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Breaking the dams

  • SIMA
- Posted: April 1, 2015

By Brooke A. Rockwell

With record-setting snowfall this season, commuting and parking issues weren’t the only problems Boston residents had to contend with. The heavy snow and cold temperatures led to the formation of ice dams, a ridge of ice that forms at the edge of a roof and prevents melting snow from draining.

The Ice Dam Co. in Hopkins, MN, received many requests for help - despite being about 1,400 miles from Boston. Owner Steve Kuhl says the company’s website, which averages about 2,200 hits in February, had 247,000 in February 2015.

Seeing a need for the company’s services, Kuhl temporarily relocated operations to Boston. The company had to manage housing and transportation logistics, find a kerosene supplier, and handle equipment maintenance and repairs. In addition, the company had to rent a warehouse “sight unseen for a king’s ransom from a guy we had never met.”

On the administrative side, some modifications were necessary. With all of the snow, getting to the sites was a challenge. The company sent out a logistics flyer with conditions property owners had to meet - including having a place for crews to park, a $100 deposit, and appointment confirmation.

“The ice dams were far beyond what I had ever seen before,” Kuhl says. “Moving our operation to Boston was a challenging and expensive endeavor. The good news is that work was quite slow here in Minneapolis, so all of the guys were excited for the opportunity.”

Ice dams1

Safety and education
Kuhl says the company excels not only in ice dam removal but also in educating clients on the science behind it and preventive measures for the future.

“Our on-site education focuses on identifying ice dams, determining whether or not they are a problem, and then discussing possible solutions, such as enhanced insulation or ventilation or the installation of heat cables,” he says. “Our crews perform a thorough site review; frequently, our crews will identify additional ice dams that the client is unaware of.”

Although he has a large labor pool from which to draw, Kuhl typically uses his roofers: “They are the most comfortable doing this work, plus they often lend professional on-site analysis of what might be causing the ice dams.” Two-man crews are used for removal services - one is on the roof running the industrial steamer and the other keeps the steamer fueled and shovels the roof.

The steamers take water directly from a garden hose and convert it into “true steam” that is around 300°F. “It slices through ice like butter,” he says, adding that the best equipment is worthless unless the right people are using it.

“We train our guys obsessively,” Kuhl says. “Ice dam removal is not for the faint of heart. It’s cold, it’s often high, and you’re working with 300° steam often into the dark of night.”

Keeping the property from being damaged by chunks of ice that often weigh 50 to 100 pounds is a priority.

“Those pieces need to fall, and when they do, it better be thought out,” Kuhl says. “We always move or protect anything below the work areas. Ice chunks can easily crush things if they are not treated with respect.”

A long history of dam removal

Kuhl has been removing ice since the late 1980s. He continued to learn about the specialty service through the 1990s but saw it as more of an occasional revenue stream until about 2006.

“I removed my first ice dam with a hand-held steamer as a junior in high school trying to make some extra money in the winter. I remembered thinking: ‘Someone should invent something better for this work.’ I didn’t really take it seriously as a genuine business in and of itself until later,” he says. “In 1998, ice dams hit the Twin Cities. It was nothing to the scale of what would follow in 2011 and 2013, but there was work to do and no one who seemed to know how to do it.”

Kuhl says he plans to use his company’s reputation and expertise to expand outside of Minnesota by establishing a franchise model.

“We have extensive training systems for the use of the equipment, business administration, and job processes,” he says. “We will be looking for select strategic partners in every geographic area of the country that is affected by snow and ice accumulations on roofs.”

The Ice Dam Co.’s Steve Kuhl offers companies that may want to add ice dam removal to its offerings the following tips:

  • Education yourself. Companies should understand where and why ice dams occur and how to safely remove them.
  • Invest in professional equipment. A typical steamer setup costs $4,000 to $5,000.  Kuhl purchases his steamers from American Pressure in Robbinsdale, MN. “Buy steamers and not high-temperature pressure washers, which cost one-third less but take longer to get the job done. “You will do less damage to clients’ homes, remove ice faster, and sleep better at night knowing you are an honest person,” he says.
  • Be patient. Kuhl has more than $100,000 invested in equipment that may go unused for long periods of time. “We sometimes go three years without a single ice removal job. Ice dam removal isn’t something someone does with consistency. It’s hit or miss, but when it hits, there are often large profits in short periods of time.”

Learn more about The Ice Dam Co. at  

What causes ice dams?
There is a complex interaction among the amount of heat loss from a house, snow cover, and outside temperatures that leads to ice dam for-mation. For ice dams to form there must be snow on the roof, and, at the same time, higher portions of the roof’s outside surface must be above 32°F while lower surfaces are below 32°F. For a portion of the roof to be below 32°F, outside temperatures must also be below 32°F.

The snow on a roof surface that is above 32°F will melt. As water flows down the roof it reaches the portion of the roof that is below 32°F and freezes, creating an ice dam.

The dam grows as it is fed by the melting snow above it, but it will limit itself to the portions of the roof that are, on average, below 32°F. The water above backs up behind the ice dam and remains a liquid. This water finds cracks and openings in the exterior roof covering and flows into the attic space. From the attic it could flow into exterior walls or through the ceiling insulation and stain the ceiling finish.

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- Source: University of Minnesota Extension

Brooke Rockwell is a freelance contributor based in Vermont. Photos courtesy of Steve Kuhl.

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