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Winter woe: Ice dams keeping crews busy in Northland

Duluth Ice Dam Removal employees Pat Williams and Jordan Tibbals (partly hidden) use steam to melt ice dams on a Woodland neighborhood home last week. Ice dams can cause water to come through roofs. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Icicles hang from an ice dam on the roof of a Duluth house. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 6
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Ice dams can be several inches high, preventing melt water or rainwater from flowing off a roof and allowing it to enter a building through the roof. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Jordan Tibbals fuels an ice dam steamer on a job site in Duluth last week. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Ice, snow and water fall from a roof where Duluth Ice Dam Removal employee Pat Williams uses a steam hose to melt ice dams. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com6 / 6

When winter turns warm, Hans Casperson's phone starts to ring with residents needing ice dam removal.

"When it starts to go into overdrive, it's like someone flipped a switch," he said.

Beginning last week, as temperatures in the Northland climbed into the 30s and 40s, Casperson's Duluth Ice Dam Removal had two crews spending 10 to 12 hours a day using steam to remove ice from roofs in the Duluth area.

Some years are worse than others for ice dams depending on how severe the winter was, Casperson said — how much snow fell, and how much the temperature fluctuated. Usually it starts to get busy in February and March.

"It's very hit and miss. But when it's go time, it's all hands on deck," he said. "You can tell the difference in a bad year. The phone turns into a hotline."

Steam removal of ice dams is a newer technology. The system produces high-temperature, low-pressure steam. The low pressure is key, Casperson said, because it reduces the pressure on fragile shingles. He began using a steam system in his business six years ago.

"Up until recently, the standard practice was that Uncle Henry would come over and hit the roof with an ax until the ice fell apart," Casperson joked. "As a result, it takes a toll on the roof and on the house."

Ice dams are caused by heat from the house melting snow on the roof. The water from the melted snow flows to the roof's edge and freezes, Casperson said. Water on the roof then may begin to back up under the shingles and enter the house, causing damage to drywall and plaster. Moisture can become trapped in the walls, causing rot and mold.

"It's not that common, but it's not unheard of, where we'll go to places and portions of the ceiling have come down. That's when it's gone a little too far," he said.

The heat is able to escape from the house due to inadequate insulation or venting, he said. However, "we talk to people all the time who say, 'We just reinsulated, we just put in new vents and (ice dams) just keep on coming,' " he said.

He suggests residents put a thermometer in the attic for a while. If it's freezing outside, but the thermometer is recording higher temperatures, a homeowner should consider insulation and venting to avoid an ice dam from forming in the first place.

Another option is to get the snow off the roof, if possible.

"If they shoveled their houses, we would get a lot less calls," he said.