Outdoor House Maintenance

Take the edge off of winter

A few tips from Mike Frentz to take the edge off this nasty winter

Be economical with your ice melter purchases.
Most people know by now that calcium and potassium chloride melt ice far better than regular rock salt. Mike has noted in previous columns that while those chemicals cost marginally more than rock salt, you don’t have to use as much of them.

However, calcium and potassium chloride work best at keeping a surface, such as a sidewalk, clean. You can spread either chemical over snow or ice without shoveling first, and it will work fine. But if you’ve got the will to pick up that shovel one more time and clear your driveway, and then spread an ice melter, you’ll find it will keep your concrete areas much cleaner, with far less ice build-up.

Once an area is cleaned off, just spread a little ice melter over it during the next snowfall and then pretty much forget about shoveling (but this is Michigan, so don’t pack that shovel away just yet).

There’s another good reason to be economical with ice melters – they’re getting hard to come by across the entire state. Mike says Frentz and Sons received two orders this week, one on Tuesday and the second on Wednesday, for a total of 240 bags, each weighing 50 pounds.

They sold out each day in under 15 minutes.

“We might get one more order in this week, and then more next week,” Mike said late Thursday. “It just goes so quickly. People call and ask if we’re getting some in, and I tell them yes, we just did, but if you’re not here in 15 minutes it’ll be gone, and it is. What’s interesting is that the customers seem to know when the orders are coming in – that’s something we don’t always know.”

You don’t need to balance on a ladder to get ice melters onto an ice dam Really now – would you tell your son or daughter it’s OK to go climb a ladder to the roof of the house in this weather? Well, you shouldn’t be up there, either. And here’s something else to consider. Mike has ice dams on the house he’s lived in for 26 years. He doesn’t have any leaks.

“If it’s not leaking, leave it alone,” Mike says. “You only have a problem if it’s leaking into your home, down a wall, or into the attic. If you get up on a ladder you can hurt yourself, and if you start whacking at it with an axe or an ice pick, you could put a hole in the roof and create a problem where there wasn’t one.”

If you are having a problem with leaks, Mike has two ideas for safely getting rid of the ice dams.

1) Find a nylon stocking. Where you find it is your business. Cut it at the top and fill the leg with calcium or potassium chloride. Tie off the open end with string.

Now tie a long rope securely to either end of the stocking. The rope has to be long enough to go over your house –- up one side of the roof and down the other. You’ll also need another person, just for a moment, to make this plan work.

Ask that person to stand in the back yard while you’re in the front yard, or vice-versa. You want that person standing on the side of the house where the ice dam is. Your job is to throw the stocking over the house. The other person’s job is to let you know whether you need to pull the rope, or let out a little slack, so that the stocking ultimately is resting directly on top of the ice dam.

Once positioned correctly, tie it off and leave it there for a couple hours. It will melt the ice directly beneath it, and you can use the same stocking again.

Not only does this method work, but Mike points out an important fact: You don’t have to clear your entire roof of ice to get rid of an ice dam. All you have to do is create a channel for the water to flow off your roof.

2) Remember those brown paper bags you used to carry your lunch in? Fill one halfway to three-quarters with calcium or potassium chloride, fold the top down and staple it shut.

You’re going to have to move quickly now, so read this through to the end and then give it a try.

Moisten the bottom of the bag just a little – don’t soak it. Now walk outside (quickly), take aim, hold that bag the way you used to hold a water balloon in high school, and lob it up onto the roof. Your target is the area just above the ice dam.

If you do it right, the bag will hit the target, break open, and you’ll have succeeded in putting a high concentration of an ice melter directly where it needs to be. You won’t be littering, either – the next gust of wind will bring that bag down so you can retrieve it.

This doesn’t work with rock salt. Calcium and potassium chloride will not hurt your roof; the runoff won’t kill vegetation. Rock salt might hurt your roof, will kill vegetation, and only melts ice when the temperature is above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s that warm the ice will melt by itself.

Still gotta get up that ladder?
Finally, if you’re just hell bent for leather to get up on a ladder, which Mike does not recommend (“it’s just dangerous, that’s all there is to it”) don’t use a sharp object like an ice pick or an axe to chip away at an ice dam. It’s too easy to poke a hole in your roof and while most insurance companies cover ice dam damage, they probably won’t cover the damage you do yourself.

“If you’re going to get up there, use a heavy hammer. They’re properly called machinists hammers,” Mike says. These look like hand-held sledge hammers and weigh about 2 or 3 pounds. The best way to use the hammer is to go over the ice dam once, hitting it at even intervals so it will weaken and crack, and then go over it again to actually break off the ice.

Insider tip on snow blowers:
If your snow blower isn’t working, there are three likely causes. The first two are common, and if your snow blower doesn’t start up after trying them, most people give up and take it into the shop. Instead, go a little further and check out option “c” on this list. It will cost you about $2 to try; if it works, you’ll save yourself from a pretty substantial tune-up bill.

a) The first reason a snow blower doesn’t work could be because you don’t have the correct oil-to-gas ratio in the tank. Check your instructions. Too much or two little of either, and the engine either won’t run or will eventually burn itself out.

b) You left gas in the snow blower over the summer. If you do that, gasoline degrades into a varnish-like chemical that gums up the fuel line and then the engine, so you’re talking an expensive overhaul. At the end of this winter, ask for a chemical called STA-BILE, or the equivalent recommended in your instruction manual. It’s an additive that keeps gasoline from degrading. The best thing to do is run the snow blower until it’s out of gas, and then store it for the summer.

c) * Replace the spark plug. They wear out quickly in snow blowers and that might be all that’s needed. Mike says different snow blowers use different spark plugs, so bring yours along to insure that you get the right kind.