Ice Damming In Pullman

After skating for most of the season, Old Man Winter showed up with a shovel and has proceeded to bury us. So far, several areas have reported record snow falls including my home town of Asotin. For those of you that scoffed when my sweetie bought me a snow-blower, HAH! The Snow Joe has earned its keep this month.

The view from the roof at an inspection in Pullman.

The view from the roof at an inspection in Pullman.

Also happening this month - business is picking up. This time of year gets pretty treacherous for walking roofs, though sometimes it can be done. It requires a careful consideration of the underlying structure of the snow and of the point of access, but snow by itself is not a primary limiting factor.

What is a primary limiting factor is ice. And, by golly, we are seeing a lot of ice on the edges of roofs lately due to ice damming.

What Is Ice Damming?

In its simplest form, ice damming is a build up of ice on the eave of a roof. The formation is from snow melting at a higher point on the roof, typically over the heated portions of the home, and flowing down the roof slope to the eave. The eave is at nearly the same temperature as the air outside. As the water hits this frigid zone, it re-freezes.

In the process, the dam blocks more water from flowing freely off the roof deck, thus extending the ice dam. Because the velocity of water drainage plays a part in the process of re-freezing, lower slope roofs are more susceptible to ice damming.

On a low enough slope, the ice can build up many feet along the roof deck. That is what I found with the roof in the second picture. My best estimate is that the ice extended 8-10 feet up the roof from the edge.


Damaged Caused By Ice Damming

The presence of the ice is not the major cause of damage to the home. While the accumulation can cause problems, it is the water behind the dam that causes the most concern. Our roofs are not designed to act as pools and are not water-proof. They are water shedding. That is a huge difference. Obstructed water will not drain down the roof. Water being water, it will try to find a way to flow with gravity. This means flowing under the shingles, finding gaps in the underlayment, and getting into the ceilings and walls of the home.

It is not just a matter of getting a roof stain on your ceiling, though. This moisture in your attic can be a major contributor to the growth of mold and wood destroying fungus.

How To Recognize an Ice Dam


Ever drive by a house and admire the long glittering icicles hanging from the roof? Well, admire those from a distance. If you see those on your house, you likely have an ice damming issue.

Likewise, if there is a four inch iceberg on the edge of your roof, you’ve got a problem.

Also, a couple people a year get killed by falling ice or icicles from a roof.Do not walk right under the icy spears admiring them. If you are walking around a house with ice on the roof, stay near the wall under the eave or well clear of the fall zone to the perimeter.

Just a heads-up - if there is ice at the edge like this, I’m not getting on the roof.

How To Fix Ice Damming

The first thing to do is figure out where the heat is coming from to allow for the excessive snow melt. Usually, the first and best answer is that you do not have nearly enough insulation in your attic. You don’t even need to go into your attic to figure this out - if your roof is the first in the neighborhood to lose snow cover, you probably need more insulation. (I take perverse pride in having snow on my 1910 built home long after everyone else has exposed their shingles.. It a great sign that I did a solid job of insulating the home. Lower energy bills are nice, too.)

There are other factors that come into play. If you have canned ceiling lights, they can create enough heat to cause problems. Have a contractor insulate the boxes.

Check to make sure that you have enough effective attic ventilation. If you do not, the attic will retain warm air and lead to ice damming. Also, to mold growth.

If you have a furnace in the attic, make sure all the joints in your duct work are tight. Leaky ducts will cost you in more than dollars.

Insulate all your ventilation fan ducts. Bathroom fans and dryers move warm air to the outside. If they pass through the attic on the way, they will transfer much of their heat to the attic space. Insulate them and limit that possibility.

If these steps do not work to control your issue, it is time to call in a quality contractor to perform a thorough analysis of the heat transfer taking place, including thermal transfer through air exfiltration from ceiling penetrations or up the wall cavities.

Good luck! As always, if you have questions, feel free to call. I may have a tidbit of information that can help.

I’ll leave you with one more scary picture . . .

Water is actively leaking and two different fungi are growing.

Water is actively leaking and two different fungi are growing.

Raised-Heel Trusses

Since the late 1960s, most houses have been built with engineered trusses (click on the link for more information than you need) instead of traditional rafters. Trusses offer greater spans to open up our interiors with great rooms, require less time and labor to erect, and provides a more uniform pitch to the roof, which may not seem important to you, but your roofer loves it.

Early truss systems resembled a triangle with a bunch of triangles inside the outside one. The problem that we ran into, from an energy usage standpoint, were those skinny angles at the ends of the truss. Often, there was not sufficient room to get an adequate amount of insulation into the space. I see a fair number of homes with shadowing on the ceiling at the outside edges of the rooms from precisely this.


A 1970s Engineered Truss

Note how skinny it is at the low edge. Not much room for insulation.

When energy was really cheap (raise your hand if you can remember $.25 gasoline!), this was not a big priority. Today, with more expensive energy and an improved awareness on how to heat and cool our homes efficiently, what happens on that edge is important. One solution was to re-design the truss. Meet the raised-heel truss.

The raised-heel truss

Raised-heel trusses are engineered to provide enough space for the insulation. By design, they are taller than older truss designs at the point where they cross the wall. This section, called the heel, intersects at the perimeter wall and lifts the top chord of the truss. From my research, it looks like the energy-saving qualities of the raised-heel were not the primary reason they were developed, though. Initially, the were built to match roof lines and increase curb appeal. Go figure . . .

Even though the cost for these trusses are not substantially higher than with other truss systems, I still don’t see that many of them. When I do, it’s good news for my clients!

(A quick note on the video - I shot it in an attic while hanging from the framing - it might not sound smooth and polished.)

Receptacles over Baseboard Heaters - A Fire Waiting to Happen

I took a trip down to Boise a couple of weekends ago. Just because I was off the job doesn’t mean the eyeballs quit working. We stayed at a converted residence but it was pretty clear that not all the work done to upgrade the traveler’s spaces meets the current safety standards.

In this case, it was a baseboard heater with a receptacle located immediately above it. This is a pretty common finding in older homes in Pullman and Clarkston, but it also represents a fire and shock hazard.

Why I Didn't Test the Air Conditioner Yesterday?

When the original Advisory Board wrote the inspection standards for the state, they included a special provision for air conditioners. The standard specifies that the home inspector working in Washington State test the temperature differential on the air conditioner.

Temperature differential is just a fancy way of saying that we measure the temperature of the air going into the air conditioner - say it is 80 degrees - and measure it as it comes out of the air conditioner - 61 degrees. We do rudimentary math and arrive at a 19 degree difference. The range that I use (and most inspectors are close to these numbers) is 14 to 24 degrees of difference. Too little cooling and we have a problem. Too much cooling is also a problem, though, as this can indicate poor air flow and a host of other issues with the cooling plant. For the actual diagnosis of the system, I punt it to the experts.

The exception is when the outside temperature drops. The condenser unit for the system (that’s the part outside) gets too cold, the oil in it gets ‘thick’ - that is, the viscosity, its ability to flow, is low. Trying to move that cold oil through the system can damage it. Thus, when the outside temperature is below 60 degrees, the standard allows us to note that fact and not test the air conditioner for operation. That does not mean it is not inspected - we’re still required to examine the readily accessible components and report any deficiencies that we see.

Isn't the Water Supposed to Drain AWAY from the House?

The crawlspace vents are lower than the surrounding soil. It's a fairly common occurrence and easy to fix.

More often than not, your builder is not to blame - it is the landscaper who is beautifying the home without the awareness of the rest of the home systems. 

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Why the Siding on Your Brand New Home Doesn't Have a Warranty

Let’s chat about siding. Specifically, siding on new homes. New homes should be the easiest to inspect since they’re built to the newest codes by licensed contractors and tradesmen. {insert eye-roll here}

Most of the new homes in our region are built with either a cement fiber-board such as Hardie Plank or a wood-resin composite such as LP’s SmartSide materials. Just to be clear from the top, these are both quality products and nothing I have to say that follows is a slam against them.

No, my complaint is that these sidings are all to often compromised during the installation process. This won’t be readily apparent for a decade or two, but I do expect that we’ll see a wave a failures. Complaints to the companies are going to leave a lot of consumers unhappy because the consensus opinion will be that the warranty was voided at the time of installation.

Why is My Warranty Voided?

Speaking bluntly, your warranty for the siding is likely voided because the contractor couldn’t be bothered to read the installation instructions provided by the manufacturers. It’s not as though the specifications are unduly complicated or long. The James Hardie instructions run four pages. The LP SmartSide runs five. Both have plenty of pictures for the literacy-challenged.

Top Four Ways Your Siding Gets Installed Wrong

A Failure to Adequately Flash Openings and Band Boards

The single most consistent failure is to not install the flashing the windows, doors, and band boards. Each of these have a horizontal surface that can accumulate water which can lead to leaks or degradation of the trim pieces (and then leakage.)

There should be a piece of metal flashing installed in these locations. This flashing is commonly called head flashing or Z-flashing. It is installed under the top piece of siding, extends over the vulnerable horizontal surface, and finishes with a downward leg to clear the water from the trim. In the first picture, if you look closely you can see the flashing (it is painted the same color as the siding) over the horizontal trim at the front porch. In the second, the flashing is plainly missing.

Flashing installed over the band-board correctly

Flashing installed over the band-board correctly

Flashing missing over this window trim

Flashing missing over this window trim

Not only is this flashing required by most, if not all, manufacturers, there is even a code reference. This flashing has been in the International Residential Code since 2009 (R703.8 Flashing).

A Failure to Leave Proper Clearances

There are a variety of clearances to consider when installing siding. Clearance refers to the gap we leave from the siding to another material. For example, by code we leave six inches between the bottom-most edge of the siding and soil. By specification, we are supposed to leave two inches between Hardie Plank and the roof deck. SmartSide only requires one inch in this location. This is a consistent difference between the two materials. Your inspector should be able to recognize the difference between them and apply the correct specification. 

That said, good luck in getting most contractors to actually follow the guidelines. 

Damage evident at the base of the wall due to water contact.

Damage evident at the base of the wall due to water contact.

Brand new and prepped for failure. Poor clearance to the deck and soil.

Brand new and prepped for failure. Poor clearance to the deck and soil.

A Failure to Install the Water-Resistive Barrier

“ . . . felt or other approved water-resistive barrier shall be applied over studs or sheathing of all exterior walls.” That is a direct quote from the IRC. It does not differentiate between the top of walls on gable ends or the garage against those at living spaces. So why do I see this on local job sites?

Seen recently on a job site nearby. 

Seen recently on a job site nearby. 

A Failure To Add Kick-out Flashing

Kick-out flashing is supposed to be installed at the intersection of a roof and a vertical wall. This piece of flashing is angled so that water running down the roof deck is directed away from the wall and into a gutter. If the water is allowed to flow unimpeded against the siding, there will be damage. The only question will be one of degree. 

Mr. Fix-it has a wealth of great information at his website!  http://misterfix-it.com/

Mr. Fix-it has a wealth of great information at his website! http://misterfix-it.com/

So there we go. Four reasons to keep a sharp eye on your siding contractor. Just an FYI, this doesn't just apply to new homes. I've seen the same types of failures on older homes that were re-sided.