How to Avoid Hidden Water Damage in the Winter Months

In Homeowners by Doug Phelps

As another gorgeous Colorado fall gives way to winter, colder weather and snow are just around the corner. It is a good time to again visit with Mark Peter, a Denver area agent for State Farm, to discuss two forms of lesser known water damage typical to our colder climate homes – ice dams and attic condensation.

Both of these can catch a homeowner off guard, be complicated to recognize and even trickier to fix. And since many homeowners aren’t frequent visitors to their own attics any time of year and especially in the frigid winter months, water damage on the top floor of our homes is a surprise most of us want to avoid.

Doug Phelps: Mark, what are ice dams and how are they different from attic condensation?

Mark Peter: When the temperature in your attic is above freezing, and our Colorado sun is again shining after a storm, snow on the roof will melt. When the snowmelt runs down the roof and hits the colder eaves, it refreezes. If this cycle repeats over several days, the freezing snowmelt can build up and form a dam of ice. Behind this dam, water pools up. The pooling water can then back up under the roof covering and leak into the attic or along exterior walls.

Condensation of water vapor on cold surfaces in attics can cause wood to rot, which can lead to failure of the structure and costly repairs. Condensation typically occurs when warm, moist air migrates or is directed into the attic from living spaces below. Research indicates unusually high humidity in the home’s living spaces is strongly associated with attic condensation problems.

DP: What can a homeowner do to prevent them?

MP: Here are a few simple steps that can help prevent ice dams and condensation in your attic:

  • Bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans, as well as dryer vents, should never be discharged into the attic space; but always discharged outside. You may have an adequately ventilated attic, but this won’t matter if the bathroom exhaust fan dumps warm moist air directly into the attic space. This will result in condensed water vapor freezing onto cold attic materials, which will eventually thaw creating wet attic materials resulting in damage in the attic and then inside the home.
  • Minimize ceiling mounted fixtures below the attic that create the need for holes in the drywall or plaster ceiling. If you do, properly seal all ceiling penetrations to make them airtight, taking care to follow manufacturer clearance requirements for flues, chimneys, and recessed light fixtures.
  • Proper attic ventilation is key to keeping the attic cool, while adequate and properly installed insulation is key to keeping your house warm. It is critical to keep soffit vents free from obstructions to allow the natural flow of cool outside air into the attic space to replace the warmer attic air that rises and flows outside via ridge and/or roof vents. This flow of air will keep the attic cool and free of moisture build-up.

DP: These are great tips and straight-forward advice, really for all seasons of the year. Do you have any other tips of what a homeowner should do – and not do?

MP: Fortunately, building codes have requirements that attempt to prevent the problems of ice dams and attic condensation. But codes don’t address all the issues, and as codes differ from community to community and change over the years, some houses may be lacking in code adherence.

One of the items I see are older homes where the roof is not properly vented. For example, my mom’s home was built in the early 60’s. A simple brick ranch with 1 attic vent – acceptable construction in its day. She has a new roof being put on, so we will also bring the vents up to current code which will entail 6 vents. From 1 vent to 6 vents!  This should allow the home to breath, so heat does not build up in the attic. Here are some suggestions:

  • Hire an inspector or home-improvement contractor to evaluate if the insulation in the attic space is adequate for your location, all penetrations are properly sealed and insulated, and verify soffit and roof or ridge venting exists for all roof planes.
  • Keep gutters clean of leaves and other debris. This will not necessarily prevent ice dams, but clean gutters can help drain ice melt away as it makes its way to the gutters during a thaw.
  • If you have a whole house fan installed, be sure there is a good seal when the fan is in the off position.

And here are a couple not to do:

  • Do not routinely remove snow from the roof or attempt to “chip away” the ice of an ice dam. It will likely lead to shingle damage.
  • Do not install large mechanical equipment or water heaters in attics. Not only do they present an unwelcome fire hazard, but they’ll also increase the temperature in your attic.

DP: I imagine that it is always best to consult a professional for the best way to avoid ice dams and water damage.

MP: Absolutely. This is an area homeowners can save themselves a lot of angst and expense in avoidable repairs, not to mention keeping their annual premiums as low as possible.

For more information or to discuss a specific homeowner’s insurance question, please contact Mark Peter at 303-755-3220 and mark.peter.pt23@statefarm.com.