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How much snow can your roof hold? A guide to snow and ice dams

Is your home ready for winter? To most people, thinking of winter conjures up quaint images of picturesque, snow-covered roofs with beautiful icicles hanging from the edges. To enjoy this perfect wintery scene, your roof needs to be ready for the colder months. Too much snow, heavy icicles, and ice dams can cause expensive damage. Preparing your roof now can help you avoid it. 

The weight of snow and ice

When the first snow starts falling, children and adults equally marvel at the beauty and weightlessness of snowflakes. As weightless as snowflakes seem, combined into a layer of snow, they are heavy and can cause your roof to fail. The damage ranges from leaks to broken shingles and even roof collapse. 

It’s easy to estimate the weight of the snow on your roof: 10-12 inches of fresh snow weighs roughly five pounds per square foot of roof area. Once the snow on your roof is packed, three to five inches add the same amount of weight. 

On average, a roof can withstand the weight of four feet of fresh snow but only two feet of packed snow or one inch of ice. Building standards vary between states and specify how much weight your roof needs to be able to cope with. Those specifications are regularly updated and depend on when your home was built. If you think that there is more snow piling up than your roof can safely hold, it’s time to consider removing it. 

Why icicles could be bad news

Icicles lining the gutters of your roof are pretty. They add something to the look of any home, but they may also be an indicator of bigger issues looming. Icicles form because of a combination of snow-covered roofs and freezing weather. 

The same conditions lead to the formation of ice dams. Ice dams are thick ridges of solid ice that have built up along the eaves of your roof. As the snow higher up on your roof starts melting, water collects above the ice dam. The dam stops the melting water from running off your roof.

The damage ice dams cause

As the melting water piles up between the picturesque snow cap and the solid ice dam, it starts seeping through your roof and into ceilings and walls. On its way, the water not only enters but also damages the insulation material in your walls and roof. 

Over time, you will notice unsightly stains on your walls. They are more than just a cosmetic problem. Moisture in walls and ceilings causes mildew and mold to grow, which can lead to respiratory illness. The overall air quality of your home suffers, which is especially detrimental during the colder months when it’s not always possible to aerate your home thoroughly. 

Apart from allowing meltwater to accumulate, ice dams can damage your roof through their weight. Once the ice dam builds up, its weight might become too heavy for your gutters, causing their fittings to break. Eventually, entire gutter sections may break off. This may also cause damage to the sidings on your external walls. 

How to prevent damage from ice dams

Like with many other home repairs, the best way to deal with ice-dam-related problems is to prevent them from developing in the first place. 

Insulation and ventilation

Preventing ice dams starts with looking after your gutters and your roof insulation. High-quality roof insulation is your first line of defense when it comes to dealing with ice and snow on your roof. Ice dams form because the area close to the eaves is colder than the rest of your roof’s surface. 

If the entire roof has the same temperature, ice dams simply can’t form. Ventilation and insulation help you achieve that. In addition, you want to try and seal every possible air leak to avoid warm air from inside the home heating areas of your roof. Ventilating both the eaves and ridge of your roof means cold air can circulate under the whole roof. 

Installing heated cables

If cleaning gutters is not yet part of your preparation for winter, here is another reason to do it: clean gutters are a prerequisite for the installation of heated cables in those gutters. The cables need little or no maintenance and will keep gutters above freezing temperatures. They will slowly melt ice and snow, preventing it from forming ice dams. 

Like ventilation and insulation, the goal of heated cables is to ensure a uniform temperature across all sections of your roof. 

What about removing snow and de-icing?

If you think the snow and ice accumulated on your roof weigh more than 20-25 pounds per square foot, it’s worth considering removing it from your roof. However, before you reach for a ladder think about your own safety. 

Getting rid of the snow on your roof indeed removes one of the ingredients necessary for ice dams to form, but climbing a ladder to reach it can be dangerous at any time. Slippery, icy ground makes it even more treacherous. A safer way of removing snow is by raking it off your roof. You remain on the ground and use a long-handled rake to reach your roof. Be careful to avoid damaging your shingles in the process.

Breaking channels into the ice dam is another short-term solution that allows the meltwater that has backed up behind the dam to escape. Remember that this will only work for a few days at best: if the cold weather persists the ice dam will simply close again. 

What you can do about ice dam prevention

Most roofs in Omaha, Nebraska are built for winter and can deal with a reasonable amount of snow build-up before problems occur. Saying that it is never a bad idea to get an expert opinion on the state of your roof and give you options for how to prepare for the coming months. A roofing professional will give you a range of short-term and long-term solutions, helping you enjoy a worry-free winter in your home.  

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