Tip of the icicle

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2010 - 4:45 PM

December's big snow left dripping ceilings and walls all over the metro, and it's not over yet.

Homeowners across the metro area are facing millions of dollars in damage as unprecedented rooftop ice buildups have water backing up and dripping through kitchen cupboards, window frames, ceilings and electrical outlets.

The result has led to a surge of insurance claims for rotting ceilings and walls and other problems.

"I've never seen ice dams as severe as we've had this year," said Reuben Saltzman of Structure Tech, a Minneapolis home inspection business. "I keep hearing the same thing over and over from homeowners: 'I've lived here a long time and I've always had ice dams, but they've never been this bad and they've never caused roof leaks until this year.'"

Beyond costs and annoyances, ice dams present real danger. In the past week, at least two metro residents died in falls while trying to shovel their roofs, and several more were seriously injured with broken arms, legs and, in one case, a shattered pelvis.

Minnesota's largest insurance provider, State Farm, had received about 350 claims by Wednesday but considers that number the tip of the icicle. The second-largest company, American Family, has summoned a catastrophe team to the area to help local adjusters determine damage costs.

"For Minnesota property owners this is shaping up as a really bad catastrophe year," said Insurance Federation of Minnesota spokesman Mark Kulda, referring to surging ice dam claims on top of damage from 104 tornadoes in the summer. The worst year for ice dams was in 2001, when insurance companies paid out $50 million in losses, he said, but "I can only surmise this year is going to be as bad or worse."

What's different?

Ice dams are as common to Minnesota winters as hockey and ice fishing, but what sets this year apart is that the insulating power of abnormally deep snow on rooftops has caused a chain of thermal reactions. Warm air leaking into attics from rooms below melts the underside of the snow. Water runs down the roof to the eaves where it freezes, causing ice buildups that block more melting snow. Resulting pools of water then creep upward under the shingles and through nail holes to aggravate unsuspecting residents.

Metro roofing contractors are having a difficult time keeping up as they report mounting inquiries from anxious homeowners who find water dripping into bedrooms and kitchens. Waiting times for ice dam removal now stretch to two weeks or more.

One of those contractors, Steve Kuhl of Ice Dam Co. in Hopkins, said he received 78 calls on Christmas Day.

To complicate matters, rain predicted for Thursday will have homeowners groaning even more.

"I think the situation will get worse before it improves," said meteorologist Paul Douglas, pointing out that most of this season's 43 inches of snow remains. "It's turned from the garden variety of ice dam winters to the mother of all ice dam winters."

Only a trace of rain will fall in the metro area, but continuing cycles of melting and freezing and another snowfall Friday will contribute to ice dam problems, Douglas said.

St. Paul roofing contractor Dan Brigley, who's cleared ice dams for 36 years, said rain and warmer weather will mean "a big increase in the amount of problems" as pools of water back up higher on roofs and find new pathways into houses.

"It's probably the worst I've seen since 1984," said Brigley, who this week sent 10 workers to clear stubborn accumulations on a single townhouse.

Until this year, ice dam problems were more evident in older houses in first-tier suburbs, said Bart Ikens, sales manager for David Schweich Construction Inc. of Lakeville. Now, even newer suburban houses have problems because the snow is deep and blocking roof vents where warmer air usually would escape, he said.

"It's everywhere, it's south metro, it's north metro and the Cities, there isn't anybody that's spared from it this season," he said.

Insurance companies say the extent of damage won't be determined for several weeks because claims are coming too fast and vary widely.

Risks inside and out

One homeowner, Jeff Duffney of Burnsville, said after ceiling plaster fell in his townhouse he fears for the safety of his 1-year-old daughter. Water has leaked through an upstairs bedroom window, ruined walls, and he worries about mold.

"Pretty frustrating," he said, voicing the helplessness that homeowners feel when they can't stop the water.

Another homeowner, Melissa Bear of St. Paul, said it wasn't long after December's big snowfall that water began running down the wall inside her house.

"The paint is bubbling, and it's not looking good," said Bear, who watched a massive ice dam form on her roof. "It's a pain, I tell you. I'm worried that the ceiling is just going to cave in."

Brigley and other people who deal with ice dams warn that homeowners shouldn't try to climb onto roofs to shovel snow or chip at ice. "It doesn't make any sense to be on a roof in the summer when it's dry, so why get up there when it's wet and slippery?" said Jason Holum, a State Farm claims representative in Washington County.

One death was reported in the metro area last week when a University of St. Thomas department chairman, John Rohwer, fell from the roof of his Shoreview house while shoveling snow. Rohwer, 64, died on Christmas Day.

Douglas said the metro area will receive as much as 70 inches of snow this season. The 43 inches accumulated through Wednesday was nearly double what fell by this time last year, he said. The record came in 1983, when 98.6 inches fell, he said.

Up to 3 inches of snow could fall Friday in the metro area, beginning at midday, Douglas said. Saturday is expected to bring a below-zero windchill.

"Within a few months, most of us will forget the ice dam situation, the headaches and the heartaches, and we'll look forward to a glorious Minnesota summer," Douglas said, admitting he was looking for a silver lining.

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342

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