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Huge winter leads to leaky roofs

April 24, 2019

In the middle of a night of rain in early April, KO Strohbehn walked into one of her bathrooms and stepped in a puddle.

“I looked up, and, where the fan vent is, water was coming down through the ceiling,” the East Jackson resident said. “It was coming through the exhaust pipe.”

She was able to find a repairman to come that day. He patched the rogue opening with silicone, and she ran a fan for days to dry the bathroom ceiling.

The pressure of snow on the roof “really wreaked havoc,” Strohbehn said. “I had two other pipes on the other end of the house get pushed over, but they didn’t leak.”

This past winter’s low temperatures and heavy snow did a number on houses all over the valley, keeping pros busy patching up roofs and repairing water damage.

“There’s definitely a lot of leaky roofs this year,” said Kevin Marshall, owner of Cowboy Plumbing and Heating. “More so than normal, I would say.”

Carol Woodward and her husband, Bill, have operated for more than 40 years as Jackson Hole Roofing and Snow Removal. She said the same.

“We have more work than we know what to do with,” Woodward said. “The snow level this year were huge, and it’s been a long winter, a bit crazy. ... We’ve been getting a lot of leak calls.”

Vent pipes are vulnerable spots.

“When the snow builds up and slides it will break off the pipes and bend them,” Marshall said. “Then water will leak through around the roof jack where the pipe was.”

The reason is that “there was so much snow all at once in February,” he said. “We had several people who’ve said, ‘I’ve lived here for 30 years and this never happened.’”

Kay Cox, owner of Disaster Cleanup of Wyoming, which is based in Smoot, also cited February’s snowstorms as the culprit.

“The fact that it piled deep enough to start pushing those vent pipes down is a good indication of how much snow really was there,” Cox said. “We’re seeing leaking higher up on the roofs ... up past where the ice and snow shield normally would be.”

How can homeowners prevent the problem?

“Shovel their roof,” Marshall said.

They can also use heat tape in vulnerable spots like valleys and eaves to reduce ice buildup, and they can install crickets, metal triangular frames that prevent snow from knocking pipes over.

“On the newer construction we put our vent pipes, if possible, within 4 feet of the ridge line,” Marshall said “But a lot of the older houses have their pipes close to the bottom of the roof. They’re more likely to get broken off with snow sliding than the ones higher up on the ridge line.”

He’s seen cases in which “the snow took off the sheet metal, the vent pipes ... It was just like a tornado went through there on some of them.”

Ice damming has also been a big problem for Jackson homeowners, one that’s even more destructive.

“In someone’s living room two weeks ago a chunk of their ceiling just fell in,” Cox said.

Eric Hershberger, operations manager for ServPro in Idaho Falls, said that in some cases melting and refreezing snow damages shingles.

“After a period of time with that melting and freezing and expanding it will actually lift the shingles and work its way up until the shingles are no longer effective,” he said.

Water finds its way inside, and homeowners end up with wet floors, wet insulation and wet sheetrock.

“All those things your roof is supposed to be keeping out are now inside your home,” Hershberger said. “We’ve dealt with quite a few of those situations in Jackson.”

An ice dam messed up the interior of Barbara Beaton’s East Jackson home.

“I have heat tape around the eaves, as this also occurred 13 years ago with the same drip pattern,” she said in an email while traveling. “Ice crawls up from the eave and enters under the pipe jack around my sewer vent. The cause was basically heat tape failure due to an exterior outlet failing. ServPro did my repair work, and they did a great job.”

The cleanup at Beaton’s home was no small operation.

“I ended up needing to open up an area in the ceiling, pull insulation, run an industrial drying vent up to the hole to prevent mold, repair drywall on the main floor ceiling and wall, replace a window casement, have a blind professionally cleaned, and repaint the entire plane of the ceiling and wall,” Beaton said.

One challenge of ice dams is that the source of the problem has to be tackled before mitigation work can begin.

“With broken pipes you can turn the water off,” Hershberger said. “With an ice dam you have to do what you can to clear the roof and then work on melting what’s trapped under the shingles. Once the water has stopped coming in, now we can do something about the [wetness.]”

Cox said it hasn’t been easy to find people to clear roofs.

“The guys that shovel roofs off were overwhelmed,” he said. “I don’t do that type of thing. I was trying to find people to do that. It was hard to find people because they already had a lot of work, and then the cost of time becomes more and more valuable.”

At Jackson Hole Roofing and Snow Removal, Woodward said her husband had four men clearing roofs this winter and would have had a bigger crew if there were dependable people to hire.

“You can’t get people to do it; it’s not an easy job,” she said. “Some will come to work for a day and realize how hard it is. People don’t want to work like that anymore.”

Woodward said it’s also a good idea to know who you’re hiring because there are people who don’t know what they’re doing and who see winter snow clearing as “a fast way to make a buck” without knowing how they might make it worse.

Don’t, she said, “hire people on the side of the road or if you just see them in the paper.”

Also be careful, she said, about deciding that you’ll just “jump up there and do it yourself.” Her husband has seen people who see an ice dam and “take a pick and start picking it ... it’s crazy what you see, all the damage done to roofs” by do-it-yourself ignorance.

Beaton said her ice problem “probably could’ve been prevented by proactive shoveling.” The challenge, she said, is that the edge of her roof is about 25 feet off the deck of her driveway and pitches up from that point. It’s not easy to access, it’s dangerous to shovel and it’s impossible to reach with a roof rake.

“By the time you realize it’s problematic it is nearly impossible to get on anyone’s schedule,” she said.

Mold is a worry for anyone whose home suffers water damage. Cox said it’s important to act quickly.

“If they know they have a water issue the best thing to do is to get rid of the water and make sure it’s gone,” he said. “If they address it pretty fast they can avoid the mold problems. The key to that is to make sure it’s dry.”

That may require running fans and dehumidifiers for a week. Cox recommends that homeowners ask a pro to use a moisture meter or buy and use one themselves.

“Normally it’s not dry just because it feels dry to the touch,” he said. “It can feel dry long before it really is dry.”

Now that most of the snow has melted away and roof problems are being tackled, Cowboy Plumbing’s Marshall is hearing about broken water pumps outside houses.

In a typical scenario “there was so much snow that came off the roof and piled up against the house,” he said.”As it settled it was breaking the handles off the hose bits.”

If that happens people won’t be able to turn on the water for hoses.

“We’ll get a lot of those calls in the next month,” Marshall said.

The roofs themselves also offer plenty of examples of damage done but not noticed for a long time, said Woodward at Jackson Hole Roofing and Snow Removal.

“People might not realize until we have a good rain,” she said. “The repercussions, I’m sure, will come to be seen sooner or later.”

A solid roof that’s tended to is the best way to prevent most snow and water damage in every part of your house, she said.

“Your roof is your home,” Woodward said. “Above all a good roof.”