Minnesotans head east to fix Boston's extreme ice dams

Clearing snow off a roof in Boston
Workers clear snow from a roof in Boston on Feb. 16.
Michael Dwyer | AP

The record snowfall that's buried parts of the East Coast has created a very Minnesota problem for homeowners: ice dams. But that misfortune has turned into a blessing for Minnesota companies that melt ice off of roofs, and have found scarce work at home during this mild winter.

Jesse Lofgren, with Monticello-based Absolutely Clean Window Washing, said he's spent the last two days working on a Boston nursing home that he estimates has thousands of square feet of ice dams built up on the roof.

"In Minnesota we typically see fairly long icicles, but this is an extreme situation," Lofgren said. "The icicles on most houses up here go from the roof completely to the ground."

Boston officially hit 101 inches of snow this week — just six inches short of the all-time record set two decades ago.

People in Boston are getting desperate, Lofgren said.

"Everybody thinks it's acceptable to use blunt-force objects on the ice dams, such as hammers, screwdrivers, chisels," Lofgren said. "We've actually had a few beaten with sledgehammers and axes — it's what people do up here."

Ice along Boston building
A cascade of ice adheres to the side of a brick building in downtown Boston on Feb. 20. Ice dams are a growing concern for homeowners in snowbound New England.
Elise Amendola | AP

Gil Dos Santos owns a mid-century ranch house in Boston. He said icicles slowly crept from the eaves of his home's roof to the center of the house. Then the leaks started.

"You see everybody with these massive icicles," Dos Santos said. "A lot of my neighbors have it; it's just a matter of if it's already started leaking or not."

The Minnesota company that cleared his roof charged $500 an hour, and it took five hours to clear the ice dams off his house. That's comparable to some premium Minnesota services, but there are reports of charges as much as $600 an hour.

The Canadian native had never heard of ice dams before, and now everyone is talking about them.

"We're looking up diagrams of how they form, and reading up on 'This Old House' about how to get rid of them," Dos Santos said. "You see a lot of people putting salt into nylons and throwing those up on the roof to try to create channels for the ice melt to run off."

The situation has created a lot of demand for the expertise Minnesota companies have developed over the years. Dozens of Minnesotans are clearing roofs in the city. One owner of a Minnesota-based company declined to comment publicly because he's already swamped with work in Boston. He said he's gotten more than 800 requests for work in Boston, although his crews can only clear about 25 roofs a day.

John Theis, owner of Grand Gutters Inc. in Plymouth, set out to Boston this week with eight employees. Theis' crews use steamers to clear two or three houses a day each. He's found that each roof is taking longer to clear than typical Minnesota roofs, partly because of the weather and partly because of a lack of knowledge about ice dams.

"I think Minnesotans are aware of ice dams, so we're kind of looking for them a little bit," Theis said. "Here it's just all of a sudden water is coming into everybody's houses and they don't know why."

"Every time a new company comes out here, it's like, 'Hey, more Minnesota guys turned up!'"

It's been a slow winter for clearing ice dams in Minnesota, which has been good for homeowners but bad for business. Theis said his crews are hoping to get five or six days of work in Boston. He's keeping one eye on the weather report, with weather conditions in nearby states like New Hampshire looking good for ice dams.

"We've just been hanging around the last couple months, doing what we can to get by this winter, so everybody's pretty excited to be working," Theis said. "They're willing to do just about anything, as far as go anywhere. Make some money. Help people out."

The influx of Minnesotans has maybe even replaced the East Coast's famous brusqueness with a sort of gratitude.

"Every time a new company comes out here, it's like, 'Hey, more Minnesota guys turned up!'" Theis said. "The way the media is treating us out here, it's like we're almost Santa Claus."