Press + Praise

HeatTrak in The NY Times: Let it Snow. Then, Attack.

NYT Logo.jpg.jpg


People in other parts of the country still sound rational when discussing snow and ice. They gauge the environmental impact of salt, and weigh the karmic smarts of tossing snow over the property line.

I want to torch the snow and ice, Rambo style, that continue to blanket my property, and watch it weep into the sewer drain where it belongs.

Curiously, no retailers in the New York area carry flamethrowers. But when I was speaking with ice- and snow-management experts across the country, one mentioned a product called the BareBlaster Ice Torch ($40 at, a roughly harpoon-shaped device with a gun handle and a nose that shoots flame.

I was nearly giddy when I pulled it out of the box, ready for my snow-killing catharsis.

But that would have been cheating, so I vowed to try the experts’ other snow- and ice-management tips first.

The experts included Patrick Huelman, coordinator of the Cold Climate Housing program at the University of Minnesota; Ed Brookmyer, chief executive of Bare Ground, a manufacturer and distributor of snow removal products; Tim Sellew, chief operating officer of Gro-Well, a seasonal products manufacturer; and Ken Garelick, chief executive of Garelick Manufacturing, in St. Paul Park, Minn.

All four men understood the finer points of winter home protection, but Mr. Garelick had something the others lacked, namely, access to roof rakes, which his company has been making for 40 years. For those living in denial, or city buildings, the product is meant for pulling snow from sloped rooftops.

The rake is generally used in lieu of sons, who, if my neighbor is any indication, are sent aloft with shovels on the morning after a storm.

I was mystified by this roof-shoveling spectacle until two weeks ago, when water started dripping from a corner of my enclosed sun porch. As my neighbor apparently knows, you remove snow from the roof because otherwise, the interior ceiling heat melts the bottom layer of snow. The runoff is sucked in by the snow at the edge of your roof, then it turns to ice at night.

That block of ice forms a dam that traps the next day’s melt. The water sits until it finds a crack in your roof, and the next thing you know, you’re wondering if your neighbor’s son is available for hire.

Roof rakes, which are used while standing on the ground, are surprisingly light and easy to handle. Garelick’s 16-foot model weighs around five pounds ($49), and its 21-foot version weighs just six pounds ($58).

Mr. Garelick said homeowners should rake immediately after snowfalls of six inches or more. To avoid the damming effect that creates the problem, he said, “You only need to clear off a section about four feet up from the edge.”

Do the raking soon after a storm, he advised, because once the ice dam forms, a roof rake won’t solve the problem. It may help limit further water buildup, but you need to free the existing water somehow.

If you already have ice dams, you can risk your life by setting a ladder on a snowy surface and chipping or drilling the ice. But my panel of experts warned that only professional contractors should touch these dams.

Some stores sell calcium chloride pucks that you can toss onto the roof to melt that ice. You can also pour ice-melting pellets into stockings or pantyhose, tie a thin rope to the improvised pack and toss it onto the broad part of the roof. Then pull it down until it rests on the ice dam. (First test the stocking on a chunk of ice at ground level to see if the material is thin enough for the pellets to do their work.)

Mr. Sellew of Gro-Well cautioned that chlorides corrode metal gutters, so this fix should be tried only on roofs without them.

Before doing anything, though, call your insurance company, said Mr. Huelman of the University of Minnesota. “Some insurers will cover the removal of ice dams,” he said. “Others will only touch it if water comes in.”

I never got this far, unfortunately.

When I examined the ice-filled gutter above my sun porch, I noticed it was split in one place and would require replacing in the spring. Why not just pull the gutter down and remove the ice dam that way?

Two reasons: It could cost you thousands of dollars, or maim you.

I didn’t pause to calculate the weight of a 15-foot section of gutter filled with 10 inches of ice. So after I tugged at it gently, it unexpectedly tore away from the roof. I was grateful that the gutter fell in the direction of my now-defunct grill, and not toward the sun porch windows or, heaven forbid, someone’s head.

The ice dam was gone, but I wasn’t celebrating.

The next order of business was to get rid of the snow and ice on my sidewalks and driveway. What could possibly be new about this?

Ice melting products, for one.

They have changed significantly since the days when sand and salt were the go-to solutions. Sand just offers traction, no melting. And Mr. Sellew said fewer people use salt now because it damages driveways, sidewalks and plant and animal life more than does calcium chloride ($12 for Safe Step Extreme’s eight-pound package) or magnesium chloride ($7 for Vaporizer’s eight-pound package).

Also, these substances melt ice when the temperature is below about 24 degrees, when salt stops working. And magnesium chloride is less irritating to pets’ paws than either salt or calcium chloride, Mr. Sellew said.

Other ice-melt options include Bare Ground Liquid De-icer ($40 for one gallon with spray applicator). Mr. Brookmyer, the chief executive of Bare Ground, said the product is largely magnesium chloride but also has a corn-based component, which enables it to work more effectively in subzero temperatures. I found it easier to spread than pellets, but it worked more slowly than, say, Bare Ground’s Premium Blend pellets, which are the traditional salt but coated with the Bare Ground De-icer ($8 for a 12-pound jug).

The best time to use an ice-melt product is before a storm, because the snow will melt when it lands.

“Then when you do shovel or plow, it’s a clean surface,” Mr. Sellew said. “Customers don’t do that, though. It’s a reactionary business.”

So we should be thankful that snow shovels are still evolving, remarkably. I tested the new True Temper SnoBoss ($37), which has a wider mouth and an ergonomic handle. It was great for moving lots of fluffy snow, in particular.

The company’s new AutoBoss ($13), a collapsible shovel for the car, was equally useful. (Car owners might also consider a Bare Ground Windshield Protecting Cover, for $20, to save them from scraping ice.)

Other new products can do away with the shoveling altogether. HeatTrak sells heated walkways ($100), stair mats ($40 a stair) and doormats ($80).

These products keep snow and ice at bay, but there are drawbacks. Not everyone will appreciate the industrial-looking black rubber, or the fat extension cord you will likely need to reach your home’s exterior outlet.

Maybe it’s just better to let the ice come, and blast it with the Ice Torch?

I wish.

I waited until 8 p.m. last Thursday to pull out my weapon, so I could create space for the garbage cans at the end of our driveway.

I sparked the torch, heard it roar and walked to the end of the driveway, feeling every inch the ice killer I thought I was.

I turned up the flame, pointed it at the ice and waited.

And waited.

A diffuse propane flame, it turns out, is no match for thick, solid ice. In fact, Mr. Brookmyer said, the torch is designed for the smaller, thinner patches of ice commonly found on stairs and walkways.

At least I didn’t try it on the roof.


By Bob Tedeschi

Published: February 16, 2011

Reading next