Outdoor House Maintenance

Start winter off on the right foot

Remember January of 1999?

There’s really no reason you would, or should. We had a blizzard the day after New Year’s. Nothing unusual about that, at that time, around here.

But you might remember all the local television stories about the blizzard. The snow piled on hundreds of roofs was causing problems because as the snow melted, it was re-freezing at the edge of the roof, forming ice dams.

There were lots of news clips showing people trying to rake the snow off their roof, shovel it off, melt it, and then other people up on the roof trying to crack the ice dams with everything from picks and hair dryers to sledgehammers.

The problem with ice dams, of course, is that they not only causes roof damage, but the water seeps into the house. Sometimes the water causes ceiling damage in a second-floor bedroom, sometimes it gets behind a wall and causes damage on the first floor, or even the basement.

For Chip Frentz and his wife Susan, the problem was slightly more interesting. Their entire living room ceiling collapsed from the weight of all that water. It was heavy enough to literally crush all the furniture in the living room. They were in the second-floor bedroom of the house, a bungalow, and weren’t hurt.

“The first thing Chip said was that he was worried about his two cats,” said Mike, Chip’s brother. “They were fine, but Chip said they hid and wouldn’t come out for four days.” The damage to Chip’s house took a little longer than four days to fix – because the insurance company was working to restore the house to its original shape, it had a lot of wet plaster work to do. The work took the better part of a year to finish.

Here’s how to avoid problems like that this winter.

First, ice dams Mike Frentz said everyone at his service counter cringes when they get a customer who wants to climb out on that slippery roof, and they want Mike or someone else to recommend the best way to break the ice.

This year, the answer customers are going to get is calcium chloride. “We can’t stand the idea of even suggesting someone climb out there,” Mike said. “This is a good way to avoid having to do that.”

Calcium chloride melts ice and snow. The difference between calcium chloride and rock salt is that calcium chloride mixes with the water, and it evaporates. It also melts ice and snow down to 25 degrees below zero. Rock salt only melts ice and snow when the temperature is 5 degrees or above, and does not mix with water to help it evaporate.

With rock salt, you just get slush.

“The other advantage to calcium chloride is it's safer to use on shingles and aluminum gutter, and if there’s run-off, it's better than rock salt on vegetation,” Mike says. The only thing to remember is that calcium chloride must be kept in an airtight container or it will convert to water.

On the ground For ground-level work, here are a few other things that will make your life much easier this winter:

Rock salt, sold in 50-pound bags, is still a good standby to keep sidewalks and driveways clean once they’ve been cleared of ice and snow. A problem with rock salt is that since it doesn’t help water evaporate, the water can seep into concrete. When it freezes again, the ice expands, and that’s why the concrete chips and cracks.

Spreaders for salt, Zero Ice Melter or calcium chloride come in handy. Frentz stocks two kinds:

The Handi-Spred, a small, light, hand-held spreader. As you turn a crank, it spreads an ice melter in a 160-degree radius.

A walking spreader, much like a fertilizer spreader but designed for ice melters. “We sell a lot of these to businesses and gas stations, and for people who prefer to use rock salt,” Mike says. This spreader fans the ice melter out in a 165-degree radius.

Of course, the first thing you have to do is get rid of the snow if it piles up. Frentz has two new ergonomically designed shovels designed to help you lift, and save your back.

The first, properly called a snow pusher, has a bent handle and a cupped non-stick blade so you can actually push, rather than shovel and lift, heavy wet snow.

The second shovel has the ergonomically designed handle, but the non-stick blade is flat and designed for a shovel-and-lift movement. Frentz has this model (both ergonomic models are made by True Temper).

For purists, Frentz stocks traditional, straight-handled. These have either aluminum (lighter, but the blade tends to bend easier) or steel (more durable, but heavier) blades.

Finally, it boils down to a case of using the right tool for the job. “A turf edger is just that. It’s not an ice chipper, which is a piece of flat-bedded steel on a handle,” Mike says. Turf edgers have curved blades. Frentz carries three types:

An inexpensive ice chipper. If you look carefully at the blade, you’ll see where it’s welded onto the handle. That doesn’t mean it’s not sturdy; it just means it’s not as sturdy as a one-piece blade.

The more expensive model of the chipper described above has a blade cast of a single piece of steel, and is much stronger than its light-duty predecessor.

“And then there’s the City of Royal Oak DPW Special,” Mike says, holding a chipper that’s a third larger than either of the preceding two, is cast of a single piece of steel, and costs over $50.00. “But this is the model they use to clean out the blades on the plows, and it works,” Mike adds.