Ice Busting Goes High Tech

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While showing Park City to some visiting friends one spectacularly sunny day last winter, I noticed how enthralled they were with the massive icicles suspended from practically every house we passed. They insisted I stop several times so they could take photos of these marvels.

Less than an hour later, however, they were singing a different tune, or rather, screaming one. Our tour around town included a stop at one of the area’s posh hotels. While leaving the lobby, a massive icicle chunk dislodged itself from the balcony above and came crashing down onto the wooden deck -- about a foot away from my guests. The flying glass-like ice shards and thundering crash that resulted were equally terrifying. But much more frightening were the potential consequences of an alternate step or two.

Needless to say, here in Park City, roofs are a delicate matter and not something to be ignored. Lifethreatening icicles aren’t the only hazards local homeowners have to deal with. Even with our light, fluffy snow, roofs must be built to withstand between 100 and 150 pounds per square foot and more, according to Park City’s Fire Marshall and Building Official, Ron Ivie. "There’s a wide variation depending on type of exposure, and altitude," said Ivie. "We can require roofs to withstand weights over 200 pounds per square foot, depending on location." Ivie adds there hasn’t been a roof failure since the city adopted this code in 1981.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been serious problems. "We’ve had many occurrences of ice and snow falling on gas meters," Ivie explains. One such instance resulted in an explosion at an area condominium complex recently. "There are about 20 cases every year involving gas meters," said Ivie. Most are not serious, but do result in costly, if not deadly damage. Safety remains a primary issue in ice removal. There are numerous occurrences of injuries and even deaths caused by unchecked icicle formation. A couple years ago in Colorado, a woman was attempting to hack off the icicles that had formed on her house and was struck and killed by one. In addition, falling icicles can crush cars, fall into hot tubs, and in general create hazardous conditions. In order to identify solutions to these problems, it is first helpful to understand the cause of them. On a snow-covered roof, icicles and ice dams start when the temperature on the surface of the roof creeps above the freezing point. Heat from your house rises and provides enough warm air under your roof to raise its outside surface temperature over 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Contributing to the warming effect is the insulating layer of snow piled on the roof. This can cause a 20 degree or more difference between the outside air temperature and the temperature on your roof’s surface. Problems begin when the underlayer of snow closest to the roof begins to melt, causing water to flow off the roof where it encounters the freezing air temperature and creates those lovely, but virulent icicles. Ice ‘dams’ also form in roof valleys, causing water-pooling, which will eventually lead to leaks or even cave-ins.

One way to attack the problem is to hire a professional to remove accumulated snow and ice. Most area roofing companies offer winter contracts that provide a removal service when the snowpack is above 12 inches. For a 2,000 square foot house, costs for this type of contract will range from $300 to $700 per winter season. Although a good short-term solution, over time these costs can run high. This is where ‘roofing technology’ steps in. There are a variety of methods, ranging from inexpensive to costly, used to combat problems associated with ice and snow. One commonly used method in Park City is the pitched aluminum roof, which has the benefit of strength, and allows the snow to easily slide off. However, in cases where sliding snow is undesirable, such as over walkways, snowguards are often used to keep snow on the roof, which of course is what the roof was designed to avoid. And on complex designs with eaves, valleys or intersecting roof sections, aluminum roofs are less effective and they do nothing to prevent dangerous icicle formation.

A cold-roof system offers a simple solution to these problems. It’s basically a roof on top of a roof, designed to allow cold outside air to flow into the empty space between the roofs. This pushes trapped warmer air up and out through a top vent. By keeping the outer roof relatively cool, problematic melting is kept to a minimum. Cold roofs work quite well, but they are difficult to install on complex roof designs with many intersections and angles, and a heavy snow can cover up the top vent, rendering the design useless. In addition, the system also requires significant construction, resulting in a costly and time-consuming solution. There are several options available to retro-fit your existing roof with heat cables to combat our prodigious winters. But stay away from the do-it-yourself kits. A professionally designed and installed heat cable system can be effective in preventing practically all sorts of problems, especially when gutters and downspouts are incorporated into the package. However, the typical ‘constantwatt’ heat cable’s heating ability is inadequate for our cold winters.

A new system has recently been developed to eliminate ice dam problems and icicle formation, all while keeping snow on the roof, to benefit from its insulating effects. Bob Bylin, president of Bylin Engineered Systems, has been designing systems for all sorts of applications in which protection from the cold is a must. He has a Masters Degree from Stanford University in mechanical engineering, specializing in heat transfer. In business since 1980, his focus has been creating innovative solutions for preventing frozen pipes, and similar utilization where temperature control is a crucial issue.

In 1993, his attention turned to roofs when an associate expressed concern over liability issues with regard to icicles at his condominium complex in Sun Valley, Idaho. The result was a patent being issued for the Bylin Roof Ice Melt (RIM) system.

The RIM system was specifically designed as a comprehensive and customized solution to home and business owners with common winter roof problems. Bylin’s system has the advantage of being added to any existing structure, or incorporated into the design on new construction projects. "We received the patent in 1995 and have been verifying the design by putting them in a variety of western locations," Bylin explains. "They have worked well beyond our expectations." So well, in fact, that they have installed 50 systems within the last year at 100 percent success rate. The RIM system uses approved, selfregulating heating cables placed under a 17-inch wide aluminum or copper panel which efficiently distributes the heat over the entire panel surface. These panels are strategically placed on the problem areas of a roof.

Steve Poche of Williams Equipment Company in Salt Lake is the official area distributor for the RIM System. "Besides being highly effective in preventing most problems, the system is custom-designed for each different roof," Poche explains. "We do a full analysis and give the roof’s specifications and design to Bylin. They come back with a complete engineered layout on how to best install the RIM system on that particular roof." Poche adds that a comprehensive package is recommended to specifically address difficult areas like eaves, valleys and gutters.

Bylin uses industrial-grade cable, combined with the metal enclosure, to ensure that the system lasts in excess of 30 years, the lifetime of a typical roof, with no required maintenance. Bylin is also keenly aware of his market and the role aesthetics plays. "We want to provide a good visual presentation as well," he said. "Architects and homeowners like the fact we can match the color and style to blend into the existing roof design." The RIM system’s installation cost varies greatly, due to its customized nature, but carries a price tag of between $2,000 and $5,000. With roofs likely to be with us until the end of time, global warming (in spite of El Niño) still centuries away, and healthy competition obviously alive and well, it is a certainty that winter roofing technology will continue to improve. It’s a shame though; I love those icicles.

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