Besides numb fingers, slippery roads, and school closings, ice dams are another winter plague in Minnesota. These frozen formations can be very destructive to the exterior and interior of your home. With proper precautions they can be avoided, but if they do manage to damage your home, cleanup and remediation should be undertaken immediately
How are ice dams formed?
Ice dams are a product of an insufficiently insulated and/or improperly vented attic combined with below-freezing outdoor temperatures and of course, snow. As heated air from the living space rises and enters the attic, the roof warms. The warmed roof causes the snow on top to melt and trickle down to the roof edge, which is colder. There, under colder conditions, the water freezes. As this process continues, the water flowing down the roof refreezes and adds to that at the edge, causing a ridge, behind which water backs up—thus, an "ice dam."
What kind of damage do ice dams cause?
As more water melts, runs down the roof, and freezes, the ice dam grows in size and thus can become quite heavy. This weight causes great strain on the gutters and downspouts, potentially detaching them from the house. Additionally, as water backs up behind the dam, it is often forced under the shingles, where it pools. When this water again freezes (with a drop in outdoor temperature) it will expand under the shingle and cause damage. If it does not freeze, however, it may well leak through the roof.
And this is where the potential damage is greatest—inside your home. As water backs up behind the dam and spreads out over the roof, it can eventually seep through the roof or find its way in through holes or fissures, making its way into the attic. There, it drips into the insulation, potentially saturating it and establishing a breeding ground for mold. It further seeps through the floor of the attic to your ceiling, causing water spots and water damage to the bedroom ceilings and walls. This is often the first sign a homeowner has of a problem with ice dams (besides perhaps icicles hanging from the edge of the roof). In particularly bad cases, homeowners have witnessed their ceilings "raining."
How can ice dams be prevented?
Since the main contributor to ice dam formation is heat loss into the attic and a (relatively) warm roof, the preventive solution is to sufficiently and properly insulate your attic floor to prevent warm air from the living space penetrating it. A further contributor is referred to as bypass, or air leakage, which occurs via the gaps or holes surrounding light fixtures, wires, or flues into the attic from the living space. These need to be properly sealed to cut off the flow of warm air from below. Further, proper ventilation is critical to the prevention of hot air being trapped in the attic. A combination of ridge vents and soffit vents is most recommended. And remember: dryer vent lines or bathroom vents should NEVER exhaust into the attic but should always end outside.
On the border of prevention and treatment is the installation of heated cables. These cables, warmed by electricity, run along the eaves and in the gutters and can ameliorate ice buildup as well; however, these are more of a band-aid than a preventive measure.
If preventive measures are not undertaken (or have failed) and an ice dam forms, there are a few DIY methods that have been suggested to tackle them, including using a wheeled roof-rake to remove snow from the roof, the application of chemical de-icers, the spraying of warm water from a pressure-washer, and attacking it with a hammer and chisel (yikes!). Another option is to hire a professional ice-dam removal company to apply steam to melt the ice dams, allowing the backed-up water to flow safely off the roof through the gutter system. Again, these are all options once a dam has formed. After successful removal the cause should be pinpointed and remedied.
How is the water damage from ice dams mitigated?
In the unfortunate event that water does infiltrate your roof and enter your attic, prompt discovery and mitigation is key to minimizing damage to your home and preventing mold growth. The first step would be to have the affected insulation removed and the area thoroughly dried. New, dry insulation would then be installed, in the appropriate amount (remember, inadequate insulation can be a main contributing factor to the formation of ice dams in the first place). An insulation company can also ensure that any bypass areas are appropriately sealed.
If water has leaked through the attic floor to bedroom ceilings and walls, demolition of some affected areas, such as drywall and flooring, may be necessary. A water damage specialist can help you determine what is salvageable. Once the necessary areas have been demo'd, the remaining affected areas are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized to avoid contamination and prevent mold growth. Thorough drying procedures are then followed, utilizing air scrubbers, dehumidifiers, and air movers, with lay-flat ducting to direct air to where it's needed in order to accelerate the process.
Once this has been accomplished, any rebuilding of demo'd areas will take place, and with that a return to normalcy—hopefully, with all necessary steps having been taken to eliminate the factors that led to the ice-dam formation and to prevent its recurrence.
Wanna dig deeper? Visit our Water Damage Cleanup service pages.
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Many thanks to our water-damage specialist Zach C for lending his expertise to this article.
Commercial exhaust systems serve to vent odors, moisture, and smoke from indoor spaces such as locker rooms, commercial kitchens, and bathrooms to the outdoors by way of a fan—similar to the way a home's kitchen or bathroom exhaust functions but on a much larger scale. These systems are continuously pulling bad air (dirtied with foul odors, moisture, smoke, cooking smells and oils, etc) from a large and crowded space. For this reason they tend to become quite dirty with filth and grime. When this product of exhaust builds up too much inside the ducts, proper venting to the outside is restricted, resulting in odors and moisture lingering in the occupied space. This has the effect of making the room in question "stuffy" and malodorous, and generally exhibiting poor air quality and circulation.
The above set of before and after images was taken inside a stretch of flexible ductwork belonging to the exhaust system of a municipal community center's locker room. The building itself was constructed in 1998, and the exhaust system had never been cleaned. The resulting accumulation of filth and fluff is visibly evident.
Because the area of the room being exhausted (in this case a locker room) is heavy with moisture and warmth from frequently running water, hot showers, hand and hair dryers, etc, the debris exhausted tends to stick quite readily to other particles and to the venting itself, causing a cumulative, clumpy buildup that's as stubborn as it is unsightly.
The flex duct above was cleaned using the Viper Clean Sweep System, a multi-tentacled whip attached to an air hose. When engaged, the plastic tentacles thrash vigorously to and fro, loosening debris from every crevice for the vacuum to swallow up.
Once the length of flexible duct leading from the locker room had been air whipped, it was time to tackle a larger run of rectangular metal ductwork that followed from it. Because this duct was large enough to accommodate a person, the crawl-through method was used to clean it. During this process, the technician dons personal protective equipment (PPE) and crawls through the duct on his hands and knees, armed with an industrial vacuum with brush attachments, physically brushing the debris from the walls of the ducts and into the vacuum.
In this case, the technician moved through the length of the duct until reaching a large turbine fan, which was also caked with locker-room grime.
To clean the fan, the technician water-blasts it with a pressure washer, washing decades of dust and debris from the surface of the fan and blades. The water is cleaned up with a wet vacuum, and the fan blades and other components are wiped down with a dry cloth. Once one side of the fan is clean, the technician exits the duct through an access hole created earlier, then enters the duct on the other side to finish cleaning the other side of the fan.
Having thoroughly cleaned the fan, the technician then turns his attention to the 15-foot section of rectangular duct remaining before the outside grille. This section is also cleaned with the crawl-through method, with the debris manually brushed off the walls of the ducts going straight into the industrial vacuum, which sits below. (The technician enters the duct with enough hose to accommodate the length of the duct.)
The final step is to clean the outside grille that sits like a window on the exterior of the building. The same manner of dust and grime found inside the flex duct and rectangular duct clogs the tiny holes on the screen of the exterior grille. To clean this, from the inside, the tech washes it thoroughly with a pressure-washer. While most of the excess water from this process runs down the side of the building, whatever is left inside the duct is sucked up with a wet-vac.
The ultimate result of this days-long job is a community center whose occupied spaces boast a visibly cleaner venting system, improved indoor air quality, fewer odors, and a generally improved atmosphere.
Wanna learn more about the process of commercial air duct cleaning, the various components cleaned, and the tools employed?
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Many thanks to our commercial project manager Ben S for contributing photos and wisdom for this article.
The heat exchanger pictured is definitely not representative of our typical job. Furnace cleaning, when performed regularly, is relatively uneventful, as the technicians use high-pressured air triggers to clean various components inside the furnace, and check key areas for proper function. The goal is to rid the furnace and its inner workings of dust and debris that hinder efficiency and that increase the number of contaminants polluting indoor air. As in any frequent task, however, sometimes unusual or exemplary situations present themselves
This month a homeowner in St Paul contacted us and scheduled a furnace flue cleaning as well as a furnace cleaning. His gas furnace, manufactured in the 1950s, was less efficient than it had been (not surprisingly, some would say). More importantly, he felt it was not drafting properly. He was getting what he called "funny smells" in the house, and the carbon monoxide detectors were going off. The customer attributed this to a clogged furnace flue, which is certainly not an unlikely cause. The furnace flue serves to vent harmful gases produced during combustion to the outside, so if it is clogged or otherwise hindered, it stands to reason that a primary indicator would be the CO detector registering concerning levels of carbon monoxide.
After listening to the homeowner's concerns about the furnace not drafting properly, the technician proceeded to clean the flue, expecting to find it clogged, perhaps with animal nesting or other debris. Though quite dirty, however, it was not so dirty that one would have expected air flow to be greatly hindered or draft compromised.
The problem became apparent, however, when the technician was able to see, by way of the access created for the flue cleaning, down into the heat exchanger. It was completely clogged and black with soot, to an extent he'd never seen before. It was clear to the technician that a through cleaning was urgently needed to unclog it and restore it to working order, if possible.
A disclaimer would be in order at this point. The average lifespan of a furnace is about 20 years, and the furnace in question was significantly older than that. The customer insisted, however, that it was otherwise working properly and he simply did not have the funds to replace it. Wanting to accommodate the customer's financial situation, the technician agreed to proceed with the disassembly and cleaning of the heat exchanger, with a thorough explanation of what he was doing and the risk involved, and an assurance from the customer that if the symptoms persisted after the cleaning he would consult a repair company.
An interesting aside: furnaces of this age rely on natural draft to exhaust gases and are not equipped with a draft inducer. This component is essentially a fan, found in modern furnaces, whose purpose is to create draft and move the products of combustion from the furnace up and out the flue. A furnace equipped with a draft inducer likely would shut down rather than becoming as clogged as this one had, in accordance with its sequence of operation.
The technician began the job by removing 17 nuts and bolts from the panel just to gain access to the heat exchanger. As soon as the panel was removed, it was clear that the gasket surrounding it was completely deteriorated and needed to be replaced. The customer purchased a new one while the technician performed the cleaning.
It is unusual that a technician would need to go to such lengths to access a heat exchanger. Typically the heat exchanger is readily accessible, or requires only minimal disassembly in order to access it for cleaning. Moreover, many technicians would likely have passed on this job once observing the amount of buildup needing to be cleaned and the relatively laborious process of accessing the heat exchanger. Likely the customer would have been counseled to simply replace the furnace. However, a combination of a genuine wish to help a homeowner in a tough financial situation and the desire to successfully tackle a challenging and uncommon task inspired our technician to complete the cleaning.
Once the heat exchanger was accessible, the cleaning was carried out using a powerful industrial vacuum and various attachments, specifically a 3-inch round brush head. Because the heat exchanger and its associated tubes were so large, it was easy to fit the vacuum and its attachments down each tube, which made this aspect of the cleaning relatively easy, taking only about 20 minutes.
On completion, the customer replaced the gasket with the one he had purchased, and the heat exchanger panel was reinstalled.
The heat exchanger after the cleaning was not necessarily a thing of beauty, but it certainly was in a much improved condition to carry out its function of heat transfer. In the end, the tech was wiser, the customer was well-informed and happy, and he also was not out thousands of dollars for the purchase of a new furnace—at least not today.
Wanna dig deeper? Download our free tipsheet: 5 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Furnace Cleaning Company.
Many thanks to our technicians Ben S and Roy S for lending their expertise to this article.
Bathroom exhaust fans serve to move moisture and odors from the bathroom to the outside. Like dryer vent lines, they move air only one way, from inside to outside—their function is not to recirculate air, as your home's ductwork does. In short, they do not form part of the air duct system, which moves heated and cooled air from the furnace and air conditioner into your living space.
Why are bathroom exhaust fans not cleaned along with the air ducts?
Customers often conflate air ducts and bathroom exhaust fans, both of which are sometimes loosely referred to as "vents." Understandably in that context, they expect the two will be cleaned together. In fact bathroom exhaust vents are not typically included in an air duct cleaning service, as these are two completely different systems. More relevantly, bathroom exhaust vents rarely require professional cleaning.
Why? Because unlike dryer vents, which exhaust lint as a byproduct of the drying process in addition to moisture, and air ducts, which serve to circulate air throughout the HVAC system and into the living space, bathroom vents move only moisture. For this reason, they rarely become clogged, and the light buildup they do accumulate simply does not rise to the level of what a professional duct or vent cleaning is intended to remove.
Do bathroom exhaust fans need to be cleaned?
As we all know, however, they can become visibly dirty, as moist household dust sticks to the vent cover and to the fan blades just behind it. It's a good idea to clean these components periodically to reduce the overall amount of dust in your home and to keep the fan motor in good working order. This superficial buildup can be removed fairly easily. To clean the vent cover and fan, a household vacuum and damp cloth will usually suffice. The vent cover, typically plastic, can be lifted off easily. There may be clamps on the side you'll need to gently push inward. Once removed, you can vacuum the cover with a standard household vacuum attachment, or wipe it clean with a damp cloth. If the dirt is particularly sticky or stubborn, the vent cover can be immersed in soapy water. Behind the vent cover lies the fan, the blades of which over time accumulate the same mix of household dust, minor lint, and moisture. This also can be cleaned with a vacuum attachment or damp cloth (cut the electricity before doing so). Ensure the vent cover is thoroughly dry before replacing.
Does a bathroom exhaust fan ever need professional cleaning?
There are cases, however infrequent, when a bathroom fan exhaust requires more than just a wipe-down or light vacuum. On the few occasions when our technicians have been summoned to clean a bathroom vent exhaust, it's to clear a blockage caused by animal nesting. The warm air and narrow passage would seem quite attractive to a prospective home-builder of the small furry or feathered variety. Normally these critters are kept out by screening over the vent, or a damper under the hood. If these mechanisms are compromised, however, nesting animals (often squirrels) will quickly find their way inside, carrying with them their sticks and leaves and other home-building debris, potentially creating a mammoth clog. A blocked exhaust would prevent the escape of moisture and odors from the bathroom and risk overworking or burning out the fan motor.
What is the process for cleaning a clogged bathroom exhaust vent?
The remedy for these clogs is the same technique that breaks up lint clogs and the occasional nest inside a dryer vent line. Our technicians' tool of choice is a spinning, reverse-blowing skipper ball. How does it work? From the outside vent cover, the tool is fed through the vent on an air line, past the obstruction. Once engaged, the tool is then pulled back toward the technician, as its reverse nozzles blast out air, and the debris along with it. The process is repeated until no further debris is expelled.
With all that said, absent a clog, if you don't have the time or inclination to clean your own bathroom exhaust fans, you can usually opt to add this on to your service for a small additional charge—because, after all, some of us prefer to spend a bit more money and save ourselves the time and trouble.
Wanna dig deeper? Download our free tipsheet: 10 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Air Duct Cleaning Company.
Many thanks to our technicians Ben S and Roy S for lending their expertise to this article.