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Is Your Attic Causing an Ice Dam? The Sure-Fire Way to Tell

Most often times ice dams are partly or entirely caused by a warm attic.  I’ve shared tips for remedying that, but I know you might bristle at them, and I bet know why: Fixing your insulation is expensive, and you may not want to hear that it’s necessary to do in order to avoid an even-costlier series of ice dam removal bills next winter.

The good news is there’s a simple and fairly reliable way to determine whether you need to fix the thermal efficiency in your attic this year:

Simply buy a standard-issue, not-fancy thermometer and put it in your attic. A central location is best.  Then check on it after a day or so.  If it’s -10F outside and your attic thermometer reads 35F, you’ve got a problem.  That means your attic is super-fertilized soil for an ice dam to grow on.  You’ll probably develop an ice dam after only a few inches or so of snowfall.

To make sure, check on the thermometer a few more times. 

If it is freezing outside but your thermometer reads higher temperatures in the attic, you’ll need to work on your insulation, ventilation, or attic bypasses (or some combination of the three) if you want to minimize your risk of ice dams.

For extra intel, put another thermometer outside, so you can compare the readings yourself and not rely on Weather.com or Accuweather.  By doing this you’ll get a more-accurate reading of conditions at your exact location.

Consider peppering your attic with multiple thermometers, in different spots, but all at the same height (because heat rises). If one of those thermometers turned out to be warmer than the other, or if all the thermometers on the right side of your attic show warmer readings than do the thermometers on the left side, you may glean some insight into where the “problem area” of your attic is.

If you find inconsistencies in your temperature readings, get a home-energy audit completed ASAP.  That should give you a clearer sense of the action items for your attic.

Now, I tend to get compulsive about things like this, so I’d probably go a little farther.  Once I understood the issues in my attic I’d do a simple cost-benefit comparison to see how much I’d save by doing all the energy auditor’s recommend updates.  Then I’d tally up the cost of all the recommended updates, and compare that number to the cost of getting ice dam removal over, say, the next 5 years (or longer, if I knew I’d be in the home longer-term).

In my experience, once I’ve compared those numbers, the home energy audit and the recommended fixes almost always come out to less than 5 or more years of ice dam removal.  Your findings may vary, but you can find out easily enough what’s more economical.  Start by identifying the issue, which you can do by buying a few cheap thermometers and doing what I just described.  Just as a thermometer can tell you if you’re sick, a few of them properly placed in your attic can also tell you if your attic is sick.

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