Had some roof work done last year after mother nature abused my house by way of an errant tree branch. I had always suspected my roof had poor ventilation, most notably when I wound up with a 200 lb chunk of ice going from roof to ground (about 20 feet or so), so when the roofing contractor repaired the roof I had him install a ridge vent and ventilation system along the back wall (for some reason, my back wall has no soffits).

Anywho to make a long story even longer, it's winter here and I've got some ice dams in the gutters and icicles hanging off the roof. When spring rolls around I'm considering putting up a roof heating wire along (or possibly IN) the gutter and up the first 5-6 feet of roof on both sides of the house. I've heard various pros and cons from friends and family about these heating wires and just wanted to get opinions from the fine folk here as to what they think of this system.

I live in the "snow belt" region of Ohio (for those who live outside of the country, "snow belt" just means we get hit with severe lake effect snow often accumulating to several feet over the course of a day or so). So if you live in a similar area or know someone who does I'd love to hear your point of view.

2 Answers 2


I'm a contractor in Maine and we certainly have a lot of experience with ice dams. An ice dam can be the quickest way to force water under the roof shingles even on a roof in good shape.

I have had mixed results with heat tapes. When they are used properly, they can be somewhat effective. Most folks expect to see a nice bare zig zag pattern along the edge of the roof with the ice gone around the tape. Not how it works!

If you carefully read all the directions on many of the competing brand heat tapes out there, you will see that they do not claim to remove ice dams. They are designed only to create a small open tunnel under the ice dam to allow water that is trapped above the dam to drain off the roof. This is great in theory but here is where the reality sets in. If the tape does not extend slightly beyond or below the drip edge of the roof, it won't work. If the top edge of the tape does not extend above the ice dam, they will not work. If the gutters fill with ice and bridge the ice to the roof, they won't work.

Many of the tapes instruct you to only operate them when outdoor temps are 30 degrees and above. I have found that they are ineffective in temps much below 20 degrees. They also caution not to let them run continuously.

Running them in the bottom of a gutter is almost a complete waste of time and money. Since they only are capable of melting a small area around the tape, a gutter full of ice will stay full of ice! If the downspout is blocked with ice, forget it!

What I have also found is that folks get a false sense of security when they have them installed and neglect to remove the snow from the bottom 3 to 6 feet of their roofs, figuring the tape is a substitute for roof shoveling. Obviously, when they are installed, shoveling or using a roof rake gets a little tricky, so as not to rip the tape right off the roof.

I guess you can tell I am not a fan of these heat tapes. One method I have found to be extremely effective with dealing with an ice damn are nylon stockings or pantyhose (cut into two sections) filled with salt, calcium chloride or potassium chloride placed over the dam. They last several days and melt slowly and make a nice wide valley in the ice. I have seen hundreds of gallons of water pour off from behind an ice dam using them. Chopping the ice dam can damage the shingles and can be dangerous, but the filled stockings are fairly quick and easy.

If you have plants below or are concerned about salt staining your roof or siding etc, I highly recommend Potassium Chloride which will not harm plants, grass etc. You can usually find potassium chloride at your local hardware store.

I can't take credit for discovering this method, but thankfully I learned it from a tip on This Old House many years ago. I usually make up dozens of them in advance, so I am ready for all the calls from folks who wait too long and call to see if I can come fix the water leaking through their ceilings!

  • great advice !! thank you !! I really don't like getting up on my roof so I'll have to get someone to come out and try the potassium chloride. the advice much appreciated !!
    – user45
    Dec 27, 2010 at 16:56
  • I've had good results with heat cable in western CT. Our contemporary house has very shallow soffits, so the ice dams were very close to the edge before I installed it. I installed it as directed, up the leader, zig zags hanging over the edge of the roof, and a run suspended just off the bottom of the gutter. I run them from 25F to 35F, and a couple years ago when leaky roofs were as common as potholes, we were fine.
    – TomG
    Jun 6, 2014 at 1:22

I am a contractor specializing in snow control systems. Shirlock homes is correct in most of what he was explaining. If the cables are not installed correctly then you will have wasted your time and money on the project. I have seen heat cable projects put together by "professionals", as they call themselves, and the heat cable created more problems than it fixed. Overall heat cable can be one of the best options to fix the problem but get someone that has lots of experience doing this.

As far as how effective is the cable itself? You need to know what product you want on the roof. Self-regulating heat cable is what you are going to want to have installed. This type of cable will increase heat output the colder the temperatures get. You can also get this cable in different levels of heat output.

Bottom line is: heat cable is probably your best route to fix the problem. Make sure you get the right kind of heat cable. Make sure your installer truly knows what they are doing.

Good luck with your project.