How do heat cables work?

Do heat cables work? The most common questions we receive from clients are in relation to ice damming prevention and heat cables. We have a lot of literature already written on the advantages of heat cable and how it can help to proactively prevent ice damming, which you can find links to below. This time, we wanted to dive a little deeper into exactly what you can expect from your heated gutter, and address some unique circumstances or scenarios that can affect your individual home, and its ice buildup.

Let’s start by first briefly reiterating what ice damming is and how it is caused. Ice damming occurs when the heat in your home escapes through your attic making your roof warm. After a snowfall, the warm part of your roof melts the snow that has accumulated making that water flow down towards the bottom of your roof and gutter system, which are still cold. Once the melted snow reaches the cold surface, it refreezes causing ice buildup on the edge of your roof and gutter system.

Ice Damming
Ice damming causing pulling of the gutter system from the home. Most likely caused by heat loss and the metal roof.

For more on ice damming, visit the below blogs:
Ice Damming Definition & Prevention
Ice Damming & Water Damage Costs
The 411 on Ice Damming

If your home is experiencing ice damming, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Check you homes insulation, especially in your attic – If your home is experiencing heat loss, it is important to properly insulate.
  2. Proactive snow removal – removing the snow from your roof following each significant snowfall can largely help eliminate ice damming issues your home may have.
  3. Depending on your roof, snow guards may be an important step for your home in preventing ice damming. This is especially crucial if you have a metal roof. With a metal roof, the snow will slide off the roof instantly, and quickly, creating heavy snow buildup on your gutter and making ice damming more likely.
  4. Install heat cable inside of your gutters. This is another proactive way to help prevent and melt snow/ice buildup on your gutter system. This will decrease your chances of ice damming by keeping the gutter warm.

For more on heated gutters, visit the below blog:
Heat Cables. Are They Really Worth The Investment?

After having a heated gutter installed, many homeowners are not entirely clear on what exactly they should expect from the heat cable, and how it works. Here are some very important things to consider when managing your expectations for your new heated gutter system:

  1. If you have a metal roof without snow guards, even with a heated gutter, it is likely buildup may still occur. This is because of the amount of snow and speed at which the snow is avalanching down your roof. A snow guard’s effectiveness is reliant on installing the proper one for your roof’s needs. If the wrong snow guards are installed, they will likely not be effective in preventing the snow from avalanching off your roof.
  2. If your gutter does accumulate some ice buildup, a heated gutter is designed to slowly melt the ice and snow to eliminate the dangers associated with heavy ice damming buildup overtime. It is important to note that this is a slow melt and it will not instantly vanish any snow and ice from your gutter.
  3. Your heat cable needs to be turned on. The heat cable that we install is self-regulating and the temperature of it will adjust based on the atmosphere. Each season, as we approach winter and temperatures begin to drop, it is important that you turn your heat cable on so that it can begin to proactively adjust, and keep your gutter warm.
  4. Heat cable can help to lessen and eliminate ice damming, BUT ice damming prevention works best when combined with other factors. Fixing insulation, and installing snow guards on metal or slippery roofs, on top of installing heat cable is an extremely effective combination. Heated gutters may not be able to prevent ice damming alone, especially with a very steep roof, metal roof, or a home suffering from a large amount of heat loss.
  5. Heat cables work best when installed inside of the gutter. When heat cables are installed on the roof’s edge, a few additional challenges are created and the same problem remains that, when the melted snow hits the cold gutter, it will likely refreeze and build on top of your gutter. By installing the cable inside of the gutter, the entire gutter is heated up, preventing this buildup. Heavy buildup on top of your gutter can pull your gutter system down and lead to greater damage. Installing cable on the roof can often void home owner’s insurance or roofing warranties. If the attic space has not been properly insulated, the ice dam will form above the cable, which is often worse if the home has a water shield barrier, as it will now be above the protection.
This gutter was pulled from the home as a result of the ice damming pictured above. This home has a metal roof.

Heated gutters are an important factor in eliminating and managing ice damming, but they often work best when combined with other factors, like proper insulation, and snow guards. Understanding that heat cables create a slow melt, ultimately eliminating the dangers associated with long-term and consistence ice buildup is very important. Expect your heated gutter to take some time to fully melt snow buildup, especially depending on the severity of the storm, but understand that although not instant, the heat cable in proactively doing its job.