How winter storms can damage your home

How winter storms can damage your home

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Executive Vice President, Case Design/Remodeling

Thursday, February 11, 2010; 10:30 AM

Bill Millholland of Case Design/Remodeling discusses what to do if your home has been damaged by the blizzard and how to safely minimize the impact on your roof, pipes, heating and more.


Oak Hill, VA: Thanks for taking these questions!!

Last weekend when our power was out (we have electric everything — heat, hot water, stove, etc.), my husband was getting ready to turn off the water to the house and drain the pipes once the temperatures dropped below 50 degrees. He was worried about the pipes freezing, especially with the temps dropping outside to 8 degrees at night.

Fortunately, the power came on by the time the house was at 52 degrees, so he didn’t do that. My question — is there an indoor temp at which one should drain the pipes to prevent frozen pipes? (I know about keeping the water dripping to help prevent back pressure.) I couldn’t find anything on the web.

Bill Millholland: That’s a pretty sharp husband you’ve got there.

Turning off the water supply to the house and draining the pipes is a good idea if you have lost power and the temperature in the house is approaching freezing. I’m not sure of the exact temperature to take action but somewhere around 40 degrees seems right to me. There really is no harm in turning the water off but there could be significant damage if a pipe freezes and bursts so better to play it safe.

I’m happy to hear your power is back- stay warm&#33


Arlington Va: What can we do about an «ice dam»? We have one by our big picture window but the gutters are too high up to reach.

Thank you.

Bill Millholland: Unfortunately, there really isn’t much you can do once an ice dam has formed. Many newer roofs are installed with an ice/ water shield. It’s a «sheet» like material that is used under the first several courses of roof shingles and helps to keep water that backs up from the dam from infiltrating the home. Another thing you can do in the future is to keep warm air from escaping the house into the attic cavity. This warm air is what heats up the snow and caused it to melt and form ice dams.

If you are not seeing water infiltration and just have lots of icicles- keep your fingers crossed.


Arlington, Va.: Re Outside Heating/AC units, do they need to be kept clear of snow? What are the dangers of them covered by snow? Thanks

Bill Millholland: As a precaution, I would clear the snow away from them. This is especially true with heat pumps that require air circulation to function properly.


Alexandria, Va.: I saw something on TV about how you need to shovel your window wells. is that true? Why?

Bill Millholland: I would question that advice. If you have a window well that has a drain installed in the bottom of it and you are not seeing water leakage at the window I’d be inclined to leave it alone. I would be worried about breaking the window as I tried to clear the well but maybe my shovel skills are not up to par.

If you do have water infiltration- clean out the well&#33 Water in the house is never a good thing and all reasonable efforts to keep it from happening should be employed. In any case- be careful.


Alex, VA: I have no plans to go up on my sloped roof. It’s a lock that I’d slide off of it.

But, I am concerned about ice dams. What should I look for to tell me that I have a problem in the making?

Bill Millholland: I second you feelings about climbing up on the roof&#33

Ice dams are formed by the snow melting and then refreezing at the edge of the roof creating a «dam.» The most common cause of this is warm air escaping the home and heating the underside of the roof enough to cause melting. So, if you can keep warm air in the house it should keep dams from forming. If you see areas of the snow on the roof that have melted but the edges have not, you might be seeing the start of a problem. If the house was built in the last 5-10 years the roof might have been installed with ice/ water shield. This material keeps most ice dams from causing leaks.


Arlington, VA: I appear to have a leak coming from under an upper level deck which sits on a flat roof of some sort. Do I call a roofer for this, or a deck installer? Thanks.

Bill Millholland: If it is a roof leak you should definitely contact a roofer. It is not unusual for flat roofs to leak after a period of time. This is especially true if there is a deck above it making routine maintenance of the roof impractical. If the deck (or portion of it) needs to be removed, I would contact a local remodeler or deck company to do that portion of the work.


Great Falls, Va.: Is there anything we should do about the mountains of snow on our gently sloping roof as it is starting to melt? Won’t the load get even heavier as the snow turns to water?

Bill Millholland: The snow should not be a problem. A «gently sloping» roof is under more strain that a steeply sloping roof but it is likely to have been engineered to handle these situations. Clearing the snow from the roof is not worth the risk of climbing up on the roof. Leaks are much easier to fix than broken bones&#33


Silver Spring, Md: I have a severe ice dam condition with hugh icicles around the roof perimeter of a split level house with some obvious soffit water back up in one location. The roof has ridge vent ventilation. My impression — there is a complete lack of attic ventilation and significant heat loss through the attic insulation. Is there some emergency/temporary measure I can do now? Also need a referral to correct this long term. Thanks!

Bill Millholland: Hmmm. it does sound like you have a problem. I’m not sure what can be done in the short term other than try to control any water damage to the interior of the home.

In the longer term- keeping warm air from escaping into the attic is the first course of action. In addition to helping resolve ice dam issues, it will result in a more comfortable and less expensive to heat home. I would contact any of the professional insulating companies we have in the area. NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) is a good source for referrals our local chapter is You can also find roofers that are members. That would be my second suggestion- ice/ water shield installed under the first several courses of the roofing.


Elkridge, MD: How concerned should I be with removing the snow on my deck?

Bill Millholland: I was thinking the same thing and I’m not going to do it. Decks are engineered to support very significant loads- think of a crowded party. As a result, the snow should not be a problem unless you have extra time on your hands and the driveway, walk, HVAC equipment and the neighbors have all been shoveled out.


Kensington: How dangerous are the icicles that descend from gutters on the house? Should we knock them down? Leave them alone? Shovel off the roof? Thanks.

Bill Millholland: They at least look «menacing» don’t they?

Please don’t shovel the roof- it isn’t necessary and it’s just not a good idea to climb up there in these conditions. I have knocked down a few of the icicles that I could easily reach from the ground with a broom or shovel. I wanted to relieve some of the stress on the gutters. Again- safety first&#33


Falls Church, VA: Thanks for doing this chat! I am currently experiencing a pretty steady drip through some upstairs ceiling/windows due to ice dams on the roof. The roof is too tall for me to reach with any ladders I have, so I can’t clear the dams or snow. I understand the steps we can take in the future to help minimize the chance of ice dams. But what should we do right now to stem the flow of water into our house, and minimize the damage to our walls and ceilings.

Bill Millholland: If you are able, you might go up into the attic to see if you can diagnose where the water is coming from- maybe there is a leak or drip in a specific area? If so, put a bucket or towel there to catch some of the water. It is often leaking right at the connection between roof rafter and ceiling joist/ attic floor joist (or right at the edge of the truss) and that makes it very difficult to reach from the interior. Someone just suggested poking a hole in the drywall and collecting the water that flows through the hole. This might be worth a try if the leak is «localized» and not along the entire perimeter of the roof. Controlling the flow of the water and preventing water from infiltrating other areas of the home is a good idea. The leak should stop if this snow ever melts&#33 Please- be careful with any of these remedies-drywall/ plaster is much easier to fix than you are&#33


Arlington Va: The gutters in the front of our house are frozen in an ice dam. The gutters are too high for us to reach — any suggestions? Water is dripping in like crazy around our big picture window


Bill Millholland: First the inconvenience of all of this snow and now water leaks- ahhhh&#33&#33

I’m sorry to say I really don’t have a solution. If you can get into the roof area above this wall of the house you might be able to control some of the water. The other suggestion would be to open up a small area where it’s leaking to try and drain as much as possible before it gets into walls or the basement.


Columbia, MD: We have ice all down the side of the back of our townhouse. I think it’s melting a bit from the side of the house out, and there’s now water dripping in from the top of the back sliding door frame into the house. Not sure what to do or even where to start!

Bill Millholland: That doesn’t sound good.

The ice portion of the question has me concerned- it sounds like you have heat escaping the house, melting the snow and then refreezing as ice. This is creating dams and causing other snow that melts to «back up» under the siding and housewrap and enter the home. Siding and felt/paper/housewrap are installed to overlap the course below them preventing water from above from entering the home. When water comes from below- we have problems. Again, sorry but there really isn’t much to do now other than try to control the water from going too far from where it is entering the house. Minimize the damage to as small an area as possible.

How winter storms can damage your home


Regarding Ice Dams: My realtor just sent me an email with this info:

«Ceiling leaks often appear at drywall edges. Using a tool like a screw driver, punch a small hole in the drywall and collect the water in a bucket. This simple procedure will contain almost all of the damage. Once the snow is gone, the leaks will stop. The dampness should dry out in a week or so.»

Bill Millholland: It’s certainly worth a try if you have water coming into the house in one specific area. It’s true that this should all go Away after the snow melts so controlling the amount of damage/ water infiltration is a good idea.


Washington, DC: Our typical DC row house has an ice dam, and water has been coming into the three rooms at the back of our rear two-story addition. We have pots/buckets/plastic covering as much as possible, and will clearly have to repair the plaster/drywall and repaint everything, plus possibly have to refinish the floors (we are trying to keep them as dry as possible).

What about all the insulation in the walls, just replaced last fall when we put new siding/sheathing/Tyvek on the rear portion of the house? Is it better to remove the interior walls, instead of pulling of the Hardiplank/sheathing? What should be done to the roof — I am thinking of having it rebuilt, extending it out further from the back of the house, and raising it a bit to tie into the main roof of the row house, and putting new insulation in (there is very little plenum space the way it currently is built).

What roofing material would be most durable (the main roof is original standing seam tin, well maintained)? Thanks.

Bill Millholland: Just replaced all of the siding and insulation and now this? Sorry.

Controlling the water/ minimizing the damage is a good idea. Once we’re past this mess, I would have an remodeler or insulator asses the situation. If the insulation has gotten wet, it may need to be replaced. If there has been damage to drywall/ plaster that needs to be repaired, it probably make more sense to do this from the interior.

If you are interested in rebuilding the roof ( I would do it for aesthetic reasons- probably not worth it for these types of situations that occur infrequently) adding more slope to it and extending further over the back wall is probably a good idea. When this work is being done make sure to add the appropriate amount of insulation and seal any openings (recessed lights, pipes, etc.) to keep warm air from escaping into the attic. As for roofing material, you have lots of choices. Standing seam metal is a very durable material and may «fit» best with the existing roof/ house. Other options would include a high grade fiberglass shingle (40 year roof) or slate/ faux slate. The fiberglass will probably be the most cost effective option.

Good luck and stay warm&#33


SW Virginia: My husband and I are staying in a vacation home in rural Virginia. The power went off for a couple of days, but the fireplace was cozy. Then the power came back on. I walked over to the faucet but nothing came out. And the toilet tank doesn’t fill. So my guess is either the pipes are frozen or there is a problem with the well pump.

Over a foot of snow sits on the ground, topped by sheets of ice. My husband has turned up the heat to 80 degrees hoping that the pipes in the crawl space will heat up and that will do the trick. So here’s my question — is his idea kinda nuts? Isn’t the best thing just to wait until it gets warmer; and hope nothing has cracked? Also, if he keeps turning the faucet on and off to check if water is flowing, could that in itself damage the water pump?

Bill Millholland: A husband have an idea that’s «kinda nuts»- never&#33

Actually, trying to thaw the pipes is a reasonable course of action. You might turn the water off until they are clear just in case one bursts- then you really have a mess. Leave the faucets on/ open while you’re doing this.

After the snow melts, get someone out to take a look at the pipes and have them suggest a few ways to insulate or relocate them so this doesn’t happen again. A cozy fireplace, rural VA and heat- if you can just find a bottle of wine it sounds like a great place to ride out this storm&#33


NW DC: Hi, we have dormer windows and flat shelf- like roof areas by them. My husband went out yesterday and broke off the icicles and said the whole roof on the front was a sheet of ice under the snow. He got most of it off, but I’m just wondering how important it is to get out and remove the ice and snow from the roof? The rest of our roof has a steep pitch, so I think it’s should be ok, but I don’t want to risk damage. He grew up in New Hampshire, where they routinely get out and shovel their roofs, but it seems pretty dangerous to me. Please advise what the best way is to handle this amount of snow and ice on the roof.


Bill Millholland: It sounds like you have the ice dam problem so many others have commented on. While clearing the snow and ice may help relieve the situation and limit the damage to the interior of the home it is just not safe to climb up on the roof to do it.

He survived the first attempt- count your blessings and keep him on the ground&#33

That’s the last question. I know it may seem like a big deal but other than water issues, the storm really should not be damaging to your home. The next issue is going to be all of this stuff melting. Clear the area around your downspouts and make sure water is draining away from the house. If possible, clear away snow from windowsills and door thresholds. It is never good to have water in your house- make sure it has a clear path away from the foundation/ basement walls so you do not experience those issues next.

Stay safe and warm&#33



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