What is ice damming and how can I prevent it in my home?

The snow, wind, and freezing temps of a Chicago winter are brutal enough, but when you add the stress and damage it can cause to your home it becomes a season of survival more than anything. One of the most common pain points of winter weather Chicago homes are prone to is ice damming, which you can find as giant icicles that start at the top of the roofline and in some extreme cases, connect all the way to the ground. Not only can those icicles be dangerous for passersby but they can cause serious problems for your home.

There are a lot of questions and concerns about these monster icicles and the damage they leave on homes. While we design and build homes to prevent these unwelcome winter related issues, we wanted to explain how and why ice damming occurs, in addition to sharing a few ways you can minimize your house’s exposure next winter for those who don’t live in a BrightLeaf home.

What is ice damming, exactly?

Ice damming is the movement of melted snow (water) that then refreezes in different spots of a roof, typically around the gutters and eaves. You’ll see it most commonly with pitched roofs, resulting in large dangling icicles off the overhang or other eaves of the home.

How does ice damming happen?

How ice damming occurs is pretty simple. Think of your high school physics class – you probably remember the concept that heat rises and (the obvious one) gravity pulls things down.

In terms of ice damming, the heat in your home that’s produced by your furnace rises through each floor all the way to the top level ceiling, and then permeates to the underside of the roof and shingles. This heat starts to melt the snow that’s sitting on top of your roof into water that then begins to trickle down the slope. When the water reaches the overhang or eave, there’s no more heat in that new location and the cold air refreezes that water, causing ice damming and those crazy icicles you’ll see.

Furthermore, when the rising warm air comes in contact with the cool sheathing of the home, it also condenses creating moisture that can cause mold growth and in addition to the deterioration of the roof sheathing.

How can I prevent ice damming in my home?

Working with a contractor to provide weatherization services offers a few ways to control ice damming in an existing home. Will these methods completely eliminate ice damming in the future? Not entirely – however they can help:

  • Minimize the amount of ice damming you experience
  • Improve your overall home’s comfort
  • Lower your winter utility costs after proper air sealing and insulation

It may also be useful to get a home performance test to get an in depth diagnostic of your home’s issues to guide the weatherization work.

1. Check out your basement for vertical pipes

Look around in your basement for any pipes or utility chases that go all the way up to your roof. These spots are a prime area for heat to rise up and escape. Stop that air movement by sealing it up with spray foam.

2. Seal pipes at the roof level

Just like you did in the basement, make sure that the end of the pipes at roof level are sealed, as well.

3. Find air leakage in fiberglass

If you have a fiberglass insulated attic or basement, you can identify air leakage through darkened spots. Another good indicator are cobwebs since these are usually found around areas where there’s air movement.

4. Seal your attic access

If possible, make sure the access point to your attic is thoroughly sealed – this will help in preventing cold air from the attic leaking into your main living area and the warm air from your home escaping into the unused, unconditioned space.

5. Seal around can lights and fixtures

As much as possible, we recommend sealing around canned lighting and any other lighting fixtures that are in the top floor’s ceiling (the ceiling is just below the attic or roof space). You can use expanding spray foam to seal some of those junctions where the electrical is, minimizing air movement.

6. Air seal first, insulate second

Your first instinct might be to just add more insulation and that will do the trick alone. Instead, you need a combination of air sealing and insulation, and it needs to be done in that order. You won’t stop the air movement without tightly sealing the space first.

A custom high performance BrightLeaf home with no ice damming. 

How we protect BrightLeaf homes from ice damming

To prevent this, all BrightLeaf homes come standard with a combination of blown cellulose to insulate and one-part spray foam as targeted air sealing around all the gaps and crevices of your plumbing, electrical, and HVAC runs. Additionally, we use this around as all the top plates of each wall to keep the home warm and the attic cool, preventing icicles from forming and even more importantly – avoiding detrimental water damage and the rotting of the roof sheathing. Insulation and air sealing is completed methodically throughout the house but especially at the attic level where it is most crucial.

Ice Damming on Your Home is so Last Season

Chicago winters mean freezing temps no matter what, but we hope these tips we shared to minimize ice damming also help improve your home’s overall comfort during this bone-chilling season.

While ice damming does come with the territory of the winter months, if you’re ready to put an uncomfortable, poorly insulated dwelling behind you, schedule a call with us today to explore your high performance custom home options.

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About BrightLeaf

BrightLeaf is an award-winning, custom home builder specializing in sustainable, modern energy-efficient homes as well as remodeling and renovations. We are also a  full-service real estate brokerage that can help you buy and sell in the Greater Chicagoland Area.

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