Ice Dams, Leaks, Budget Gaps and Liability Risks: Some Strategies for Coping with a Winter from Hell

Published on: March 30, 2015

Most of us have never seen a winter like the one that (we hope) has finally ended. We’ve never seen this much snow, temperatures this cold sustained for this long, this many ice dams or this many leaking, sagging roofs. And the damage resulting from these “never seen” conditions is likely to achieve “never seen” status as well.

You can measure misery in many ways. For us, it’s the number of calls we’ve gotten from association board members and managers, asking when to file insurance claims, how and whether to deal with permanent fixes to snow and ice-related problems, and how to deal with the liability risks related to these questions.

I can touch on these issues in general but not in depth in this space. You’ll hear a more comprehensive and more detailed discussion at a webinar CAI-New England is presenting April 15th, which I strongly encourage managers and board members to attend.

How Do You Get Rid of Ice Dams?

Experts recommend three techniques for removing ice dams: physical force (raking, shoveling and hammering); melting; and steaming.

Clearing accumulated snow from the roof using rakes or shovels may prevent ice dams from forming and will be necessary to get to the ice dams you want to remove. But standing on a snow-covered roof can be dangerous (this falls firmly in the category of something board members shouldn’t do themselves), not just for the people doing the raking, but for the roof itself. We strongly recommend that contractors doing this work be tied off for their safety.

Asphalt shingles, common in New England, can get brittle and breakable in cold temperatures. Raking and shoveling may break off pieces of the shingles, creating holes and potential leaks. Hammering ice dams or hacking them with other tools to break them up increases that risk. Wooden mallets are preferable to hammers and chain saws and flame throwers are definitely bad ideas. “You hope people will use plastic shovels, but I saw a lot of metal,” Ralph Noblin, principal at Noblin Associates Engineering, says.
In addition to creating leaks, damaging the shingles may also void the warranty on your roof. As a result, your five-year-old roof may not be protected by the 20 or 25-year warranty you thought you had. Damaging rubber roofs under warranty may be even more problematic. Warranties on shingled roofs usually cover only the materials; warranties on rubber roofs cover labor as well. If you’re going to remove ice dams by whacking them, it is probably best to let the roofer who installed the roof (and provides the warranty) do that work.

Whatever the nature of your roof or its warranty, you have to balance the risk of damaging the roof by removing the snow against the risk that ice dams will form and cause leaks on sloped roofs, or the possibility that the weight of accumulated snow will cause flat roofs to collapse ─ as nearly 200 of them did in Massachusetts alone this winter.

Noblin suggests that you consider the long-range weather forecast and the history of your buildings when considering whether you should clear snow from your roofs. If temperatures are going to rise following a storm, the heat of the day will take care of the snow; and if you’ve never had ice dams or leaks before, then you may not need to shovel or rake the snow to prevent them. That advice applies in normal times, however, Noblin points out, and as we know, the past winter was anything but normal.

As a general rule-of-thumb, many experts suggest: If more than a foot of heavy, wet snow accumulates on the roof, remove it. Some experts suggest removing all but two inches of snow, so the roof itself isn’t touched or damaged in the process. On a flat roof and probably on sloped roofs as well, you will want an engineer or an architect to inspect the roof after the snow is removed to be sure the roof’s structural integrity hasn’t been compromised.

Melting and Steaming

Melting ice dams with chemicals or steam is safer and may also be more efficient than whacking and dislodging them. Neil Rouleau, a building envelope specialist, recommends putting calcium chloride in tubes (pantyhose can work) and then laying the tubes perpendicular to the gutter. (Laying them parallel won’t disburse enough chemical to dissolve the ice dam.)

Ice-melt compounds including sodium, calcium and magnesium are also effective, but they have some drawbacks. Although those chemicals won’t harm cedar, they can damage secondary surfaces (such as aluminum, copper and concrete) or harm plants on which the ice dams might melt. It’s best to ask a roofer for advice.

Steam, a fairly new solution, is probably the most effective strategy for removing ice dams. A steamer specially designed for this purpose heats water to 300 degrees and forces it through a hose, creating a thin, low-pressure column that cuts the ice into chunks that can be tossed from the roof. High temperature pressure washers work the same way, but they take longer and the high pressure can damage roofing material.

A major disadvantage of steam removal is the cost, which we’ve heard can range from $750 to $950/hour. We’ve also heard that a couple of managers have purchased the steamers and are providing this service at $100 to $300/hour.

Whatever strategies you choose to remove ice dams, you should hire experienced (and insured) contractors to do the work and make sure all affected areas are dried properly to prevent the growth of mold.

Danger, Falling Ice

Ice dams aren’t the only challenge managers and boards had to confront this winter. Large icicles and large chunks of ice falling from buildings posed serious risks to people and property below. Health and safety were the primary concerns, but liability was also an issue for communities that failed to deal proactively with the risks posed by falling ice.

You can’t possibly clear every inch of ice from every surface, so you want to concentrate on priority areas where the risks are greatest.

  • Remove snow and ice from entrance doors and from windows and any other areas used as secondary means of ingress or egress. Focus particularly on walkways, driveways and other areas where residents and visitors might walk or park.
  • Consider adopting a resolution making maintenance of decks, balconies and other exclusive use areas the responsibility of owners, to shift liability for falling ice in those areas away from the association.
  • Remove ice from the eaves and gutters above gas meters and other equipment (condensers, for example) that might be damaged. Utility companies have warned that large chunks of ice falling on gas meters or exposed gas lines could trigger a fire.
  • Clear a path to the gas meter to ensure access in an emergency. Also clear snow and ice that has accumulated around heating vents to prevent poison monoxide build-up inside the building.

Fix My Leak Now!

As ice dams formed, some owners began reporting leaks created when warmer air in attics melted the bottom layer of ice on the roof. In normal times, contractors would have responded quickly to repair requests, if not immediately, then within a day or two. But these weren’t normal times, and overworked contractors weren’t responding at all. Even if they had, with one snow storm following another in a seemingly endless sequence, permanent repairs weren’t possible and didn’t make sense, because areas that were repaired would likely leak again.

This reality wasn’t much consolation to owners with leaking ceilings and it was a source of distress to boards, concerned not only about their unhappy owners, but also about the possibility that the associations might be cited for health and safety code violations if owners reported the leaks to public health officials. Our advice to boards: You should respond proactively to complaints, but you aren’t required to do the impossible:

  • Try to find a contractor to address the problem and document your efforts to do so. When removing snow and ice from roofs, focus first on areas where leaks are occurring or most likely to occur.
  • If immediate repairs aren’t possible, tell owners who are experiencing small leaks to keep the areas below them dry. Treat larger leaks as emergencies – stop the leaks and mitigate the water damage to prevent mold, but don’t make permanent repairs until you are sure there is no risk of future leaks.

Filing Insurance Claims

Spring seems to have arrived, finally, and the warmer air is certainly welcome. But melting snow will almost certainly create more leaks, cause more damage and trigger more insurance claims. This prospect created a dilemma for associations trying to manage insurance claims in a winter defined by multiple snow storms. Here’s the problem: If you file a claim immediately for a roof leak that begins after one snow storm, what happens if the same area of the roof leaks again after the next snow storm or the one after that, and then leaks again when the snow melts? Will the insurance company treat multiple repairs in the same area as a single claim subject to a single deductible or as multiple claims subject to multiple deductibles? Should a board delay filing a claim – and possibly delay essential repairs and damage mitigation efforts, as well – to be sure that only one deductible will apply?

Our advice is: File the claim and undertake water damage mitigation efforts immediately to prevent the growth of mold and ask if your insurance carrier will hold the first claim open and consolidate subsequent related claims with it. We don’t know how most insurers will reply. But regardless of their answer, our advice is the same: Report and mitigate at once, because the risk and costs of multiple deductibles are far outweighed by the risks and costs of mold damage, for which most insurers provide only limited coverage, or none at all. Board members should also be aware: The D&O policies insuring them against liability for their decisions typically won’t defend any claims related to mold.

Paying the Bills

Preparing the association budget involves an element of guesswork as board members try to anticipate from one year to the next what their expenses are likely to be. But even boards trying to anticipate the worst case in their snow removal budgets for this year couldn’t have predicted the amount of snow they would have to remove. As a result, most associations are now facing sizable budget shortfalls. There are three ways to close those gaps:

  1. Obtain a bank loan.
  2. Borrow short-term from reserves.
  3. Impose a special assessment on owners.

We think the first two strategies represent viable options for most associations. If borrowing from reserves, you should consult your accountant about the tax consequences. You should also plan to repay any loan – from reserves or from a bank — quickly. Some local banks are offering short-term loans (less than a year) to ensure that associations have paid for last winter’s snow removal costs before the next snow removal season begins.

We strongly discourage special assessments – the third option on the list ― for two reasons. Unlike a loan, which an association repays over a period of time, an assessment imposes an immediate financial burden on owners that some may find it difficult to bear. Equally important, special assessments are not protected by the six-month priority lien that allows associations to recover payments from delinquent owners. The temporary increase in owners’ monthly fees that may be required to repay a bank loan or replenish reserves would be protected by the lien.

Preventing Future Dams

Boards that wrestled with ice dams this past winter are no doubt thinking, or should be thinking, about how to prevent them in the future. Ice dams are a symptom of a problem that has two root causes: Inadequate insulation and ventilation in the attic; inadequate ice and water shield on the roof.
If the air in the attic is significantly warmer than the outside temperature, it will melt the snow on the roof above it, Noblin explains. He suggests improving the ventilation and insulating or increasing the insulation on the attic floor and in any area where warm air might seep into the attic ─ for example, around recessed lights and around the access to the attic.

On the roof, you’ll want to remove shingles near “crucial” areas where ice dams form (at the eave edge of the roof on or near gutters) and install an adequate layer of ice and water shield. The building code requires a minimum of three feet, but that isn’t adequate “and hasn’t been for years,” Noblin says. He suggests a minimum of 6 feet.

You should also ask your engineer about installing automatic heat tapes in the gutters and down spouts that are activated when ice dam risks develop. Some have sensors that let you know when they are on. The biggest objection to the tapes seems to be their design; many people think they are ugly. But we’ve heard that some condominium associations in Colorado have purchased heat tapes built into purposely oversized gutters and downspouts. If your engineer thinks the tapes, ugly or hidden or not, would work for you, this may be an inexpensive fix.

It is worth noting – and somewhat discouraging – that these measures might not have prevented ice dams under the conditions we saw this winter. But they would prevent or at least seriously reduce the risks of ice dams under “normal” conditions. All you can do is take reasonable steps to reduce future ice dam risks and then hope we don’t see another winter we’ve never seen before ― or another winter anything like the one we just endured.

By Stephen Marcus