The Ultimate Guide to Preventing and Maintaining Ice Dams

Ice dams are a common problem in the Chicagoland area, but they are not unavoidable. Check out our Ultimate Guide to preventing and maintaining ice dams.

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Many homeowners in the Chicagoland area experience problems with ice dams forming on their homes during the winter months. Ice dams can be extremely dangerous and can lead to many expensive problems. Without proper prevention and maintenance, ice dams can damage your roof, insulation, drywall, and gutters. This is why we’ve put together an ultimate guide to managing ice dams and keeping your home safe from damages during the harsh Midwestern winters.

What Are Ice Dams? 

Ice dams are what form when ice in gutters prevents water from draining out and away from your home. When there is a heavy snowfall, the snow on your house begins to melt from the heat escaping through your roof. However, the snow only melts from the top of the roof and then refreezes at the eaves, the area near the gutters where the roof becomes cold again. This causes build-up of ice and snow that can prevent your gutters from properly draining. If left untreated, the excess water can form mold spores in your insulation, drywall, and attic and can also cause damage to your shingles and gutters.

Causes of Ice Dams

As mentioned before, ice dams are caused by a differentiation of heat on your roof. The quality of your roof installation does not cause the ice dam; it is actually a result of poor insulation in your attic and along your heating ducts and lighting fixtures. Because of this, a significant amount of heat rises up to your attic space and through the roof, which then causes the snow on your house to melt.

As the melted snow works its way to the edge of your roof and into your gutters, it is exposed to colder temperatures again because the attic space is not directly below, and it can quickly harden and create an ice dam.

Without proper care after the formation of the ice dam, more snow could fall and make the ice dam worse and, as a result, may cause damage to your home. According to an article published by This Old House, water from the melting ice and snow can flow underneath your shingles and into your home, leaving you with additional problems like drywall and flooring damage. Early prevention and quick maintenance is crucial when battling ice dams in the winter.


It is important to start prevention early so that ice dams don’t become a problem for your home in the first place. The most effective solution to preventing ice dams is reducing or eliminating heat sources from your attic space. The temperature of the underside of your roof should be the same as—or very close to—the temperature on the outside of the roof.

In his article, Battling Roof Ice Dams, Bob Formisano lists a few potential sources of excess heat in your attic:

  • Poor attic floor insulation: Inadequate flooring insulation in your attic can be a major factor in causing ice dams on your home. This lets all of the heat coming from inside your home rise up from level to level and out to your roof. An attic insulation calculator can help you figure out what insulation levels you should have based on your home and its location.
  • Un-insulated:
    • Recessed lighting below the attic floor: Recessed lighting can produce more heat than one might think. If these lights are left uninsulated, they can be a major source of heat in your attic. Make sure they are properly insulated to prevent the formation of ice dams.
    • Folding attic-stair openings: Even though they may not be opened very often, attic stair openings should be properly insulated as well. Otherwise, heat from the rooms below can escape through the stair opening and warm your attic.
    • Heating ducts: An obvious cause of heat to the roof is via heating ducts that run through your attic. An article entitled Better Duct Systems for Home Heating and Cooling recommends keeping heating ducts insulated with R-8 insulation.
  • Furnace or water-heating equipment in the attic: Similar to heating ducts, furnaces and water-heating equipment can produce a lot of heat and therefore present a major problem in the prevention of ice dams. Move this equipment to a different place in the house if possible; otherwise make sure they are properly insulated.
  • Bathroom vents that improperly vent into the attic space: Bathrooms can be a big source of heat in your house, and if the bathroom improperly vents into your attic space, this can add a lot of heat to your roof.  Make sure that your bathrooms vent properly to the outside in order to control the problem.

Another way you can prevent ice dams is by attaching electronic heating cables along your roof’s edge. Read more about heating cables and other heat-based ways to combat snow and ice here.


It is important to fix insulation problems and keep your gutters clean in order to prevent an ice dam from forming. However, if there is already an ice dam on your home, there are some methods you can use to remedy the problem before damages occur. These include:

  • Using a Roof Rake: When a heavy snow occurs, you can unblock your gutters and clear your roof of snow-caused ice dams by using a roof rake, a tool similar to a rake or snow-shovel that has a long handle. Simply remove the snow from the roof by pulling the rake toward you. Remove as much snow as you can, especially from the bottom part of your roof, to prevent ice dams from forming or getting larger. This is the safest method since you can do it while staying safely on the ground.
  • Blowing in Cold Air: Another safe way to control and maintain ice dams is to work from the inside out. Add a box fan to your attic space and aim it directly at the spot or leak that the ice dam has caused. According to general contractor Tom Silva of This Old House, this will freeze the water in its tracks and will stop the leak quickly.
  • Using Snow and Ice Melters: Roof tablets are specially made to be placed on the edges of your roof to melt ice and snow and allow drainage. However, as Justin Meyers reveals in his article How to De-Ice Your Gutters (The Secrets of Ice Dam Removal), they tend to take a long time and only melt the spots where they are placed on the ice dam. You can also try filling pantyhose with salt or ice-melter and placing them along the ice dam. For both of these methods you will need a ladder, but otherwise they are pretty safe. They just take a long time.
  • Using an Ice Pick or Axe: This method is the quickest way to get rid of the ice dam but also very unsafe. Not only do you risk damage to your roof or shingles, you also risk injury as you will need to be up on a ladder.


Ice dams can cause a lot of stress for Chicagoland homeowners, but they can be easily prevented and maintained. Prevention is key to protecting your home, but if you find that an ice dam has already formed, try to alleviate the situation as quickly and as safely as possible. By keeping your gutters and roof clear of heavy snowfall, you and your family can have a safe and worry-free winter.