D.C. area homeowners struggle against melting snow

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010

Susan Hasten had not heard of ice dams until last week. That's when the frozen gutters in the sunroom on the back of her Bethesda home backed up and water dripped down the wall of windows. In a panic, she cooked up her own triage.

"I have a complex system of taped-up black trash bags and roaster pans to catch the water," said Hasten, who measured 40 inches of snow in her yard. "It feels like the whole house is sinking into a snow hole."

Now that accumulations from two major snowstorms are subsiding, many area residents are having their own meltdowns. All that snow has started dissolving in the above-freezing temperatures of the past few days, and misery has descended on buried neighborhoods. Homeowners, still reeling from power outages and shoveling marathons, are discovering water seeping through roofs or into basements, or they are anxious that it will be soon.

"I'm out there every morning and every night with a hockey stick or a curtain rod trying to knock the icicles off my house," said Isabelle Howes of Rockville.

The family's troubles started last Sunday when John Howes went to make coffee. He found water dripping from his kitchen light fixture. By the time his wife came down for breakfast, he had a beach towel and a bucket sitting on a table under the drip. By the end of the week, they had water seeping through the double doors in the breakfast room and the master bedroom walls. Then it showed up in the finished basement.

"I'm irritated and sick of it," said Isabelle Howes, steeling herself for a weekend of icicle warfare. "It's like you're under siege and you can't keep up. Everything is a mess."

Frustrated homeowners have maxed out the voice mail boxes of roofers, remodelers and home-maintenance experts looking for help. The afflicted are seeking advice and sympathy on community e-mail discussion groups. Some are taking preventive action.

In the Glenbrook Village section of Bethesda, Ilaya Hopkins shoveled her basement stairs and swaddled the sump pump discharge pipe in a blanket, hoping to keep it from freezing. In Leesburg, Kelly Stieff said the many news reports on the dangers of ice damming have made her nervous. "I have iceberg stalactites hanging from the back of my house," Stieff said. "I really don't know what I'm supposed to do about it. I'm not going to get out my hair dryer and a ladder."

The message from pros is to get the snow away from your house as best you can: Shovel it away from foundations, heat pumps and downspouts; scoop it out of basement stairwells, window wells and window sills. They aren't so keen on shoveling off your roof. It's dangerous work, and you can easily poke holes in the shingles.

Once water has found its way into your house, experts say, there's not much you can do but mop up and wait for the snow to disappear.

"We are getting a lot of calls about ice damming. Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot you can do about it," said Alan Beal, president of Mid-Atlantic Inspection Services in Bethesda. "It's the perfect storm: The gutters have been full of ice and snow and debris, and those froze solid. Now it has nowhere to go."

Inside, if water is streaming down the walls, Beal said, use a screwdriver to poke a hole or two in the ceiling so that water drains out.

"Water inside your house is never a good thing," said Bill Millholland, executive vice president of Case Design/Remodeling in Bethesda. "There is no easy remedy for it."

Although many people are concerned about the weight of the snow on their roofs, Millholland said, in general, roofs are engineered to handle snow accumulations. It's not worth the risk to attack the snow on them. "People are freaked out their roofs will collapse. It is very unlikely to be an issue, especially now that we are through the worst of it," he said. "It's easier to fix a broken gutter than a broken bone."

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