Ice dams are formed when heat from the inside of a home escapes into the attic and warms the roof decking during the winter. This heat, combined with heat from the sun, can melt snow on the roof. Melting snow on the upper roof and in the valleys then runs down toward the eaves as water. When it reaches the cold eaves and gutters it refreezes. The continual thaw and re-freeze process creates ice dams. The result is water backing up under the roof shingles or behind fascia boards where it can soak through the roof decking or wall sheathing, causing damage to attics, ceilings and walls, and flooring.
Ice dams form along the roof’s edge, usually above the overhang. Here’s why. Heat and warm air leaking from the living space below melt the snow, which trickles down to the colder edge of the roof (above the eaves) and refreezes. Every inch of snow that accumulates on the roof insulates the roof deck a little more. This keeps more heat in the attic, which in turn makes the roof even warmer and melts more snow. Frigid outdoor temperatures ensure a fast and deep freeze at the eaves. The worst ice dams usually occur when deep snow is followed by very cold weather.
The Havoc Ice Dams can create
Contrary to popular belief, gutters do not cause ice dams. However, gutters do help to concentrate ice and water in the very vulnerable area at the edge of the roof. As gutters fill with ice, they often bend and rip away from the house, bringing fascia, fasteners, and downspouts in tow. Roofs leak on attic insulation. In the short term, wet insulation doesn’t work well. Over the long term, water-soaked insulation remains compressed, so that even after it dries, the R-value is not as high. The lower the R-values, the more heat lost. This sets up a vicious cycle: heat loss-ice dams-roof leaks-insulation damage-more heat loss! Cellulose insulation is particularly vulnerable to the hazards of wetting.
Water often leaks down inside the wall, where it wets wall insulation and causes it to sag, leaving uninsulated voids at the top of the wall. Again, energy dollars disappear, but more importantly, moisture gets trapped in the wall cavity between the exterior plywood sheathing and the interior vapor barrier. Soon you can smell the result. In time, the structural framing members may decay. Metal fasteners may corrode. Mold and mildew may form on the surface of the wall. Exterior and interior paint blisters and peels. As a result, people with allergies suffer.
Peeling paint deserves special attention here because it may be hard to recognize what’s causing it. Wall paint doesn’t usually blister or peel while the ice dams are visible. Paint peels long after the ice–and the roof leak itself–have disappeared. Water from the leak infiltrates wall cavities. It dampens building materials and raises the relative humidity inside the wall. The moisture within the wall cavity tries to escape (as either liquid or vapor) and wets the interior and exterior walls. As a result, the walls shed their skin of paint.