While I've already written about how to prevent ice dams from happening, I've found that I get far more inquiries about how to get rid of ice dams. There are plenty of 'hack' methods out there, so I decided to try them out and blog about it. The methods I'm going to discuss involve axes, ice picks, pantyhose, salt, heat cables, and a blowtorch. Of course, the most effective and safe way of getting rid of ice dams is to hire a professional ice dam removal company.
I originally posted this blog almost a year ago, but here in Minneapolis we're currently in the middle of our fourth snow emergency, and I've already seen wicked ice dams all over town. It's time for a reminder.
The most obvious way to get rid of ice dams is to just take a blunt instrument and hack away at the ice dams. I tried an axe.
Pros: Fast results - I hacked through several feet of six-inch thick ice dams in a matter of minutes.
Cons: Unsafe and cumbersome. I had to set up a ladder on the icy ground and swing an axe while standing on a ladder. The ice also really flew in my face - I should have been wearing goggles. I was only able to remove the ice down to the gutter, and only able to get close to the surface of the roof without risking damage to the shingles.
Verdict: This is a high risk, but fast and effective way of getting rid of a lot of ice, but leaves the job incomplete. You'll probably damage your roof doing this.
This sounds like a natural choice, doesn't it? I actually used my awl, but close enough. I gave it my all.
Pros: Very fast results, very little effort. It's as though this tool was made for picking at ice. Oh, wait... Still, I was genuinely surprised at how fast and accurate this method was.
Cons: Unsafe. Again, I was jabbing at ice dams while standing on a ladder, which was sitting on the icy ground. I also had to be very careful to not damage the roof.
Verdict: This is definitely my method of choice. Nothing else worked nearly as well... but again, you'll probably damage your roof doing this.
Yes, this is a product designed specifically for preventing damage from ice dams. Contrary to the name on the container, the product doesn't actually melt your roof (whew). The instructions say to toss the tablets on to your roof and they'll melt through the ice dams, allowing for "water to drain safely".
I tried tossing the tablets on the roof like the instructions said to do, but it didn't work out very well. I consider my tablet tossing skills to be above average, but I still couldn't get the tablets to end up in a good location - they all just slid together in one place. If I didn't get a ladder out to take pictures, I never would have known that the tablets didn't end up in a good spot.
Just to give the roof melt tablets the best possible chance for success, I hand-placed them on the ice dam and I used about four times as much as the directions called for.
By day two, I had some pretty dramatic results - the tablets had melted all the way through the ice dam. btw - for anyone in a southern climate that might be reading this blog, that white stuff on the ice is snow, from a very light snowfall the night before.
By the third day, not much change. There were definite holes in the ice dam, and some channels had formed for water to drain through, but the majority of the ice was still there.
Pros: If you had perfect aim and tablets didn't move after you tossed them on to the roof, this would be very safe. Some channels were created for water to drain through.
Cons: The tablets don't stay where they land, which negates the whole safety thing - I still had to set up a ladder on the icy ground and move the tablets around myself. This method was also pretty ineffective - it created a bunch of holes in the ice dam, but so what? Most of the ice dam was still there in the end.
Verdict: This might be a nice way to get down to the roof surface, and it would be nice to follow up with an ice pick after a day or two, but the tablets alone aren't great. Sure, it's safe... but so is sitting inside a warm house. Neither gets the job done.
Salt Filled Pantyhose
This is a simple, straight-forward approach. Take off your pantyhose, fill 'em up with ice melt (calcium chloride or something similar), and toss 'em on your roof. The idea is that the salt will leak through the pantyhose and eventually melt the ice dams away to nothing. This is supposed to work better than just putting salt directly on the roof, because salt applied directly to the roof will just melt a bunch of tiny holes, much the same way the tablets melted large holes.
By day two, there were several tiny holes in the ice dam. Whoop-de-doo. Salt alone would have done this.
By day three, the pantyhose had started to melt in to the ice dam, and had completely melted down to the roof. The part that hadn't melted down to the roof basically had a hard, crusty layer of salt(?) formed on the bottom of the pantyhose, and nothing else was happening. I picked up the pantyhose, broke up all the chunks of stuck together salt, and placed it back down.
On day four, I tried moving the pantyhose again to loosen up the stuck-together chunks of salt, and the pantyhose ripped apart, leaving a big mess of salt on the roof. Yuck.
Pros: This is pretty safe.
Cons: Took way too long and didn't do much. Waste of time. I wonder if I can return the pantyhose to Walgreens?
Verdict: Better than nothing.
For the record, heat cables aren't supposed to be placed directly on ice dams, but some people might try it anyway. My friend did this at a house he owns in Saint Louis Park... so I took pictures. These photos all show the heat cables after about one day.
Note the creative way of keeping the cables from touching each other. Pretty cool, huh?
Pros: Gets the job done, and will prevent the formation of ice dams throughout the rest of the year.
Cons: Heat cables aren't made for this, and I'm sure the manufacturer would tell you that this poses some type of safety hazard. Stringing up the cable was also very unsafe. It's a good thing my friend owns a jet pack.
Verdict: Don't do this.
I received a request to use a blowtorch on an ice dam, so I tried it. You can see the video here.
Pros: You can tell your wife you tried everything, even a blowtorch.
Cons: Cold fingers, waste of propane, waste of time.
Verdict: I think you get the picture.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. My favorite method was definitely the ice pick, but this was also very unsafe, and there's a good chance that the roof surface could get damaged this way. I'd rather not have to deal with ice dams at all.
After a good snowfall, rake the snow off your roof. This takes the least amount of effort and it's safe. I've been asked whether a roof rake will damage the roof, and the answer is no. A good roof rake will have little wheels at the bottom of the rake , which prevents the bottom of the rake from even touching the surface of the roof. Rake away.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, hiring a pro is certainly the best way to get rid of an ice dam. The Ice Dam Company uses steam to get rid of ice dams, which is fast, safe, effective, and complete.
Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections