Ice Dams this Winter

A child holding a stuffed animal looking out glass doors at snow
Are you ready for all the fun that winter in Utah brings? Magical snowy weather, skiing, spending a lot more time indoors, driving through snow and ice, wearing heavy coats with winter masks so that your face doesn’t freeze, worrying that the weight of the heavy snow doesn’t damage your roof or cause a leak…okay, there are some downsides to winter.  But if you are prepared, you don’t have to fear.When we have a snow-filled winter, a big concern for Utah homeowners is ice dams. If you’ve lived here for more than a year, you are probably already familiar with ice dams. But in case you’re new to this phenomenon, here’s a quick description. Ice dams form when snow melts unevenly due to warmer air escaping through certain spots on the roof. As the melted snow moves to colder parts of the roof, especially the eaves, it refreezes, creating a dam that blocks other melted snow from leaving the roof. This buildup of ice and water can cause damage to your roof. Icicles are often a sign of an ice dam. Another problem from ice dams is damage to gutters. Ice in gutters prevents water from flowing from off the roof. When the gutters are filled with ice, they become extremely heavy and they bend or even break.

Ice Dam Preventative Measures

  1. Probably the best thing to do to prevent ice dams from forming is to insulate your home properly so that the roof temperature is as even as possible. However, that can be expensive, time-consuming, and difficult to get right.
  2. Get a roof rake. Rather than let snow build up on your roof and start the freeze and thaw cycle that leads to ice dams. You can use a roof rake to remove the snow before it builds up and poses an ice dam risk. However, using a roof rake oftentimes requires that you climb up onto the roof. Who would want to do that especially in the winter? And if you are not careful, you can damage your shingles.
  3. Heat cables (sometimes called heat tapes) can prove helpful in combating ice dams.
Roof Rakes
Getting the snow off your roof quickly should be the goal to avoid water and structure damage. Roof rakes come in a variety of designs. Depending on your roof height and angle you may find that you need to climb a ladder to make full use of a roof rake. This can possibly be avoided if you get a rake that has an extendable handle. You should also look for rakes that have wheels to avoid damage to your shingles as you rake the snow from your roof. A good roof rake will likely cost around $150. But even if you are diligent with your roof rake you may still find it impossible to fully combat ice dams, especially if it snows and freezes when you are away at work or while you are asleep, which is where heat cables show their value.What are heat cables and how they can help?
Heat cables come in various lengths and are usually attached to the eaves of your house and/or the gutters. If you notice that ice dams form in only a certain area of your roof, you can save money by just having heat cables installed where needed. It’s important to understand that heat cables don’t fix the root cause of the problem. In addition, heat cables are very energy hungry so it is important to use self-regulating heating cables like those made by Raychem. Basically, Raychem’s heat cables use less energy as the temperature rises, and more energy as the temperature drops, thereby saving you electricity and money without you having to worry about it. You can also add a moisture sensor to it so that the heat cables are only activated when it senses moisture on that part of the roof.

It is very important that heat cables be installed by an expert electrician. Since the average person probably doesn’t know how to calculate loads and can damage their roof or their electrical circuit. Also, the last thing you want is to run a long extension cord to power your heat cables if you don’t already have an outside GFCI outlet nearby.

When heat cables are not the answer.
If you are thinking about re-roofing your house in the near future, it would not be cost-effective to have heat cables installed until after you have re-roofed.

Types of heat cables/heat tape
You may be surprised to learn that there are different types of heat cables and many people refer to them all as “heat tape”.

Heat Cable
Heat cables are sometimes referred to as heat trace cables or heating cables. Heat cables are what is commonly used to de-ice roofs and prevent ice dam buildup. Heat cables can be cut to length and are designed for outdoor use. Heat cables are self-regulating or self-limiting meaning that they are designed not to exceed a certain temperature to avoid overheating, but heat cables still need a temperature regulating sensor/control panel to adjust the heat output.

Heat Tape
Heat tape is more commonly used for indoor application. The flexibility of the material makes it ideal for wrapping around pipes in tight spaces to prevent them from freezing. Heat tape is not meant to be submerged and requires accuracy when being installed to avoid hot spots. It comes in various lengths and cannot be trimmed. Heating tape draws a constant-wattage and does not have a built-in protection for overheating, and therefore requires a temperature controller.

Heating Chords
Heating chords are very similar in property and ability to heat tape. It is more forgiving in application than heat tape as it has a round cross-section and doesn’t have to be wrapped as precisely. However, heating chords are less efficient than heat tape, as less of the material is in contact with the object being wrapped. Heating chords are also not designed to be submerged.

Types of heat cable sensors
It’s no secret that heat cables are energy hungry. Choosing the right method for triggering heat cables to turn on and shut off is a very important consideration.

The most basic method of managing your heat cables is with a simple on/off switch. A switch puts you in full control of managing when your heat cables are running and drawing electricity. The downside is that full control leaves you responsible for managing when the cables should be powered on and you’ll have to remember when to turn them off. If you forget for a long time, you could be surprised by an unexpected energy bill. This method also doesn’t work well if you are gone from your home for any significant amount of time and a snow shower occurs. Heat cables can be very effective, but if they aren’t turned on until after a buildup of frozen snow has accumulated, their effectiveness will be limited.

Aerial-mounted sensor
Aerial-mounted sensors like the CIT-1 sensor detect snow conditions in the air. It can detect precipitation and low temperatures. This sensor must be used with an APS control panel which regulates power sent through the heating cables, keeping energy consumption as low as possible. There are also aerial-mounted sensors like the LCD-8 that can sense snow conditions as well as control the power distribution to the heat cables.

Gutter-mounted sensor – Gutter-mounted sensors like the GIT-1 sensor can detect both moisture and low temperatures. An APS control panel is also needed with this type of sensor to regulate its energy usage.

When you are ready to have heat cables installed on your home, call on a licensed electrician from Black Diamond Experts to ensure that your heat cables are installed properly.

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