CMHC article on ice dams and attic moisture

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation                            About Your House CE 13 (Condensed version)

Attic Venting, Attic Moisture and Ice Dams

It is rare for Canadians to visit their attics. For many years building codes have required high levels of attic insulation, making attics less-than-hospitable places. People usually go into their attics for one of two reasons: animal intruders, such as bats or squirrels, or water leaking through the top floor ceiling. This guide deals with water entry, such as roof leaks, ice dams, and attic condensation. Consult your local pest control expert to rid the attic of creatures.

What to Do If Water Comes Through Your Ceiling

Trace the water to its source. Look for leaks in the roof, especially around chimneys, plumbing vents, and attic vents – anything that penetrates the roof sheathing. If the sheathing along the lower edge of the roof is soaked and you can see a corresponding accumulation of ice on top of the roof, ice damming is occurring. This means that water is backing up under the shingles. Shingles are designed only to shed water running down, not up. Your inspection may find that leakage is not the problem: the whole attic or part of it may be dripping with condensation or covered with frost.

Attic condensation and ice damming are related. Both can be caused by warm, moist air leaving the house and entering the attic. Attics will be in good shape if there are no holes, air leaks, or bypasses from the house to the attic and there is sufficient insulation to keep house heat from escaping. If you can ensure good air sealing and insulation, the attic will remain cool and dry, as if it were outside. For example, it is rare to see moisture problems or ice damming on the roof of a detached garage or unheated barn.

What To Do About a Wet Attic

There are many signs that an attic is wet. Prolonged wetness will rot out the roof sheathing. Often this is first noticed when re-shingling. If you have ceiling leaks only in the spring, it may be that ice has been forming on the sheathing all winter and it suddenly melts when a warm spell arrives. You may see water stains or evidence of mold on the sheathing, rafters, or trusses when you are inspecting the attic. You may find the insulation has been packed down or stained by water.

The usual response is to increase attic ventilation. This is the wrong approach. In some cases, adding ventilation will actually pull more moist house air up into the attic and make the problem worse. The best way to fix a wet attic is to stop air movement, or leaks, from the house. Once this is done, the existing ventilation is usually more than enough to keep the attic dry.

It is important to stop air leaks because a heated house is much like a chimney. Both a house and chimney are containers of warm air surrounded by cold air. Both tend to draw air in at the bottom and expel it at the top. All winter, a heated house is trying to push air through the top floor ceiling into the attic. Block up those air leaks and keep the warmth in the house to save both energy costs and damage to your attic.

Air leaks are usually found at penetrations or discontinuities. Safety regulations prevent sealing of many types of pot lights in top floor ceilings. House air is dumped into the attic through them. Choose sealed pot lights or avoid them completely.

Bathroom fans need to be ducted outside. Make sure that they are properly vented. If the ducts are located in the attic, ensure that they are solid metal rather than flex duct, insulated and sloped to the outside. Do not wrap the insulation in plastic as this will trap moisture. Taping the duct joints, or sealing them with mastic, is helpful for controlling leakage.

Plumbing stacks and chimneys are often sources of air leakage. Seal these where they pass through the attic floor. For metal chimneys inside a chase or for old masonry chimneys, you may need help from an expert to ensure proper sealing and avoidance of fire hazards. Seal holes made for electrical wiring and cable installations.

All discontinuities should be inspected and sealed if necessary. Look for bypasses. They are major air passages from any floor into the attic. Dropped ceilings in the room below will often conceal a direct connection to the attic. Concrete block party walls between row houses often move house air into the attic.

There are several ways to check for these large and unexpected leaks. The blower door tester can pressurize the house with a big fan and amplify the leakage. Searching the attic at night for lights from below can be helpful. Scanning batt insulation for dirty areas which have been filtering the air from below is also useful, although such straining seems to occur less frequently with blown insulation. Sometimes the holes are so big that you can see into the house below.

Leaks can be sealed with caulking, expanding foam, plastic, or other methods. There are a number of publications giving details on sealing methods, including Keeping the Heat In from Natural Resources Canada 1 800 387-2000 in Canada or (819) 995-2943 outside Canada.

Attic Venting

If you have properly sealed the attic you should not need more attic ventilation. Attic ventilation is overrated. In winter, the cold outside air cannot hold much humidity or carry moisture away from the attic. In summer, attic temperatures are more affected by the sun and shingle colour than by the amount of ventilation.

Recent research shows that identical attics, with one unvented and the other vented to code, have much the same humidity and temperature. Attic computer models show that attics in damp coastal climates may actually be drier with less ventilation.

Ice Damming

Ice dams are the large mass of ice that collects on the lower edge of the roof or in the gutters. As more melting snow (or rain) runs down the roof, it meets this mass of ice and backs up, sometimes under the shingles and into the attic or the house.

Ice damming usually occurs with a significant depth of snow on the roof. If the attic temperature is above freezing, it warms the roof sheathing which melts the snow lying on the shingles. This water runs down the roof until it meets the roof overhang, which is not warmed by the attic and will be at the temperature of the surrounding air. If the air and the overhang are below freezing, then the water will freeze on the roof surface and start the ice dam.

Ice dams will first show up where there is inadequate insulation or major air leaks. One way to find these locations is to look at the roof with the first heavy frost in fall or light snow. Watch where the snow melts off first and find out what is under that spot on the roof. One common sight in such conditions is a horizontal melt line across the roof of a storey-and-a-half house, where the short knee wall meets the ceiling. Other places would be beneath a roof-ducted exhaust fan or over a leaky attic access hatch. The basic relief for ice damming is to seal all attic air leaks and insulate thoroughly, the same solution as for attic condensation.

A defensive measure to help prevent ice dam leaks is to install a self-sealing membrane under the shingles. Note that these membranes do not stop ice dams; they just help prevent the water from leaking through the roof sheathing.