By Jura Koncius
The Washington Post
Does anyone have a roof rake I can borrow?
The recent frigid weather has brought homeowners a host of problems. Many friends and neighbors (including me) have come home in freezing temperatures to an ice-jammed gutter or the dreaded sound of dripping water because of a burst pipe. And then there is the feeling of panic when you turn on your faucet and nothing comes out.
We called an expert to ask the home maintenance questions that are on everyone's chapped lips these days. Alan Beal, president of Mid-Atlantic Inspection Services, took our questions last week in between calls from his own clients desperate for some cold-weather smarts.
Q: Does this bitter cold wave, with many days below freezing, require special care of a house?
A: Yes. A lot of times, people ignore the general recommendations of what you should do to winterize your house. Some years, you can get away with not doing some of the things, but when it gets to subfreezing temperatures . . . you can have some serious problems if you have not shut off the valves for the exterior hose connection or had your gutters cleaned.
Q: What is the definition of ice damming?
A: Ice damming is when snow melts off the roof and then refreezes because the gutters are either clogged with leaves or blocked with snow and ice or both. The melted water has nowhere to drain, so it pools and starts to back up. If you see icicles, it's a clue that this is happening. The water comes over the gutters and drips down to form icicles. So if you see them, you are at risk.
Q: Should you try and knock the icicles down?
A: Well, if they are large, they could start to pull your gutters down, and you don't want anyone to be hit by a falling icicle. So you might knock them down carefully to reduce the load on the gutter. But it won't really change your susceptibility to moisture intrusion due to ice damming. The reason you are getting them is that the water isn't draining properly.
Q: What about roof rakes?
A: Roof raking is not a bad idea because you can get rid of the snow that is melting. But you have to be very careful doing it and also be careful not to damage the roof. You can also hire gutter cleaners or roofers to rake your roof.
Q: What can you do to prevent ice damming?
A: Have your gutters cleaned four times a year, at the start of every season. It's especially important to have it done at the end of the fall. Unfortunately ice damming can happen even if you have your gutters cleaned. If you have an attic, you should add insulation to keep warm air from going up to the attic and allowing ice to form on your roof. If you have a home energy audit, they will also identify places in the attic such as the recessed lights and ductwork that should be caulked or otherwise sealed.
Q: What advice can you give us on preventing frozen pipes?
A: Make sure you know where your home's water shut-off valve is, because if you get a burst pipe, you have to turn off the water. If you have a home with additions or a crawl space, these can be big risk areas for freezing pipes because the walls aren't insulated properly. If you can get to the pipes, you should insulate them with a special black rubber foam pipe insulation that wraps around individual pipes. If you have had issues before, keep the light on in that room and use a space heater, following manufacturer's instructions for proper operation, to provide more heat to keep pipes from freezing.
Q: What's another thing to check?
A: If you have a drain line from your HVAC system or a humidifier attached to them and it drains outside, make sure to check the drain frequently in freezing weather to determine that it's not frozen.
Q: What about window condensation?
A: People with older houses and single-pane windows with no storm windows get a lot of condensation in this weather. It later can freeze, melt and damage the woodwork. You should mop up the moisture with towels and try to keep it away from the wood.
Q: If it snows a lot, what are things we should be aware of in home maintenance?
A: Make sure the exterior vents are clear, and the same with downspouts that drain and don't go into an extension. Uncover your dryer vent.