for The Wall Street Journal
The latest winter storm, coupled with heavy snow accumulation and long cold snaps across the U.S., have left homeowners, pedestrians and buildings themselves unusually vulnerable to the dangers of ice and snow buildup.
Well beyond slipping, there's a growing risk of injury from falling material. Recently, a chunk of ice plunged from a pine tree and landed on Mark D'Ambrosio as he cleared the driveway of his of Abington, Mass., home. His son called 911, and Mr. D'Ambrosio was hospitalized briefly with a head wound that required three staples.
"I've been in this house 13 years and never seen anything like what's happening this winter," says the 39-year-old Mr. D'Ambrosio.
Other times, the danger comes from homeowners trying to clear roofs of winter's mess before it causes structural damage.
While roof collapses get the most attention, a more common worry for the average homeowner is ice dams. These often form when an under-insulated home's heat escapes through the attic, warms the roof and melts snow. As water runs down the roof it can refreeze into an icy dam along the overhang, which is cooler—much like a bridge.
If the dam gets big enough, it can then block water from running off the roof and force it to back up under shingles, triggering leaks and other damage. Icicles are one symptom of dams forming.
As snow and ice storms pummel the Northeast, Midwest and South this week, consumers are trying to remove snow however they can. Sales of roof rakes—long-handled tools used from the safety of ground level—are up 30% at Garelick Manufacturing Co., which went back into production this month to meet demand. Northern Tool + Equipment Co. cites unusually strong demand for its hockey puck-sized RoofMelt tablets made of calcium chloride, which can be tossed atop roofs to fuel melting.
Businesses specializing in ice-cutting with pressurized steam or hot water and other solutions report a surge of interest. Bylin Heating Systems Inc. has logged a 200% rise in inquiries this winter for its electrical ice-melting roof systems, which are best installed after existing dams are cleared. Similar demand is brewing for installers of attic insulation and other products that prevent heat loss and slow ice dam formation.
Tom Mahoney's 8,000 square foot house in Edina, Minn., was damaged after a thick ice dam formed along his roofline and triggered water leaks in his master bedroom. His solution: pay $1,000 to have chunks of the ice removed professionally.
Mr. Mahoney's contractor, Philip Grave of Dale Services Inc., says he and his brother are on track to earn $100,000 this winter as roof ice-cutters. The duo, who operate a carpet and window-cleaning business in warmer weather, charge $250 to $300 an hour to climb on roofs and slice away at ice dams with 180-200 degree water using a pressure washer-type system. Says Mr. Grave: "We cut ice every day in December and had a wait list."
But with so much snow, residents often are taking drastic short-term actions themselves. In Minnesota, where some areas have received more than 55 inches so far, a Shoreview man died Christmas Day after falling from his roof clearing snow. Meantime, Immanuel St. Joseph's hospital in Mankato has logged a surge of emergency room visits from people injured toppling off their rooftops while shoveling, says hospital spokesman Kevin Burns.
"It's directly attributable to the increased snow," says Mr. Burns who reports everything from scrapes and bruises to broken bones and serious internal injuries. "People are very well-intentioned but aren't prepared for the slippery conditions and steep pitch of the surface."
Last week in New York City, which had its snowiest January in history, the Department of Buildings issued a warning reminding property owners they are legally obligated to remove ice and snow from roofs, overhangs and awnings—and singled out icicles as "a threat to public safety."
A growing number of new homes are built with thicker insulation that can help prevent ice dams, including more than a million new homes that have earned the federal government's Energy Star label, and there are tax credits and subsidies available for retrofits.
"Most of the time, the ice is there and you are rolling the dice and may or may not have a big chunk hit someone's car or head, or a leak, but the risk is always there," says Mike Rogers, vice president of GreenHomes America Inc., a national home energy retrofit company.
When 51-year-old April Butler of Syracuse, N.Y., moved into her home in December, she wasn't aware that her house was at risk. But soon, dams and icicles hung like a cave around her front door, threatening to pull down her gutters and possibly harming a passer-by, including her 17-year-old daughter.
Ms. Butler hired GreenHomes America last week to blow insulation into her attic crawl space, seal air-leaks with foam and replace recessed ceiling light fixtures where the home's heat was escaping.
All these measures are designed to prevent ice dams from forming in the first place; much of what she has now is beginning to thaw.
The total cost: $7,062, for which she received a $2,500 subsidy based on her income as a teaching assistant from the Assisted Home Performance with Energy Star program.
"As of yet, we've had no leak damage," Ms. Butler says. "Hopefully this will eliminate the fear."
Write to Gwendolyn Bounds at email@example.com