Ice Dams, Feb, 2015 by
(354 Stories)

Prompted By Home Repair

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Ice Dam outside our living

The winter of 2014-15 was the snowiest we remember in the Boston area with large storm followed by large storm. Then the sun came out, causing some melting of the snow on roof tops, giving way to terrible ice dams from the build up of snow on roofs. We learned the hard way how damaging those could be.

Storm Juno roared in on January 27, 2015. We hung out inside – no need to go anywhere – and I took photos of the snow accumulation outside the window.

Storm Juno, 1/27/15

The plows were running out of places to shovel the snow, walk-ways were narrow. Our home was buried by the time the sun came out. We have a large, one story house with a complicated roof line; lots of places for snow to get caught and ice dams to form.

You can barely see our house over the piles of snow. But the icicles are forming.

By February 12, we had water leaking into all the public rooms of the house, as well as the two west-facing bedrooms (that includes the primary bedroom). But most severe were in the living room, dining room and paneled library, where water leaked in from the ceiling, along the tops of the window frames and in the dining room, behind one wall.

Dan got out every pan, bucket, container and towel in the house. I ran the dryer constantly, trying to keep dry towels for the onslaught of water (it seeped discolored water onto our carpets and curtains as well). Everything in our house is beige.


Living room

Dining room

There was no sleep, we were frantic. We called our contractor who got us the name of someone who eventually came to shovel the huge amount of snow from the roof. That was the only way to stop the melting/dripping cycle forming the ice dams. We signed a long-term contract with him in the event that such an issue happened again. Worth it. The dripping ebbed.

On the fourth day of this catastrophe, we were due to fly to London to visit David. He had moved there the first of the year to begin working for Google DeepMind; he lived in a company-provided two bedroom apartment until the end of that month. We didn’t want to miss this opportunity, but couldn’t leave a leaking mess behind.

I hired my Brazilian cleaning lady to come check on the house daily and send reports to us. She showed me the “WhatsApp” app, through which she could sent photos and video reports (free and secure) about the house. Between that and seeing that the inside leaking had stopped, we took off for London; barely. The roof shoveler showed up hours before we left for the airport. We would deal with the rest of the cleanup when we got home. At least everything was stable and we were in touch with our contractor and the insurance adjustor, for this was an insurance claim too.

Upon our return, we filed the claim, had our contractor work through the estimates with our insurance provider and got estimates to clean and repair everything – get the stains out of the carpet and curtains, cleaned the wood paneling, re-plaster the living room ceiling, fix the hole in the dining room, lots of painting.

Then we set about curing the problem. We put heating elements in all the gutters, controlled through an app on our phones (we could be anywhere in the world, see that a huge storm is raging in Newton and turn on those heating elements). That way, the snow wouldn’t have a chance to freeze in the downspouts again.

But of most importance, we did a major overhaul of our basement sump pumps and drainage systems, since we’d had several bad flooding incidents in the family room over the years.

5 inches of water in Newton basement

A professional team came in and stripped out the whole room, even though it is finished to the same high quality level as the rest of the house.

Stripped out basement family room.

They discovered a small crack in the foundation, which they plugged, found there was a check valve in the wall to our sump pump that was broken! Hence, it didn’t carry water out of the house and we didn’t know about it. Of course that was remedied. They added a second sump pump. But of most importance, they traced the outside line and discovered it was clogged, so the water backed up. They cleared that line as well as looking at the downspout in that corner (where the HUGE ice dam by the living room had formed – the Featured photo). They routed the downspout further away from the house, so the water wouldn’t puddle right by the window well.

We also added a generator. It doesn’t do much good to have great sump pumps and de-humidifiers if there is a hurricane and one loses power. Vapor barrier was wrapped along the walls. Now we feel the room is tight. And we haven’t had a water problem since. The generator and basement system get serviced annually so we know they are all in working order. With more extreme weather, we are taking no chances.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: been there, funny, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    When we moved to the Boston area in 2015, our only reservation about it was knowing the brutal winter that it had just gone through — I believe the last snow pile didn’t melt until June. Your story really captures all the harrowing aspects of it, and especially the many ways it could damge your house. (To my wife, the two most dangerous words in the English language — other than “Donald Trump” — are “ice dams.”) And, somehow, throughout this catastrophe, you still managed to take the photos that so graphically illustrate all that you went through.

    As you know, Massachusetts has been spared such winters since 2014-15 — and I hope I don’t jinx the upcoming one by saying it. I think we all realize that the sole reason that the reason for this has been your installation of a sump pump and a generator, so thank you from a grateful state. (We did the same thing after suffering damages from major storms in Connecticut and Wisconsin, respectively, and the meteorological gods then chose not to give us need to ever use them.)

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      It is true, John. Our winters have been relatively mild since 2015. But everything is cyclical and we are seeing the effects of climate change everywhere, so I’m sure we will not be spared. I just hope all the work we put in after our experience will help our house against the next big storm season. I took all those photos, in part, to remember what we went through, but also for insurance reasons – to show to the adjusters when the time was right.

      • John Shutkin says:

        Of course, I should have realized that the insurance adjusters would want such proof. And glad you’re prepared for the coming storms. Our condo association prohibits generators (ostensibly too noisy for the neighbors), so I will be beyond envious — and also in the cold and dark — if we lose power this winter.

        • Betsy Pfau says:

          We were surprised by the amount of regulations that went into adding the generator. It needed to be a certain distance from the house, needed a building permit to add it, etc. It was not simple. It also takes a few seconds to kick in, so we still have blinking clocks all over the house when we lose power (which happens every so often, for various reasons). It comes on once a week and runs for 15 minutes, just as a test. I am always surprised if I’m sitting close by at the kitchen table, and suddenly hear a motor, then realize what’s happened (ours isn’t too noisy), but small price to pay.

  2. Marian says:

    Wow, Betsy, one thing led to another with the weather and ice dams. Water in any form is wicked, as you discovered. The mid-Atlantic winters weren’t as severe as what you experienced, but I do recall flooded basements and broken sump pumps. We don’t have those issues in California, thankfully, although we can and do have leaks and floods. And earthquakes are always in the backs of our minds!

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    What an ordeal! And the pictures tell the story too. Water damage seems overwhelming. So glad you were able to address the problems and (hopefully) avert a repeat. Your story is shared by so many facing extreme weather events, which as you note, are unlikely to abate (Hurricane Ida?). Support for property-owners and public entities to improve infrastructure and prevent/address sequelae is badly needed. Back-up generators or storage systems for solar power make sense. We are in for quite a ride.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      So far, so good, Khati. I, too, am worried about the people in the path of Ida. My sister-in-law just moved out of the New Orleans area, thank goodness for that! We, on the east coast, are not complaining that Henri was a bust!

  4. Suzy says:

    Wow, Betsy, what a story! I had never heard the term “ice dams” before – I’m sure we must have had the problem in New Jersey, but maybe it was called something else. You do such an amazing job of describing the whole ordeal, I felt as if I were right there with you. Glad you still managed to take your trip to London in the midst of it all. And that you are now prepared for whatever the weather may bring.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      You have to have heavy snowfall, with the melting cycle in between to encounter ice dams, Suzy. Our steep roof, with all the ridges, hips and valleys make perfect targets for thick icicles to form. It is only when they seep under the gutters that they cause a problem. Glad I gave a vivid description, because it was a horror show. At least we did manage to get to London to see David and enjoy his free second bedroom!

      And we haven’t had a problem since. We even employed the same company to do all the water-proofing in our Martha’s Vineyard basement, though it never really flooded, only got little wet patches. Still better to be totally dry and much less humid.

  5. Wow Betsy, what an ordeal and what a mess! Glad all ended well.

    I think the heating elements you mentioned we call ice tapes. We were advised to get them on the roof to prevent ice dams in our house. We can’t control them from our phones but we can control the heat and A/C in the house remotely. The new technology is indeed amazing!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    What a disaster, Betsy. We had a flat roof over the family room in our old house and had a similar experience. We also hired people to shovel the roof. Fred and I used to fight about his ongoing need to shovel another flat roof over his office. Glad that we moved and it’s someone else’s problem now. These disasters tend to snowball (forgive the pun) in a bad winter.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    We lived in Quincy from 1990 through 1996, right up against the salt marsh down in the Germantown section. We got to experience two record-setting winters and the Perfect Storm, which turned our house into an island for a few hours. I think Boston beats Chicago for nasty winter weather.

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