Massachusetts’ harshest winter in years piled 5 feet of snow on Sabrina Giannelli’s roof and 7-foot snowbanks at the end of her driveway.

“Obviously, we’re from New England, so we’re used to the snow,” said Giannelli, who lives with her family in Canton, which is about 15 miles southwest of downtown Boston. “But not like this.”

So when her son had trouble removing a thick ice dam above their kitchen window that was causing her roof to leak, she turned to the Minnesota company Grand Gutters.

“These guys who came from Minnesota were like a godsend,” she said.

When this year’s Minnesota winter fell short on snowfall, some local companies that make a living from dealing with the side effects of heavy snow went East to find work, clearing massive ice dams from roofs and gutters.

For the most part, they’re back in nearly-snow-free Minnesota after an exhausting — and lucrative — winter out East.

Joe Palumbo’s company, Ice Dam Guys, based in Forest Lake, was one of those that benefited from the East Coast blizzards. “I’m the guy who has the Weather Channel on in the background 24/7,” Palumbo said.

Keeping track of temperatures and snowfalls on a big-screen monitor in his office, he takes calculated risks when picking places to look for ice-dam jobs. When his crews arrived in Boston, they saw no work for about a week.

“Then our phones literally exploded,” he said.

Calls from customers came in so fast that they crashed his voice-mail server, and soon he was putting in shifts as long as 48 hours.

Meanwhile, the Ice Dam Guys (www.icedamguys.com) received only one call for ice-dam removal from Minnesota — and it turned out to be a false alarm.

Although Palumbo said he considers Minnesota “the ice dam capital of world,” Massachusetts trounced Minnesota this year.

“I’ve got pictures of ice dams that would blow your mind — ice dams that go all the way to the ground,” he said. “It’s like it swallowed an elephant — it’s just gargantuan.”

If an ice dam gets under shingles, water can leak through ceilings, light fixtures, walls and windows, and can cause thousands of dollars in damages, said Kimberly Theis, owner of Grand Gutters (www.grandgutters.net).

Sending her crews to Boston resulted in a 400-percent increase in business, she said, while the demand for ice-dam removal back in Minnesota almost completely dried up for the Twin Cities company, which also installs gutters year-round.

The market for clearing ice dams shifts with the weather, Palumbo said, and a good season requires a perfect storm of conditions. These include large amounts of wet and heavy snow, with warmer sunshine during the day and colder temperatures at night, he said.

Even in a state known for its grueling winters, Jack Frost doesn’t always deliver.

“This year was a flop; last year was a great year; the year before that was a great year,” Palumbo said. “But the year before that was a flop.”

Hard work impressed

Boston’s frigid winter brought the need for ice-dam services in a state where many roofing companies and contractors lack the right equipment to remove ice on roofs without damaging shingles, Theis said.

“They were sending crews out with picks and hammers — exactly what you should never do,” she said.

Instead, reputable ice-dam removal companies use gas-powered steam-blasters to melt through the ice, Palumbo said.

Grand Gutters owner Theis said her crews cut checkerboard patterns in the ice, which allows layers to fall off and water to run down channels as the ice melts.

The work can come with a fair amount of stress, Palumbo said. In Boston, his crews faced numbing cold and relentless winds that sometimes made it too dangerous to work.

Giannelli said the Grand Gutters crew steamed and shoveled her roof and cleaned up her driveway within the five hours she allotted them, even as the wind blew small ice chips at them.

“They did not stop. They worked their tails off until their time was up,” she said. “They ate outside.”

The best part: brownies

Although Palumbo said many people told him the customers he’d meet in Boston would be gruff compared with his usual clients, he was impressed by their hospitality, which included big tips for his employees, invitations to dinner, and plenty of brownies and coffee.

“To me, that’s what we’ll never forget,” he said.

For Theis, preparing to head out to other states will become part of her company’s yearly plan when local weather doesn’t deliver ice-dam conditions.

She plans to keep in contact with some homeowners her employees met in Massachusetts and return in the summer to fix damaged gutters, she said.

“It was great to broaden our working footprint,” Theis said. “We’ll just keep tabs on weather and go where there’s a need.”

Though Giannelli said she’d welcome Theis’ crew back, she wouldn’t want a repeat of this year’s weather conditions.

“You guys can keep your Minnesota winters, because we don’t want any more,” she said.

 

Parker Lemke is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.