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Icicles: Good, Bad, Beautiful

By: Mark Clement , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Construction, Home Improvement Tips

Icicles tend to be the stuff of holiday cards. Pretty to look at and reminiscent of bygone eras, they are essentially stalactites of ice. They decorate the eaves of a snowbound home with an air of beauty and provenance.

icicles are often an indicator of heat loss in old houses.

Icicles are often an indicator of heat loss in old houses.

However, while they are inarguably beautiful to look at, they often indicate an underlying problem: heat is escaping through the roof. It’s not always the case, but leakier and poorly insulated older homes tend to excel in this department.

Generally speaking, icicles are the product of melting snow. However, the snow may not be melting because the ambient air temperature is above freezing. Rather, it’s the air beneath it–the air in your attic. As the attic air warms the roof deck, the solid snow liquifies and starts to trickle down the shingles into the gutter or eave (this can also create ice dams). At the eave, however, the air returns to freezing and that water once again becomes solid, this time as ice. As more water makes its way to that spot, the droplets become larger and larger until they’ve formed an icicle.

In some cases, snow can clog gutters and, whether the snow is melting because your roof is leaking air or because the air temperature rises above freezing then falls again quickly, the result is icicles: the gutters have filled with snow and water and the melt has to go somewhere (assuming the gutters don’t fall off), which is over the side where it immediately freezes and becomes an icicle.

If you have icicles forming, they may be forming only in certain areas of the house–the leaky parts–and can be a guide to where you might want to beef up insulation. If they’ve formed all around your house, you probably have ice dams as well which may lead to big time roof leaks.

After all, holiday cards are designed to bring about warm feelings with fictional art. Houses have a much tougher job living in the reality of a world where heat is not free. Plus, you can save money to buy me a present.

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  1. 5 Responses  to “Icicles: Good, Bad, Beautiful”

  2. diane pryor
    Feb 10, 2014
    this winter I have been left to care for a beautiful ranch house built in the early 50's . thank goodness it is built as well as it is however there are huge icicles and ice in the gutters . there is also an indoor pool which was never winterize as it had never frozen out there before . all of the main faucets have been turned off but it is too late for the pipes of heat and pipes of water coming through they are already cracked . I now have a heater in the big pool room but it might be totally wasteful . the concern was has the filter the skimmer frozen yet ? it is now 40 degrees and ice off the top of the pool is slowly disappearing after I broke up . this house is huge and beautiful and we have to put it on the market in the spring I just don't know what to do right now .
  3. Jeremy
    Aug 29, 2011
    My favorite thing to do is make snowballs and throw them at the ice cicles and watch them crash down. There are some really, really huge ones that can form on my roof. Good clean fun as long as nothing is in the way of getting smashed.
  4. Aug 29, 2011
    It's an off seeing them in my house, truly. And I fear that they might just fall off and get someone into accident.
  5. frank
    Aug 29, 2011
    I have never had luck with gutters in cold weather areas. The ice forms and then rips off your gutters when the weather warms up, and the ice slides. It is a real problem for many homeowners, but there are not many good solutions.
  6. Aug 29, 2011
    icicles don't look cute to me. they're creepy to look at!Home Improvement