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Ice Dams Can Cause Fire: The Most Dangerous Reason Not to Put off Ice Dam Removal

Every winter some homeowners choose to ignore the ice dams gathering on their roofs.  The general line of thought is, “Why should I pay for ice dam removal?  My insurance company won’t pay for it. But they WILL pay for water damage, so I’ll just let it leak.”

No doubt some of the problems with that logic are obvious to you.  But there’s one huge – possibly fatal – error that we hope is obvious: the assumption that water damage is the only problem that water can cause.  Water leaking into your home also creates a fire hazard.

How water leaking into your home is a fire hazard

The exteriors of homes and businesses are water-resistant shells. They’re designed to shed water, but not to hold water.

Water works its way inside your home when a malfunction, obstruction, or design flaw prevents the shell from shedding water.  Often any moisture you find isn’t a major problem, at least at first, and usually you have some time to remedy it.   But there is one system in your home that just doesn’t mix with water: your electrical system.

It’s scary how quickly and easily water can reach your electrical system. A little moisture can drip into your breaker box, interior light fixtures, outlets, switches, appliances, or even wired smoke detectors – to name just a few ways.

Under normal conditions, your electrical system is a controlled system: Power moves through the wires and goes where it’s supposed to go. But water conducts electricity.

An ice dam, with water pooling behind it and sitting on your roof, is a perfect way for water to get into all corners of your home.

Your electrical system isn’t equipped to handle water

You can leap out of the pool or lake when you see lightning.  But your home can’t separate itself from its electrical system, and your electrical system can’t get away from a leak.

When you’ve got an ice dam, before long the water can easily work its way through your insulation and into your junction boxes, where it will almost certainly encounter a live electrical wire.  If the circuit doesn’t properly trip, the water may send an arc to your walls or studs, which may also be wet and conductive.  At this point, one of two things can happen: (1) the sparks themselves can ignite a fire, or (2) the dead-short causes the wires themselves to heat up, melt, and eventually burn.

In the latter case, because the wire runs all the way to the source (your fuse panel or breaker box), it will burn all the way to the source.  That’s real trouble, because you now have 50 or more feet of wire burning inside your walls and ceiling.  Worse yet, if it burns all the way to your fuse panel it can cause other wires to catch fire.   You could have a maze of hundreds upon hundreds of feet of wire burning inside your walls.  Even worse, the burning wires will be fueled by the never-ending supply of insulation and wood surrounding them.  Your electrical system is the toaster, and you’re in the bathtub.

Electrical fires are some of the most deadly, because you can’t easily extinguish them.  You can’t put them out with water, either: You’ll just conduct more electricity . If you throw a bucket of water at an electrical fire you’ll probably get shocked.

Speaking of which, the electrocution hazard is just as serious as the fire hazard, if not worse. Before you find yourself in a five-alarm fire you might reach out to flip on a light never knowing there’s water in the box. The resulting shock could kill you, or at least give you a lively new hairstyle.

Meanwhile, the fire keeps spreading.

Still not too worried? Ask the Kingman family

In March of 2019 a Blaine, Minnesota couple watched their home of 26 years burn to the ground. Firefighters determined that the fire was caused by ice dams.

Insurance may (or may not) pay for a family’s material losses, but the family will never get back the home they had. For most of us, home is more than a place to live. It’s also where our pets live, where our children grow up, and where we keep sentimental items – to say nothing of all the time and sweat equity we put into improving the home a piece at a time.  For most people home is the center of their universe, which is one reason it’s easy to take home for granted.

Relevant article: Don’t Wait for an Emergency to Call an Ice Dam Removal Company.

Ice dams can also cause carbon monoxide buildup

Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless, and deadly.  Some troubled souls choose to end their lives simply by idling the car in the garage until the carbon monoxide puts them to sleep for good.  Many more (including children) are accidental victims of carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage.

What few people know is that the same danger can show up in your home.  Ice dams can increase the risk of carbon monoxide, because ice and heavy snow can block vents, trapping carbon monoxide inside.  That CO buildup claimed the life of a man in northern Minnesota in 2016, and no doubt has claimed others’ lives since.

In some cases ice dams can cause even more damage

Snow and ice also can block your gas meter vent.  When that happens, everything in your house could freeze solid. Your furnace shuts off and stays off. Your house gets cold and damp fast.  It’s a matter of time before pipes, pets, and people freeze, and you start feeling like the Donner Party.

Despite the hazards, your insurance company will still probably deny your ice dam removal claim

Insurance companies want to see you’ve done your part to mitigate damages. Waiting to get the ice dam removed gives most homeowner’s insurance companies all the justification they need to say no.

At that point, all the damage to your roof, ceiling, walls, and belongings are your responsibility, and are costs you’ll have to bear as soon as you want or need them back. Losing your home to a fire may prove to be your responsibility, too.

Don’t play ice dam roulette. Next year, keep up with your roof-raking like your home depended on it.  This year, get the ice dam removal you need when you need it.  If you want to save money, see my guide to saving money on ice dam removal.

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