Take steps to prepare your home this winter to avoid issues such as ice damming.

In the winter, your roof and attic are susceptible to leaks caused by ice damming.

What are ice dams?

Ice dams form when there is a heavy build up of snow on a roof, followed by a brief thawing and then drop in temperature. This cycle causes the snow on the roof to start melting, but before it can all melt away, it freezes again forming an ice dam. Usually located along the eaves or the lower part of the roof, any further snow that melts is blocked by the ice dam. Water pools and is unable to drain away, forcing it to potentially back up into the shingles and leak into your home.

While ice dams can form on any house, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says they tend to be more frequent on homes where there is a major escape of warm air into the attic from the house, or where there is inadequate insulation. In addition, houses with complicated roof shapes - such as mansard or barrel-arched - can also increase the chances of ice dam formation.

How to spot an ice dam

Ice dams are hard to spot as they typically form under a layer of snow. Two indicators to watch for are: 1) icicles hanging off the eaves, and 2) the appearance of bumps at the edge of the roof.

Breaking them up

There are ways to counteract ice dams but some methods can cause more harm than good. For example, CMHC says it's not uncommon for homeowners to break an ice dam by hitting the ice with an axe or shovel. But this runs the risk of not only injury, but also damaging the roof or eaves.

Instead, CMHC recommends getting to the heart of the problem without risking additional damage. One of these recommendations is to air seal your attic floor. This not only locks out air, but helps to insulate the attic, saving you on home energy bills.

Also, insulation should be put to use in the attic. Ask a home improvement specialist about which material is the most effective and affordable at the same time.

Finally, roofs typically need to be resurfaced roughly every 20 years. When the time comes, CMHC advises that you ask your roofer to apply a self-sealing membrane before laying the shingles, making sure the membrane is long enough to extend to the eaves. Applying this covering can help waterproof the home.

Be winter ready

Of course, ice damming isn't the only winter hazard. Windy conditions can kick up lawn items and cause tree branches to fall.

To avoid wind-related damage, CMHC recommends trimming back trees that may be near your home. It's particularly important if they're near power lines. Also, put away outdoor furniture or other items that can be picked up by the wind, as these can become projectiles and damage your home.

The Insurance Information Institute also offers winter readiness tips including:

  • Keep the house at least 18 degrees Celsius (or 65 degrees Fahrenheit) to prevent pipes from freezing.
  • Maintain steps, pathways and handrails ensuring they are clear of ice and snow.
  • Upkeep furnaces, fireplaces and wood-burning stoves regularly so they are working at their optimum and safely.
Take the chill out of winter and address leaks, ice dams, regular wear-and-tear, and damage as they happen. Being proactive about maintaining your home can save you in the long run. The best thing to do is fix things as they happen because remember your home insurance policy is not a maintenance policy. It won't cover you if the damage to your home could have been prevented by proper maintenance.

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