5 things to watch out for during the thaw

Snow in your attic? Ice dams in your gutters? Giant, slushy puddles that freeze into treacherous slick patches on driveways and sidewalks?

Yes, yes and yes.

These are all potential problems suburban homeowners could face when the thaw begins, following the frigid 'polar vortex' and up to two feet of snow that have fallen since last week.

Friday's predicted high of 37 degrees sounds great after the string of subzero days — after all, that's 53 degrees warmer than Monday's low. But the melting snow and ice can are bound to create new problems. Even a few preventive measures could stave off injury and save thousands of dollars in home damage. Be on the lookout for:

1. Snow in the attic

The light, fluffy, blowing snow that fell last week might have gotten sucked into roof vents or attic fans, leaving piles of snow in the attic.

“You don't know about it until there's a warm-up. You get a warm day, and all of a sudden it starts to melt, and the ceiling in the middle of the living room is starting to leak,” said Michael Prate of Prate Roofing & Installations in Wauconda and director of the Chicago Roofing Contractors Association.

Prate recommends going into the attic and looking under vents, if you can do so safely. If there's snow, scoop it up and put it in a plastic garbage bag to haul it out. Redistribute the disturbed insulation. Or, consider hiring professional roofing contractors to do the work.

2. Ice dams

As snow melts, ice builds up in your gutters, creating a dam. If the dam gets too big or heavy, it can pull down gutters or block them and cause water to leak into the house. That means, all of a sudden, water might start dripping out of an indoor light fixture or mold and mildew might start growing in the walls.

“It can cause so much damage. It's a nightmare,” said Georgia Hagan, of Gutter Medics in Naperville, a company that's been swamped with business this week as people seek ice dam removal. Their system includes removing snow from roofs three to five feet up from the gutter line, cutting channels in the ice so water drips down and over it, and strategically placing ice melting agents.

While people might try to do it themselves, Hagan says it's easy to get hurt or damage homes by doing things like trying to chop ice with hammers or melt it with power washers.

Prate adds that people should be careful not to scrape away actual roofing materials. Several inches of snow on a roof should not harm anything on most houses, he said.

3. Large icicles

Icicles can damage siding and window sills, plus create slippery sheets of ice below. However, experts have mixed feelings about removing them.

If they're not hanging in a place where they can fall on a person or animal below them, icicles can be left to melt naturally. Knocking them down could bring a piece of gutter or siding along with it, some experts say. Others saying it's fine to knock large icicles down carefully, from a safe distance, with a long broomstick handle and not a hammer.

4. Black ice

It can lead to unexpected dangerous patches on sidewalks, driveways and roads, and the freeze-melt-freeze-melt cycle also is rough on shingles, which sometimes curl up because of it.

The places most vulnerable have poor drainage and ventilation. Throw ice-melting salt down when the weather is warm to minimize ice when the temperatures dip below freezing. Try to brush off visible water buildup on shingles.

5. Falling icicles

As the sun and ice melt on top of tall buildings, small pieces — and sometimes large daggers — crash down to the ground below. In Chicago, it's common to see building owners put out “Caution: Falling Ice” signs, but the ice falls so randomly (and can be blown by wind), there's no real way to protect yourself except to be alert and quick on your feet.

In 1994, a man was killed by a falling icicle on Michigan Avenue. If you are hit and injured by an icicle, the land owner or building management company is generally not responsible unless it's considered an “unnatural accumulation” of ice, said personal injury attorney Mark A. Brown, a partner at Lane & Lane LLC in Chicago.

“The law treats the icicle falling like they treat the ice on the ground, so they're generally not liable,” he said. “Skyscrapers are supposed to be designed so that doesn't happen. But if you can prove it was an unnatural accumulation of ice, then there's still potential for them to be liable.”

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  Leaning out a second-floor window, Mohammad Mohyuddin finds a broom a little too short to knock icicles off his home in Rolling Meadows. George LeClaire/
  A long stick turns out to be just the tool for Mohammad Mohyuddin to clear icicles from his Rolling Meadows home. George LeClaire/
  Eager to remove icicles from his Rolling Meadows home, Mohammad Mohyuddin knocks them off with a walking cane on Wednesday. Experts are divided on whether icicles need to go. George LeClaire/
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