When the next monster snowstorm hits the D.C. area, you can be prepared

By Tracey Longo
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 5, 2010; 8:01 AM

Barry Perkins has vivid recollections of fighting a losing battle last winter with his flat roof and ice-dammed gutters, which sent water leaking into three levels of his Reston townhouse. The cost of repairs? A startling $4,500.

Perkins isn't alone. Many residents in the region have no trouble recalling the recurrent threat of roof cave-ins, backbreaking shoveling and days without electricity - all outcomes of the area's record-breaking blizzards last winter.

Snowmageddon may have been a historic event for the Washington area, but there are parts of the country - generally parts way to the north - where it's practically routine. What do they know that we don't?

For advice on battening down the hatches for winter - just in case - we turned to our northern neighbors and some local experts for the best, most cost-efficient preparations.

Tend to the roof

Last winter, fearful of a cave-in, Perkins found himself outside shoveling on the three-tiered flat roof of his townhouse every time significant snow started to accumulate. Later, when the thaw came, he furiously chopped ice out of his gutters to stop the constant flow of water into his home. How can he avoid roof time this year?

Keeping gutters clear of all debris is the first step, of course. But you can equip the roof to take care of itself, too. Jeff Hall, a roofing specialist with Alex Roofing in Syracuse, N.Y. - one of the snowiest cities in the contiguous United States, with an annual average of 115.6 inches - suggested installing heat tape where rooflines meet gutters and down into the downspouts.

"One of the biggest problems up here is the freeze and thaw cycles, which create ice dams that back up underneath roofing shingles and create leaks," Hall said.

Installing heat tape in a W or Y pattern along the roof at the gutter's edge and into downspouts costs between $500 and $1,000 on most homes and can help minimize freezing and ice damming, Hall said.

If you're building a new home or considering roof replacement, Hall suggests installing an ice and water shield, a roofing underlayment designed to keep water from leaking through.

The rubberized membrane goes under shingles and seals openings around nails so water that doesn't drain properly cannot penetrate the roof. Ice and water shield installation costs about $500 to $750 for an entire roof.

"The more snow you have, the more you need water shield on your roof," Hall said.

Insulation, of course, is a tried-and-true remedy for ice and water damage.

"Poor insulation is one of the biggest culprits," said Ben Larsen, a designer with the Bell and Spina architectural firm in Syracuse.

"You have to make sure your home is properly sealed and there is a good barrier so heat isn't escaping through your roof, which can also cause gutter damming," he added.

To see if you need additional insulation and air sealing in your attic, check with an insulation specialist. You want to find where heat is escaping so you can block the airflow.

"Is it lack of insulation across the entire roof, just at the edges or around windows or openings such as chimneys?" asked Dave Burgess, president of Accurate Insulation in Upper Marlboro.

To stop the escape of heat, homeowners may want to install new fiberglass insulation ($500 to $1,000) in the attic or blow-in foam insulation, which is more permeating ($2,000 to $5,000), Burgess said.

Get out the big guns

If you can still feel the pain in your back from what seemed like incessant snow shoveling last winter, you might want to consider buying a snowblower. Make your move sooner rather than later, since they sell out fairly early in the winter, experts from up north say.

"A snowblower is a must for any area that gets a lot of snow and has foot traffic and the need to keep sidewalks and driveways clear," said David Blakely, who owns and operates Ophelia's Garden Inn in Syracuse with his wife, Ophelia Papworth Blakely.

Shoveling was a near-constant chore during the three storms that dumped more than 45 inches of wet snow on Jamie Hilton's sidewalks and driveway last year in Kensington Estates. Hilton, who shares a Colonial-style house with his wife, Laura Sildon, and children, Jake, 6, and Ellie, 5, attempted to shovel just about every hour to keep their walkways clear. His reward?

"When the snow trucks in Montgomery County finally did get through to us, they plowed all the snow right back onto our sidewalks and driveway," Hilton said.

He also found himself shoveling off a flat roof last winter because he feared it would cave in.

Here's what you should know if you, like Hilton, are considering purchasing a snowblower. They are priced based on horsepower, the width of the path of snow they can clear, how far they blow the snow, and other available bells and whistles. You can pay as little as $250 for a small electric plug-in snowblower, $400 to $500 for a decent gasoline-powered blower that can easily clear most sidewalks and smaller residential driveways, and up to $1,500 for a ride-on machine than can blow the snow some 50 feet.

Think twice about buying an electric unit unless you live in an area with underground electrical wiring, Hilton suggested. Downed power lines would force you back to shoveling snow. To pinpoint the best snowblower for your needs, check online at Amazon.com, Home Depot, Lowe's or Snow Blowers Direct, which comprehensively list the features and product reviews of hundreds of units. Then, make sure you have enough gasoline on hand in a sealed container to operate your machine.

To make certain your snowblower and other supplies are accessible as the inches pile up, David Blakely suggests sheltering trash cans, snow shovels, sand and rock salt in an easy-to-reach, snow-free spot such as a garage or shed.

And while Blakely said Syracuse rarely loses electricity, he keeps extra wood on hand for the inn's fireplaces just in case. That's an idea fireplace owners in this area should take to heart after enduring days, and in some cases weeks, without electricity last winter.

Keep the lights on

To ensure they have electricity at all times, more Washington area residents are purchasing generators.

"I've gotten 10 calls this month from folks who want a generator installed," said Mike Horan, owner of Horan Brothers Electric in Kensington.

He said homeowners should choose the size and type of generator based on the number of electrical items they want to run. Lower-priced gasoline-powered rollaway units that can be stored in a garage or shed until needed cost between $600 and $2,500. When the electricity goes out, you roll the generator to a special convertor plug (which an electrician must install on the back of your house for about $400), plug the unit in and use it to power critical items such as gas heat, a fridge, TV and some lights.

If you want more power, such as enough to run an electric heating system, you will need a whole-house stand-alone generator that runs off of piped-in natural gas or kerosene. These can be installed in a permanent location for a total price of $7,000 to $8,000. The unit is wired to automatically kick in when there is an electrical outage.

Rollaway units are less expensive, but they require approximately five gallons of gasoline every four to six hours of use, so they may not be a workable solution for long power outages.

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