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posted: 4/13/2014 12:01 AM

Air flow, not gutters, is to blame for ice dams

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Q: We have lived in Rolling Meadows for more than 40 years and have always had problems with ice dams. All the articles we have read regarding ice dams state they are caused by water freezing and thawing, running down and backing up against the gutters. We have no gutters -- and haven't had any for 40 years. The ice dams appear on the back of the house, which faces north. Why would we have ice dams when there are no gutters to jam the water? Should not the water run off as it does on the garage roof?

A. Ice dams form when the snow cover on a roof begins to melt from the bottom because of heat loss in the attic. As the meltwater reaches cold eaves and gutters, it freezes and an ice dam builds up. This happens whether or not you have gutters, and if you do, whether they are open or have any type of gutter cover.

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Ice dams are more likely to form on the north side because it is colder. Icicles will also form on the south side when the sun grows stronger in late February and March and the snow begins to melt from the sun's action while the outside temperature may still read below freezing. But this seldom causes serious ice dams.

To reduce or eliminate the formation of ice dams, the heat loss from the conditioned space below the roof must be addressed. Here are the things to look for:

• Seal all convective paths from the living areas to the attic;

• Increase the attic insulation;

• Make sure there is an effective attic ventilation system.

The best way to determine if there are convective paths -- the most important component of the three items mentioned above -- is a professional energy audit, which can identify any deficiencies and offer solutions. Your utility provider may perform these tests, or lead you to certified contractors who do them, and it can also advise you on helpful financial programs if any are available in your state. Your state may also have a special energy program, which can provide you with all the important information you need.

Q. My water heater has not been replaced since 1997. For the past few months, I have felt we are not getting enough hot water. Do you think it needs to be replaced? And if it does, would you recommend a tankless or just the standard one?

A. Water heaters have different life expectancies. Some can last more than the 16 years yours has, but it is getting chancy. As luck would have it, water heaters have a way of failing on weekends when plumbers charge double. Wisdom would dictate that you look into a new one now.

Tankless water heaters are quite expensive, but are efficient if you choose the right size for your needs. If your present heater is electric, consider the plastic Marathon tank; it can last a long time because it can't rust.

Q. We own a 43-year-old ranch home, and due to circumstances we could not address when we bought the home, there is no insulation in the outside walls. The home is brick on the outside and plaster on the inside. We have added a lot of insulation to the attic, but the cold, outside walls even prevent the heat from a wood stove in the basement from coming upstairs to the main floor. Is there any reasonable method of insulating those cold outside walls?

A. If the plaster was applied directly over the bricks or other masonry backup units, the only way to insulate the walls is by removing all trim and adhering rigid insulation to the plaster with a construction adhesive that is compatible with the paint on the walls. The potential problem is that the paint bond to the plaster may not be strong enough to hold the insulation boards and the drywall that will cover them.

You may have to fasten furring strips mechanically to the masonry, tack on the rigid insulation and screw drywall to the furring strips.

This may be the best way to approach the situation, since you will need grounds at the base of the walls and around openings to reinstall the trim.

If the plaster was installed over lath fastened onto furring strips, there may be a small space into which foam insulation may be injected, but the results are probably not worth the expense. However, this setup will simplify the installation of rigid insulation and drywall, since the furring strips are already there.

You need an experienced contractor to investigate what is there so you can proceed intelligently.

Q. I need your help with painting the bottom of my house. It is covered with grayish artificial stones. I want to paint them brown to match the dark brown color of the Tudor-style wood pieces above the stones. What kind of paint should I use?

A. If the artificial stones are cement-based or concrete and have a rough finish, they can be primed with a product like Fresh Start or Stix by Benjamin Moore. If they are smooth, they should be lightly roughened with coarse sandpaper and followed by a prime coat. Any quality exterior latex can be applied over the primer.

Sherwin-Williams makes H&C Concrete Stain Solid Color Water-based, which penetrates concrete and comes in a variety of colors. You can use this product only if the stones have never been sealed or coated with any product.

If the stones are really stones, you would have to clean them and prime them before applying an exterior latex paint.

If the stones are plastic-based, treat them like vinyl siding. They should be thoroughly cleaned to remove all pollutants, then lightly roughened. Once clean, they can be primed with either of the Benjamin Moore products mentioned above, or you can use two coats of Sherwin-Williams Duration, a self-priming paint that comes in a variety of colors. You will have to see if your local Sherwin-Williams store can accommodate your choice of color.

Q. I would like an opinion on finishing a garage floor. The options I am considering are commercial grade epoxy paint, nature or beauty stone (pebble-type look) and porcelain tile. I live in the Northeast with cold winters. Salt and cinder stones are tracked into the garage. The garage will have normal use, and no big projects or maintenance work. I have floor-to-ceiling oak cabinets and desire to have a "finished" look, and I want the garage to be an extension of the laundry room. I have a storm/screen door leading into the laundry room and often have the garage door open in spring, summer and fall in order to have air flow through the house.

My two main concerns, other than aesthetic beauty, are safety (slippery) and low maintenance. Also, does the floor have to breathe? Nature stone or porcelain tile will totally seal the floor.

Any input you would have, I would greatly appreciate it. I am struggling with the best choice for this project.

A. A storm/screen door is not a safe door to have between a garage and the living space; there should be a weatherstripped, fire-resistant door.

The concrete garage floor does not have to breathe.

There are important considerations with liquid-applied coatings, which come in three forms: latex, epoxy or polyurethane. Latex is the poorest choice for a garage, as it will not resist the wear and tear of hot car tires and chemicals dripping on it, such as oil or other fluids. Epoxy, and particularly epoxy coated with polyurethane, is the safest, but its application exudes hazardous chemicals that may drive you out of the house, and it is difficult to apply. Performance Floor Coating Systems (www.performancefloor.com) utilize epoxy installed by trained mechanics.

These coatings are likely to be slippery unless you mix silica sand in them before application or embed it before they dry; dark colors may fade over time.

The bond between the concrete floor and the coating is critical, but it is difficult to guarantee because much depends on the condition of the surface after thorough cleaning and etching. You may end up with a mess.

Acid-staining followed by acrylic sealing is another option. It consists of the application of acid-based stains to the concrete to change its color, followed by the application of a clear acrylic sealant. But will it stand the test of time with cars driving in and out with salt and road grime?

Another drawback of all applied coatings is that it takes several days to allow each coat to dry.

There are other choices that include the application of interlocking tiles and ceramic tiles.

Plastic or aluminum interlocking tiles are simple to install and to trim, and individual tiles are easy to replace if need be. They do not require the concrete floor be thoroughly cleaned. They are tough and very durable, and come in a variety of colors and patterns.

Here are some choices: Race Deck, www.racedeck.com, (800) 457-0174; XFloor, www.diamondlifegear.com, (888) 983-4327; JnKProducts, www.jnkproducts.com, (877) 873-3736; Swiss Trax, www.swisstrax.com, (866) 748-7940; Auto Deck, www.instantgaragefloors.com, (800) 862-6602; and Big Floors, www.bigfloors.com, (877) 244-2214.

Ceramic or stone tiles are another option. They come in many colors and patterns as well as shapes and sizes, and add a finished look to a garage that no other product can. Between colors, patterns, shapes and sizes, they can make for a beautiful floor, but they are costly to install and their installation is time-consuming. Keeping the grout clean can also become quite a problem. And they can be slippery when wet.

• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. Write to him in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or via email at henridemarne@gmavt.net.

© 2014, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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