Reuben and Tessa advise looking for a good, competent, and qualified contractor by getting help from trained and certified professionals through Building Performance Institute (BPI Contractor and Test Center Locator | Building Performance Institute, Inc.). Tessa highlights that a good contractor should discuss air sealing, attic bypasses, and attic ventilation with the homeowner.
They review crazy ice-removal methods such as hatchets, ice picks, hammers, and salt tablets in pantyhose. Reuben discusses the effective way to remove the snow by using a roof rake and doing it in segments. They talk about Steve Kuhl’s The Ice Dam Company which does ice dam removals by steaming and installing heat cables before the snow comes. They discuss the pre-covid podcast dubbed ”Roof de-icing with Steve Kuhl”.
Visit the podcast notes and the three-part series on heat cables. Links below:
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Reuben Saltzman: Welcome to my house. Welcome to the Structure Talk podcast, the production of Structure Tech Home Inspections. My name is Reuben Saltzman, I’m your host, alongside building science geek, Tessa Murry. We help home inspectors up their game through education, and we help homeowners to be better stewards of their houses, we’ve been keeping it real on this podcast since 2019, and we are also the number one home inspection podcast in the world, according to my mom. We’re back again here, we were talking about ice dams last week, all things related to how to prevent ice dams, we’ve busted a bunch of myths about how ventilation and lack of ventilation causes ice dams. I went on a super tangent about how much I hate recess lights and they should be illegal, look for an upcoming blogpost on that topic. And we kinda teased this show, talking about how we’re gonna give some people advice on if they already have ice dams, what they can do to get rid of them, it’s probably gonna be too late in the year, we’re probably gonna get some big warm-up before anybody ever needs this advice, but you know what? It’s good advice forever, but even before we get into that Tessa, right before we started the show, we were talking about maybe giving some other advice to people about where they can find contractors, a good, competent qualified contractor to help them with some of this stuff.
Tessa Murry: Yeah.
RS: If they wanna hire the right person, ’cause so many of these pain points are coming from people who have already hired someone to come out and they didn’t get the job done right. So what is someone to do?
TM: That is a great question, Reuben, and I wish the answer was really simple and easy, but one thing that we were talking about was a certification that’s out there through the Building Performance Institute, BPI that offers training and accreditation for individuals and for contractors, that has to do with basically building performance, and there’s lots of different certifications, and honestly, I have not stayed up-to-date with what they all are, but you can go to BPI’s website, Building Performance Institute’s website and do a search for contractors or professionals who have that certification, and I think it’s a good place to start, anyone that has been through that training has that certification should be educated enough to understand what causes ice dams and how to fix them. Now, they may not be the actual contractor who does the air sealing insulation work, but I would think that they would be able to help you find someone who could. I think a lot of these BPI-certified professionals are equipped to do the diagnostic testing work, like blower door tests, scans with an infrared camera, they can come in and evaluate where the air leaks are happening and how they’re happening and give you some good guidance, and hopefully connect you with a contractor who knows what they’re doing to help do the actual work.
RS: Yeah, yeah, good advice. Thank you, Tessa. And we’ll put a link to that website. It’s locate.bpi.org. We’ll put a link to that in our show notes as well.
TM: Yeah. Yeah, and I think if you’re someone who’s already been down that road, you’ve already tried insulating your attic and you’ve hired a contractor to fix the problem, you still have a problem, that would be a good place to start as someone who’s qualified to do some further diagnostic testing work on your house, do a blower door, so an infrared scan and really look to see where those air leaks are happening and if and how you can fix them. So it’d be a little bit more complicated, but if you’ve got a pretty simple house, simple attic space, the attic is accessible, you may not need to do that detailed diagnostic testing at first. When I worked in this industry years and years ago, there were a handful of people in the Twin Cities who’d been doing really good air quality, air sealing work for decades, and they didn’t need to go into a house and do a blower door test and a infrared scan to find the air leaks, they just intuitively were so familiar with so many different styles and types and ages of houses that they knew where the attic bypasses were, and they could crawl in the attic and crawl right to it, find it, seal it, and have amazing results without doing all of that, so just saying that you can have that diagnostic testing work done and in general, it’s a good idea to test, to see, to verify, to test again after the work is done, but you don’t have to do that, it’s not always necessary.
RS: Yeah, and also on a plug for us too, a lot of the time people are just, they’re frustrated, they already had somebody come out to do this, that, or the other, and they wanna get the real story behind this and they will hire us and we do a ton of single item inspections this time of year where we’re going out to tell people why they have ice dams, why they have frost in their attic, sometimes people wanna fix this stuff themselves, sometimes they wanna hire a different insulation contractor, and they want us to write a report, telling them, “Hey, look at this, fix this, fix this, fix this,” And we’re not designing a very specific scope of work, but we’re telling them what they need to go after to fix this stuff, so we do a lot of those single item inspections too, and ice dams, frost in the attic, that is our bread and butter, we are very good at those.
TM: It’s amazing how many homeowners, I feel that struggle with this problem, with the frost in the attic and the ice dams, and they’ve already been down that road to try and fix the problem, and it hasn’t been fixed. So I feel for people that are trying to navigate that, one thing I would say too, is if you’re looking to hire a good contractor to resolve these issues, to do the air ceiling, make sure that that contractor talks about all these things we’ve already discussed. Air sealing, attic bypasses, they explain to you what they are, give you some examples, talk to you about how they’re gonna seal them, that they mention attic ventilation too, but hopefully they’re not selling that as they’re, the main solution to the problem, if they are, run the other way, [laughter] we wanna punch more holes in your attic, that’s not gonna solve it, but also just be weary, I think it’s a good idea to get a couple of different bids, we’ve talked about that on the podcast too, from different insulation contractors, and I’ve seen, this blows my mind too, with the insulation contractors, they’ll write up a bid, and it’ll say, air-seal the attic and add R-49 and a homeowner who doesn’t really know what that means, might look at it and say, “Okay, good, well, they said they’re gonna air-seal the attic bypasses and blow in an R-49,” but is that even possible? Ask yourself, Can someone physically get into the attic and do those things?
TM: I’ve seen an insulation bid look just like that on a story and a half house that had a dormer on the back before and a dormer is, basically where, the front of the house might look like it’s just a story and a half, simple story and a half, but from the back of the house, it looks like it’s a two-story house and basically kind of like a very low-pitched attic space above that dormer, and it’s not anything that’s physically accessible, usually, it’s you can’t crawl inside that attic space, it’s very small, and a lot of times it’s framed with a 2×4, and this poor person had an insulation contractor out that told them they would air-seal the attic bypasses and blow in an R-49, and it’s like, how do you physically do that, in this attic space? You can’t.
RS: Yeah. Impossible.
TM: So just be cautious when you’re working with these different contractors and ask lots of questions and get multiple bids.
RS: Yeah, well, that should wrap up today’s show.
TM: If you have those houses like the dormers or the story and a half or the Cathedral ceilings where you physically can’t get in there and you can improve the R-value or insulation, there’s some other methods that you can use as a homeowner to combat that, Reuben, you’ve done some good research on this topic and you’ve written some thorough blogs, I think you should take it away. [chuckle]
RS: I’ve tried them all, I’ve tried them all, and the tried and true method is to remove the fuel for ice dams, the fuel there is snow, and if there is no snow in your roof, you will not have ice dams, it’s as simple as that, and to get the snow off, the best way to do it is to use a roof rake, and it’s this big thing on the end of a pole, it almost looks like the end of a push broom, but it’s made out of metal, and sometimes out of plastic, I guess. And you just get this big long extend-o tent pole type of thing, and you reach up and you pull the snow off your roof, and it seems like it should be easy, it’s actually a lot more work than it looks like in pictures or in videos, it’s like, you’re using from upper body strength, you’re using your shoulders for that, if there’s a big snow storm, like we had at the beginning of this year, where it lasted over about two days, you don’t wanna just say, “Okay, I’m gonna come out when it’s all done and I’ll do it all then.” You treat it just the same way you would when you shovel or snow blow your driveway, you do it in segments, you do it like every eight hours or something like that, so you’re not dealing with a foot and a half of snow, do it periodically.
RS: But it’s very effective. And the idea is that, if you can rake off the first, maybe four feet of snow at the eaves, usually, and I say usually, it’s not 100% of the time, but most of the time, that’s enough to where you can get your shingles exposed, the shingles get to see the sun. Everything stays warm enough to where you don’t have ice dams form, once the water runs down and it gets to that part of the roof where it’s normally really cold, it actually stays warm enough where the water can run off and you don’t have these wicked ice dams. So removing the snow, removing the fuel for ice dams, very effective. It just takes a lot of work, you gotta get out there with a roof rake, it’s a lot of arm workout, and every once in a while, you’ll have roofs where it’s not an option, I mean, if you got a two-story roof, and there’s no way to get up there with a roof rake, I’m not suggesting you get out there with a ladder, that could be very dangerous, sometimes houses are so close to each other, they’re too close where you don’t have the right angle to stand on the ground and rake it, ’cause you’d have to be standing in the middle of your neighbor’s house, so there are cases where you can’t actually use a roof rake.
RS: Oh, and side note, Tessa. Big question I get, isn’t the roof rake gonna damage the shingles? Potentially, if you’re using a roof rake over and over again constantly, and you’re constantly rubbing down and you’re getting it right down to the shingles over and over again, sure, you could wear away some granules and you might take a 30-year single and you might end up getting 27 years out of it because you’ve worn away some granules. Not the end of the world. I’d say it’s a fair trade-off, but, back when I used to live in Minneapolis, I had a roof rake that had these tiny little wheels at the bottom of it, where the surface of the roof rake never actually made contact with the shingle, so I was never wearing away any granules. They have these tiny little rollers.
TM: Is that typical for most roof rakes? I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that.
RS: I haven’t gone shopping for roof rakes. I would have told you, yeah, they all come with that, ’cause that’s what mine had. [chuckle]
TM: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.
RS: Yeah. They do make them. And then there’s other things like, there’s this Minnesota company, I should have looked it up before we did the podcast, I think it’s called the Minnesnowta Razor or something, you know what I’m talking about, Tessa? It’s the Razor Roof Rake. Maybe you can Google and I’ll wax on other topics.
RS: But look up Minnesnowta Roof Rake Razor Snow Removal Device or something, some Minnesota dude who invented this thing, and it’s basically like you have a plastic shoot that slides underneath the snow, you cut underneath the snow, and then all the snow just slides down. It looks super effortless, it looks like a really nice device, but it surely costs a lot more than a traditional roof rake. You find it?
TM: Yeah, I think so.
RS: What’s the real name?
TM: Well, Minnesnowta Roof Razor.
RS: Okay, alright, simple as that.
TM: Yeah, yeah.
RS: Check that out. It looks a lot easier than your traditional roof rake, but I’m sure you probably have a tough time getting those when we have these huge snow events, I should reach out to those guys and see if I can get an affiliate link and I will help sell their product, how does that sound, Tessa?
TM: Well, as long as it works, and if I’m looking at the right thing, it’s kind of an interesting… It almost looks like it’s a pole with kind of like a sail attached to it, if you’re on a boat, it looks like a sail, silver metal kind of sheet, basically.
RS: And it slides under the snow.
TM: Interesting. Yeah.
RS: And then the snow will slide right down, yeah, and it’s novel. But anyway, the point is remove snow from your roof, if you’ve got a very low slope and you’re gonna hire somebody to come out and maybe shovel it off, just make sure they’re using plastic shovels that are gonna be less damaging to your shingles. But that is another tactic. If you get some huge dumps of snow, there are snow removal companies out there, one of our favorite, many-time podcast guest is Steve Kuhl, he’s got a bunch of different companies, but one of his companies is The Ice Dam Company, I mean, what a great name. [laughter] And they offer snow removal, they will come out and they will shovel snow off and it’s hideously expensive, I think it’s like 300 or 400 bucks an hour or something.
TM: Oh my God.
RS: But it’s dangerous work.
TM: It is. Now, does his company also do steaming ice dam removals too, besides just shoveling the snow off?
RS: Yeah, they do, and that’s a good point. If you do have leaks at your house and you need to get those ice dams off, and that’s where somebody is using a true steamer. I know there’s a lot of companies out there where they use high temp pressure washers and those pressure washers will get that water super hot, but it’s still coming out at full pressure. Now, on a steamer, it’s true steam, there’s no pressure involved, and most companies don’t actually steam ice dams, most of them use high temperature pressure washers, and you got the potential to cause a lot of damage to your shingles. We’ve seen a lot of that over the years. It should only be steam, and that’s what the Ice Dam company does, that’s kind of their bread and butter, he’s got a warehouse full of these things, and that’s the only way they do it, so that’s why I’m always quick to recommend that company for any of that type of work.
TM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And now, if someone doesn’t wanna rake the roof or they can’t rake the roof, and they don’t wanna have to pay thousands of dollars to have that ice dam steamed off every year.
TM: There is another option for you. And we’ve talked about this, we had Steve Kuhl actually on a podcast to talk about this specifically, but you can install heat cables.
RS: Yeah. Yeah, heat cables would work too. Yeah, roof heating cable, whatever you wanna call them.
TM: It can give us another option.
RS: Yep, those are very effective. But that’s being proactive, that’s something that you’re not gonna do in the middle of winter. You gotta do that in the spring, summer, or fall before the snow comes, and they don’t actually prevent ice from forming at the eaves, they just cut channels through where ice would form and then make it so that you don’t have a big dam that’s trapping a bunch of water, they make it so that water has a pathway to get through the ice dam, and those are extremely effective, yeah, yeah, installed properly and you have a working product.
TM: If installed properly, a big if.
RS: As we learned from Steve, there is a huge difference in the types of cables, if you’re thinking about installing heat cables on your house, I strongly recommend you go back and listen to our podcast from… What was that? Probably about two years ago or so, we might have recorded that during COVID.
TM: At least, yeah.
RS: But we’ll put a link in the show notes. No, Tessa, this was pre-COVID, we had Steve, this is when we were still doing podcasts in the studio, I think it was.
TM: That’s right, so this must have been probably 2019.
RS: But still.
TM: We had him. Yeah, that’s a great podcast. I learned so much about heat cables from him, I had no idea.
RS: Yeah. Yeah, I think you’re right. Yeah.
TM: Yes, he did, yeah. And there’s a trick to how you install it, where you install it and what type of cable you use, so definitely, yeah, check out that podcast.
RS: Yeah, go listen to that before you buy your own cables, even if you decide he’s full of it, you’re gonna learn something, [chuckle] ’cause he knows more about this than anybody I know, he is a total geek about ice dams and heat cables and all that jazz, so we’ll put a link in the notes.
TM: Yeah, he’s an expert, for sure, he’s an expert.
RS: And then, let’s talk about other removal methods, ’cause I’ve seen some crazy stuff out there, I’ve seen people use hatchets and ice picks and hammers, and salt tablets.
TM: Well, yes, I was gonna ask you, those little salt tablets, like those hockey puffs, do those things, do those actually work with this? Have you tried them?
RS: I’ve tried them. It says, simply toss the tablets on your roof one for every one foot of ice dam or something like that, and I got pictures of it where I went to my neighbor’s house and I got right up next to the roof and I tossed them with precision, but they land on the ice and they just slide and they just don’t really wanna go. It’s just goofy. You’re never gonna get it to look at, anything like what they have in the pictures, and then when it does melt, it melts these holes through the ice dam, and then it gets to the bottom, and then you got the salt tab and the salt tab melt its way to the gutter, and now you’ve got the salt attacking your gutters, and then over time, those holes in your gutters refill with ice and snow, and then they get closed up again.
TM: Pointless. Okay, so that’s not a good one…
RS: At a hardware store and my first job ever was at a hardware store, and I remember that the old school method that people would use is, they’d get salts, they’d get ice melt, calcium chloride or something, and then they’d fill up pantyhose with this stuff, and you tie a rope on to the end of the pantyhose, and then you can take it from the ground and you sling it up onto the ice dam, and so the pantyhose is perpendicular to the ice dam, and then that salt is gonna melt channels through the ice dam, and this actually is effective, Tessa, I know you’re laughing, you think this is crazy, but it actually does work. And what I’ve learned, if it’s really cold weather, like below zero to where the salt isn’t really gonna start melting, people would take water and you’d activate the salt and you just pour a little bit of water on each one of these pantyhose salt-filled contraptions, and it would start the melt process, and then it would melt all of these channels in your ice dam, and you just leave it on your roof ’cause there’s so much salt in there, and it’ll prevent leaks for the rest of the year, now it’s goofy looking, you got pantyhose sitting on your roof, but I guess it’s better than having leaks coming into your house.
TM: That blows my mind, and you have to place them in a certain way, so you need a ladder and you have to get up on a ladder and get up on your roof.
RS: If you can get a length of rope, you tie the rope on to the end of the pantyhose. The idea is that you’re supposed to be able to get from the ground and you get the right throw, and if it doesn’t land quite right, just perpendicular to the ice dam, pull it back down and you do it again, and you keep doing it until it lands just the way you want it, and that way, you don’t have to use a ladder and that way when it’s all said and done, and all the snows gone for the year, you grab the rope and you pull it back down off your roof, I kid you not.
TM: I’m just laughing. This is like an ice dam Winter Olympics, if you are super bored and you’ve got nothing else to do and you’re a little bit athletic, and make it competitive, you could try this.
RS: I see the Structure Tech Winter Olympics coming up. Oh man. Yeah.
TM: Oh no. Oh my gosh. Alright, make sure you record that, if you decide to do it, that will be very entertaining to watch, [laughter] but for the average homeowner, I’d say probably the easiest route to go is a roof rake, if you can, right? Roof rake, and then heat cables, if it’s an ongoing issue, and it’s a type of attic or roof where you can’t prevent them. You are going to end up spending some money on the electricity for those heat cables, every year. Do you have any idea how much?
RS: I suppose you add up the watts and you figure what do you pay per kilowatt-hour, which is 1000 watts, for one hour is a kilowatt-hour, and you divide it all out by time, and here in Minnesota, we’re paying somewhere around, I don’t know, What is it? Maybe 11 or 14 cents a kilowatt-hour. So it’s not astronomical, people think of hundreds and thousands of dollars, it’ll be enough to where you may notice a blip in your electricity bill, you may not. I think I have enough cyclical difference from month to month to where I’d never be able to pinpoint a change in my electricity bill just because of heat cables, so it does cost you money, but it’s not like it’s gonna send you to the poor house.
TM: Okay, I’m surprised by that. Yeah, I guess I was expecting it to be more impactful on your electrical bill, but I guess, yeah, it does depend on the size of house and how many linear feet you install and how often you have it running and all of that, but the best option would be to do that air sealing and insulation, ’cause it is gonna be more money upfront, but in the long run, your house is gonna be more energy efficient, and you’re saving money on heating, cooling costs in the long run. So it’s a good investment, but it depends too on how long you plan on being in your house, and how bad the problem actually is, so every person is gonna have to weigh those pros and cons on a personal level to determine what’s the best course of action.
RS: We’re happy to come out, we do this type of consulting, and we can usually help direct people and tell them, Hey, this is your best option, you ought to buy heat cables, you ought to do this, you ought to do that, we can certainly help with this stuff.
TM: Yeah, definitely. You know, one thing we did not mention that I was just thinking about, here in where I’m at in Red Wing, there’s just a ton of old old houses here, and a lot of them do not have adequate insulation and big walk-up attics or whatnot, tons of ice dams here, but I was just thinking, if you’re someone who’s gonna do some attic work, that would be the time to address some old house issues too. Which it’s like peeling back an onion when you have an old house, you try and do one thing, fix one problem and you realize there’s a whole another problem awaiting you, but I was just thinking, the old houses that have knob-and-tube wiring in the attic, you do not wanna add more insulation over top of that, knob-and-tube wiring, so if you’re gonna be addressing the attic and doing air sealing and insulation and all that…
RS: Good advice, Tessa, take care of it all at the same time.
TM: Hopefully this was helpful.
RS: Well, I’d say we’ll call that a wrap, so thank you everyone, you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. I’m Reuben Saltzman with Tessa Murry saying, godspeed.