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Watching effects of ice on the house, not our nerves


We don't know about you, but if we never, ever hear the I-word again, we'll be perfectly happy. Maybe even delirious.

The simplest, most mundane tasks have been made treacherous, stupid and impossible by the coating of ice that has the mid-Atlantic in a tight, glassy embrace. Want to take out the garbage? Hah! Walk the dogs? Forget it. Drive down the hill to get to work? Ha-ha-ha-ha! Just try to get that car door open first!

No denying the ice is pretty; the trees seem to be made of spun sugar and the house looks like it's been encased in pour-on polyurethane, like the table tops in some pizza places.

But is the thick coating protecting your house as polyurethane would? Not likely. Ice encapsulation like this is rare, but it has its own set of strange problems.

Most of the problems come from exactly the kind of freeze-and-thaw cycle we've been experiencing. The worst is ice damming, caused when ice melts on the roof, runs down to the gutters, refreezes and then forces its way back up under the shingles -- remember water expands as it freezes. When it thaws again, it leaks into the house.

Ice damming is not usually a problem in this part of the country, but this winter, watch out.

In fact, this winter, watching it is about all you can do. The "solutions," common in colder climes, all involve prevention. Roofs are installed with metal edge caps that start on the roof, and run down behind the gutter to prevent ice from getting under the shingles. There are also heating elements that can be installed along the roof edge to keep the ice from freezing there.

It's possible that, in walking around the house, you could spot a build-up of ice weighing the gutter or pressing against the roof, and go up and knock it off. The trouble is, of course, that no one can walk on the ground, much less on the roof.

We've heard of and seen some creative locomotion aids. . . . The friend who walked to her downtown job with the aid of a ski pole; the neighbor who strapped on his crampons -- mountain climbing spikes. And the woman who fastened shelf brackets to her shoes. Golf or baseball spikes might work. When Karol went out to help a friend hack his stuck vehicle out of someone's driveway, she used a cane to help navigate. (The neighbor who brought out an ice chipper to help gazed at her in surprise. "Oh," he said, "I thought you were a much older woman.") But another friend who'd parked his car on a steep driveway and grasped the door for support realized that he and the auto were then sliding down the hill together. He jumped in, threw it in reverse, and took off.

Anyway, none of this is going to get you on the roof, so we're afraid the only way you'll spot ice-damming problems are when things begin to thaw and you discover a leak.

If you can get around your house, you might check for icicle buildups in places where water shouldn't be -- like between the gutter and the house, or hanging off the bottom of a gutter. Make a note of the spots and examine them after the thaw; they could indicate blockages, holes in the gutter, or places where the roof doesn't seal to the gutter, allowing the water to run behind. (This is why it's a good fall project to make sure the gutters are cleaned out so the water runs away, and doesn't stick around to freeze up.)

We have to confess that lately we've been guilty of ice abuse -- beating on it with scrapers, hammers, mauls, shovels, chains, hoes, ice chippers and, in one case, a tire iron.

So we may not be the best people to counsel forbearance. But it can make a difference how you attack the ice. Beating on steps or walks can crack the concrete -- and that can cause serious problems all year 'round. It's not safe, in most cases, to use an open flame to melt ice (use a hair dryer or paint-stripping gun, if you must, but you still have to be careful not to burn the underlying surface). And some of the things people use for traction can be hard on the environment. Everything we put on the streets of Baltimore ends up in the storm drain, stream or river -- and eventually in the Chesapeake Bay. Salt and fertilizer may work on the ice, but they're bad for the bay. Sand and kitty litter -- the kind that is just clay -- may be the best grit for traction.

It doesn't look like we're going to get relief from the I-stuff any time soon. It's time to get out those home-improvement books, the paint chips, the house-plan books, the "shelter" magazines. Relax and dream. You've got a great excuse.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie i a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.

Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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