This time of year, the northeast of the United States starts to feel insufferably cold, followed up by winter storms which can dump anywhere from an inch to three feet of snow at a time. The snow can be a welcomed arrival in winter as it brings snow days, sleigh riding and joy. It can also signal the beginning of a damming experience; ice damming that is.

You see, ice damming is a term for when snow on your roof starts to melt from either heat building up in your attic, the ambient temperature, or the sun. As the snow melts it slides down your roof and towards your gutters. However, the buildup of snow on the roof and in the gutter prevents the water from properly draining. Then as the sun fades and the temperatures drop again, all that water stuck around your gutters freezes, creating an ice dam. Now while an ice dam may look nice with its icicles hanging there glistening in the sun, it is causing a disaster to your roofing system.

As the ice dam phenomenon sits atop your roof, it can lead to roof leaks, ceiling collapses, and frozen and/or burst pipes. However, most notably, it leads to significant damage to your roofing shingles and gutters. As the water and snow melt and refreeze repeatedly, it expands and contracts the roofing shingles and moves your gutters off their original position. This can cause heavy and extensive damage to your home.

So, what do you do when you see ice damming on your roof? Well besides saying “ice dammit” there isn’t much you can do. Trying to chip the ice away will cause your shingles to break or become damaged. If you are lucky, it will get warm enough to melt the ice and snow and drain over and eventually out of your gutters. However, if you are unlucky, you simply must sit there and wait until spring.

If you notice damage either to your roofing system or interior of your home, make sure you contact your insurance agency. If you need further assistance, it is always a good idea to contact a licensed public adjuster to help navigate the insurance claims process.

  • Anthony

    Why are we not recommending calling a public adjuster FIRST? In this blog there are stories after stories about mishandled claims. Many PA’s now do small claims. In any claim situation Step #1 should be to consult with a PA. Let the PA present the loss to the ins co to reduce or even eliminate the risk of denial or low settlement.

  • Jim Johnson

    If you plan to file a claim for ice damming, better hope you don’t have a Farmer’s Insurance Group Homeowner’s Policy or any policy which has language which requires an opening in the roof in order to extend coverage for ice damming!

  • ISO’s homeowners policies have no such requirement. ISO’s homeowners policies also have no exclusion for water damage arising from repeated seepage or leakage of a plumbing system. This further illustrates, along with varying insurer claim practices, why insurance is NOT a commodity based solely on price, as box store clerks and lizards would like us to believe in their advertising.

  • The formatting will probably be lost, but here is an article I wrote some years ago about this:

    Ice Dams
    Author: Bill Wilson

    Roof ice dams are a common phenomenon in the north and can result in significant damage when water thaws, is blocked by an ice dam, and flows back under shingles or eaves and into buildings. In this article, we’ll explore the insurance implications of ice dams. Just as important, we’ll look at some loss control measures your insureds can take to prevent or minimize damage caused by ice dams.

    Here’s a question received recently by our “Ask an Expert” service:

    Question:”We at the northeast end of Lake Erie have survived a 7 foot snowfall in 4 days in late December. The skiing is great! Our agency has been flooded with ‘ice dam’ claims and now with ‘falling gutter onto neighbor’s car’ claims. Can you speak to the variables of coverage here? If the rapid snowfall caused an unnatural accumulation on roofs, resulting in the fall of a normally healthy gutter, is the homeowner still negligent for the damage caused by his gutter? If the homeowner is deemed not to be legally liable, what would you expect an insurance carrier to do…deny coverage altogether, settle anyway, pay from the Section II Additional Coverage – Damage to Property of Others @ $500 max., or ???” – Charlie

    Answer:Charlie…I actually live in Tennessee, so the idea of seven INCHES of snow is hard to conceive of (we got a couple of inches of sleet and snow last year and the schools were closed for a week). One of our staff members was visiting family in Buffalo when the storm hit. From what I understand, not only was the skiing good, but the tunneling was outstanding!

    The question you pose is more a legal one than a coverage issue. I’ll go ahead and address the direct damage coverage issue in a moment even though I’m sure you know the answer.

    With regard to the liability exposure, it’s kind of like the tree falling in a neighbor’s yard type claim that occurs everywhere. Generally speaking, a person cannot be liable for “acts of god.” On the other hand, if the tree was rotten and pieces had been falling off for months or years, one could argue that the insured was negligent in not taking remedial action before his tree resulted in third party damage.

    As I understand it, this storm was unusual even according to “Buffalo standards.” So, under the circumstances, it’s hard to imagine a person being able to undertake any loss control measures in a snow storm of this magnitude. I’d think the resulting damages to a third party would arise out of forces uncontrollable by the insured.

    So, whether the insured is liable or not is a matter of law and would ultimately be determined, if necessary, by a judge and/or jury. In the meantime, if a neighbor made claim against the insured based on negligence or other form of legal liability, the insured’s homeowners carrier would have no choice but to respond to the claim by at least providing a defense.

    Hopefully, the adjuster would not take it upon himself to unilaterally attempt to decide liability by declining to respond to the claim. Here are a couple of example articles on the VU about this:

    No Fault, No Coverage

    The Devil Made Me Do It!

    With regard to the Section II Additional Coverage, that probably wouldn’t apply since it only responds to losses “caused by” an insured. Based on the facts, I doubt there’s a strong argument that such losses were caused by the insured, even in the unlikely event that there was some negligence that contributed to the loss.

    With regard to direct damage coverage, the ISO special HO form should respond. If you’re dealing with a named perils form, there would have to be a specific peril before coverage would attach. However, with the “all risks” HO form, I don’t know of an exclusion that would apply. (Note: In the pre-2000 edition of ISO’s commercial Causes of Loss forms, there is an exclusion for damage to gutters and downspouts caused by, or resulting from, weight of snow, ice or sleet.)

    For named perils coverage, particularly to the contents in the HO special form, there is a peril that covers “Weight of ice, snow or sleet which causes damage…” but, in the case of an ice dam, it’s not the “weight” of ice or snow that causes the water damage. Here’s some info on what causes ice dams and how they can be prevented:

    Ice dams begin forming when heat escapes from the attic and melts a layer of snow or ice adjacent to the shingles, usually near the top of the roof where the heat rises. In addition, solar energy may heat the darker shingles of an ice-covered roof, creating a layer of water on the shingles.

    Water then runs like an underground aquifer until it reaches the cooler eaves and freezes. This process is repeated day and night until a “dam” of ice builds along the eaves. A build-up of ice and snow in gutters may exacerbate the process. Visit this web site and this site for illustrations of this process.

    Once the dam is formed (icicles along the roof line are sometimes an early indicator of this), the water has nowhere to run off, so it backs up under the shingles, flashing or eaves where it can do extensive internal damage to insulation, ceilings, walls, and other components. A roof is designed to shed water, but it isn’t waterproof.

    Once the ice dam is formed, it may be too late to do anything about it. Chiseling, hammering or shoveling may damage the shingles and void the warranty. Using salt may damage the finish and runoff may kill nearby vegetation. Heating may also cause damage. And, needless to say, removing an ice buildup could be hazardous to your health. So, the key is prevention. Here are some recommendations:

    • Keep the attic space cold by insulating it from the house interior,
    and pay particular attention to sealing vent pipes, light fixtures,
    attic doors, and recessed light fixtures.

    • Properly ventilate the attic and make sure that soffit vents are not
    obstructed.

    • Use “roof rakes” to keep snow and ice from accumulating on the
    lower portion of the roof.

    • Keep gutters free of debris and snow/ice buildup.

    • If ice damming is a chronic problem, consider installing a
    water-repellant membrane below the shingles.

    The HO special form excludes “Freezing, thawing, pressure or weight of water or ice, whether driven by wind or not,” but that exclusion only applies to certain types of property such as fences, pavement, foundations, etc.

    And, remember that the HO policy covers “reasonable repairs” if “necessary” and undertaken “solely” to protect covered property from further damage by a covered peril.

    Finally, for an example of a related article, check out “Does the HO ‘Neglect’ Exclusion Apply to Roof Snow Accumulation?”