warm roof icicles

Winter Can Show: How Well is your Roof Insulation Working?


The groundhog saw his shadow on Sunday, but we hardly needed confirmation of six weeks of THIS winter.

If you live here in Chicago, you’ll be sharing in another three inches of snow tonight and, depending on your predilections, either cheering or cursing that little gift of nature.  This coming snowfall is more than a visual treat or frustrating inconvenience.  It can also be a useful test of your home’s weather-tightness if you know how to read the signs.  Keep your eyes open for useful data now and start making plans for improving the insulation of your house come spring in order to nail down some major savings in energy costs to you and to the planet.  Last week’s post ID’ed quick fix solutions you can tackle to survive the polar vortex’s grip.  Today you can use this easy visual assessment to see if you want to add in more long term solutions to improve your home’s insulation.

CAUTION: Watch for Ice (Not Only Downtown)

You might think that icicles along the the eaves of a house is a picturesque inevitability of winter (a la watercolor christmas cards).  But its also a sign that your roof is leaking some serious heat out into the world.  Remember how your mother used to tell you to to close the fridge door and ask if you were planning to air condition the kitchen that way … well you may be heating your whole yard through a poorly insulated roof.

Check how much your roof may be leaking in the morning after a light fall of snow (under an inch is best) when there hasn’t been too much wind to blow patterns around or much direct light to melt it.  What you’ll see is the pattern (or lack thereof) of missing insulation in your roof.

If you have an even, full coating of snow:  congrats, you, and your attic are well insulated.

If there are melted patches or the entire upper half of the roof is clear of snow: you want to address the lack of insulation either in your attic or between your heated living spaces and the attic above.  You may be able to identify better or worse conditions on additions or original areas of your home.  Typical offenders are new additions and the peaks of gable roofs.

If, worst of all, you have dramatic icicles dangling from your gutter:  your roof is creating ice dams – build-ups of ice formed by snow melting and re-freezing off the edge of the roof.  This is a warning sign of big problems: added weight load on the roof and gutter, and water wicking back up your roofing surface and working its way into the house.  That water infiltration can be ruining existing insulation and even structural rafters, and melting on the inside of your house to cause mildew and water stains.

warning signs in snow melt

So … what can you do about your roof insulation?

We don’t recommend bandaid solutions like raking snow off your roof before it melts, or installing a heat tape along the gutter which plugs in and applies a little warmth to melt ice from gutters.  (If you do try these, call an installer to carry them out and DO NOT GO CLIMBING AROUND ON YOUR ICY ROOF.)

The only permanent solution to the problem is to address the heat leaks in your roof by installing or improving on existing insulation between your living spaces and the outside envelope of your house. You may be able to address this insulation task yourself or choose to hire an expert to come in for more high tech solutions.  The good news is that this will save you energy costs both now, in the winter, and in the summer when you’re battling the opposite problems.

Once you have the trick of seeing snow melt insulation problems, you may find yourself unable to stop seeing them.  Enjoy strolling around your neighborhood making a comparative assessment of the state of your neighbors roofs.