Photo of heat tapes on a roof edgeStop Roof Ice Dam Leaks
Use of Heat Tapes on Roofs to Prevent Ice Dam Leaks in Buildings

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Heat tapes to stop ice dam back-ups & building leaks: This article describes using heat tapes to stop ice dam damage: prevent roof leaks or attic condensation, attic mold in buildings. It describes proper roof ventilation placement, amounts, and other details.

Adding heat tapes along roof edges can melt holes through existing ice dams to prevent water back-up and leaks into the building attic or walls, and heat tapes can prevent new ice dam leaks from occurring. While the proper and reliable repair for roof ice dam problems is the correct installation of ventilation and insulation and perhaps ice and water shield, heat tapes can provide emergency relief when ice dam problems are already present on a building.

Our page top photo shows roof edge heating tapes installed by an owner to attempt to melt channels through ice that may accumulate at the roof eaves in winter. This is an inexpensive band-aid that may be sufficient if ice dam formation on a roof is rare and/or it is difficult to install good under-roof venting. This roof has eaves and a ridge that could have been vented.

We also provide a MASTER INDEX to this topic, or you can try the page top or bottom SEARCH BOX as a quick way to find information you need.

Ice Dam Leak Protection: Use of Heat Tapes and De-Icing Cables on Roof Eaves

Ice dams on a slate roof (C) Daniel Friedman

[Click to enlarge any image]

Article Series Contents

These recommendations for use of de icing cables and heat tapes on roofs (and other solutions to ice dams on building roofs) are based on many years of building inspections, on the observation of the locations of moisture, mold, ice dams, condensation stains, and other clues in buildings, and on the correlation of these clues with the roof venting conditions at those properties, and frequent literature review and professional discussion.

We have also measured changes in airflow, temperature, and moisture before and after installing roof venting.

Watch out: for slip and fall hazards if adding heat tapes to a roof in freezing weather. Working from a ladder at any time of the year is dangerous, but risks are multiplied in cold, freezing conditions.

Watch out: also where you are plugging in your heat tapes. Handling wiring in wet conditions risks electrocution. Outdoor outlets are generally GFCI-protected to reduce shock hazards but electrical receptacles high on a building or in building soffits may not contain that protection.

Watch out: improper heat tape installation can not just shock someone, it can cause a fire. "Illinois: Electrical Flaw Suspect in Fire" reported the New York Times in February 2009. The Times reported that experts were focusing on a possible electrical malfunction in a roof ice buildup protection system on the Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago on February 4th. The resulting fire resulted in a blaze that "tore holes in the roof".

In this article we discuss the addition of heat tapes at roof eaves to stop ice dam leak problems. Also see our separate article: Heat tapes, Heat, Insulation prevent Freeze-Up where we describe proper heating tape selection and safe use.

How to Roof De-Icer Cables Work?

Roof de icing cables (C) Daniel Friedman De-Icing Heat tapes installed on a roof edge, Poughkeepsie NY (C) Daniel Friedman

Roof de-icing cables melt a channel (above left) through the ice build-up at roof edges or wherever ice is forming and heating cables have been placed. The melted channels permit water that backs up behind the ice (over the warmer roof sections) to run off of the roof rather than backing up under the shingles where it leaks into the building.

Our photograph (above left) shows the typical installation pattern of roof de-icing cables or heat tapes installed on roofs in the Northeastern U.S. The second photo (above right) shows the roof de-icing tapes melting a drip-channel through snow at the roof edge. No ice had formed on this roof, just snowfall, when we took the photo, but in other weather conditions the owner had seen ice build-up along this roof edge.

ROOF VENTING EXTERIOR INSPECTION provides additional photos of clues that indicate a history of ice dam leaks even when the building is being inspected in warm, snow and ice-free weather.

Severe ice dam (C) Daniel Friedman

In the photos above the installation uses clips that attach the heating cable to the edges of individual shingle tabs. The installation looks a little sloppy as we can see that the roof de-icing cable has come loose from its shingle clip at the left side of our photo.

The cables might work better at avoiding ice damage to the roof and ice dam leaks to the building interior if they were carried all the way to the edge of the lowest shingle.

Where ice builds up in gutters or eaves troughs (photo at left), additional cabling may be needed in those systems as well.

Typically roof heating cables or de-icing heat tapes are installed along the lower roof eaves in a V-pattern or zig-zag pattern in the area where ice forms. As our page top photo illustrates, when the roof heating cables are operating they melt channels through the ice forming along the roof edge.

Guide to Placing Roof Heating Cables in Roof Trouble Spots

Roof de icing cables (C) Daniel Friedman

The three most-common places for ice dam formation on roofs are at the roof edges and eaves and in the roof gutter system and in roof valleys (photo at left).

But as we illustrate at HEAT TAPES & DE-ICING CABLES on FLAT ROOFS you may find surprising ice accumulation on flat roofs or around and below any spot on any roof where there is extra heat loss such as is caused by a void in building insulation or an air leak through ceilings into the roof cavity.

All of these are candidates for possible placement of a roof or gutter de-icing cable as a stopgap or easy method to halt leaks caused by ice build-up in these areas.

Some building roofs, by their shape and design, are just difficult to vent and are likely to have snow traps, ice build-up, and ice dam leaks into the interior unless special measures are taken.

Our photograph of heating cables on a roof slope (left) shows a combination of intersecting roof planes and a building sidewall that will naturally trap snow and perhaps lead to ice dam leaks on the building.

When we see a heating tape or de-icer cable on an older home in a location like this one we pose that the owner has already had reason to worry about snow and ice backup and leaks into the building at this location.

Installing the roof heater cables in this trouble spot is an easy, inexpensive, and quick step to take to avoid ongoing ice and leak problems here.

We'd have preferred that the architect avoid creating this problem intersection of roofs and walls. If the design demands creation of a snow and ice trap such as the one we show here, we'd have preferred that the builder install custom-built flashing or at a minimum, carefully fitted ice-and-water-shield membranes throughout the problem area, including running the membrane up the side-wall of the vertical building dormer against which these roofs spill.

Special products are available to move air up along roof valleys and hips, but they are so costly to retrofit to an existing roof that it makes sense to add them when re-roofing rather than while the roof shingles are still in good shape.

For using heat tapes & de-icing cables on flat and low slope roofs see the detailed installation example

De Icer Cable & Heat Tape Safety Guide from the US CPSC

Connect roof or gutter de icing kit tape to a GFCI receptacle (C) Daniel Friedman Connect roof or gutter de icing kit tape to a GFCI receptacle (C) Daniel Friedman

Most manufacturers of roof or gutter de-icing kits as well as pipe freeze protection kits (heating cables) recommend that the electrical connection for the heat tape be made at a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Isolation) electrical receptacle such as we show just above. At below left we illustrate the temperature sensor on an indoor heating cable intended for use on piping.

[Click to enlarge any image.]

Roof & gutter de-icing or ice dam prevention cable from Easy Heat (C) Daniel Friedman

This roof or gutter freeze preventing cable is typically used in lengths from 20 ft. to120 ft. and depending on the length of cable used, will draw between 0.83 amps (20 ft.) and 10.0 amps (120 ft). The installation manual will describe in detail how to estimate the number of linear feet of cable you need depending on the roof slope, width of overhang, total roof width gable-to gable, use of cables in gutters and downspouts and other features. Generally I don't want to buy a cable longer than is needed for the application, both for economy and for safety.

The U.S. CPSC has provided safety recommendations for homeowners using heat tapes to help prevent fires. While this advice was originally aimed at indoor use of heating tapes for freeze-proofing piping, this advice is helpful for outdoor de-icer cable use as well.

Some manufacturers of both roof de-icing cables and indoor heat tapes for plumbing produce electrical heat cables that can be crossed over or touch themselves without melting or burning or starting a fire. Be sure to read and follow the instructions on the de icer cable package.

Watch out: buy the correct kind of heating tape or cable for your application and don't mix up an indoor-use heating cable with an outdoor use unit. The braided cable type indoor heating cable intended for use where pipe freeze protection is needed can be crossed over or touch itself, and is intended to be installed on piping followed by the addition of insulation around the heat-tape-protected piping.

Outdoor heating cables like the kind used to protect against ice build-up in gutters or at the roof edge are weatherproof to permit safe outdoor usage.

Shown at left in the photo below is a roof heating cable intended for outdoor use. While the braided metal heat tape or cable at the right in the photo below is really appealing and can be made to any length needed, this is not the right stuff. The braided metal cable heat tape and its connectors are intended for use only indoors in a dry location and are designed to prevent pipes from freezing.

Types of heating tapes & cables for roof ice dam prevention and pipe freeze protection (C) Daniel Friedman

See HEAT TAPES to AVOID FROZEN PIPES for advice about using de icing cables and heat tapes indoors on plumbing pipes and equipment.

Continue reading at ROOF ICE DAM DIAGNOSIS or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

Or see HEAT TAPES & DE-ICING CABLES on FLAT ROOFS for a successful use of heating tapes to stop an ice dam leak during cold winter weather.


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HEAT TAPES & CABLES for ROOF ICE DAMS at - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.


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