Battling snow, ice: Customers expect gutters to keep working

By Mark Ward Sr. /

The Swiss are accustomed to snow. “Go to Switzerland, look at a chalet and you’ll see the roof is designed with an eye toward where the snow will slide off,” notes Curtis Middleton, owner of RMS Solutions Inc., a metal roofing and gutter contractor in Arvada, Colo. “But we don’t think about that in America.”

GORoofing in the United States may be designed so snow falls onto, rather than away from, trafficked areas such as doors and driveways. “I’ve seen snow that’s avalanched off a metal roof and not only taken off the gutters,” adds Middleton, “but taken a deck off the back of a house!”

Snow and ice, then, brings challenges for roof and gutter systems. “But you can’t just lump winter weather into a single problem and look for a single solution,” advises Joe Quinlan, vice president of sales for Q First Inc., a Chicago-based company that markets solutions for melting snow and ice along roof eaves.

Snow that can avalanche off a roof is one problem — while ice that can dam up eaves and gutters is another. Moreover, multiple solutions are on the market to address each problem. Different configurations of snow blocks and snow fences are available to break up sliding snow or hold it in place until it melts. At the same time, various electrical heating systems have been developed to melt snow and ice around the roof edge. On top of that, choosing and installing the right solutions requires a contractor to gauge factors ranging from roof pitch to snow loads.

But for contractors who master these solutions, two payoffs beckon. Owner Bill Worth of Worth’s Seamless Rain Gutters in Derby, Vt., puts it simply: “You can make some money and your customers don’t have to go to someone else.”

Selling snow retention
In business since 1989, Worth installs seamless and half-round aluminum and copper gutters for existing homes, new and custom and homes and commercial and historic properties. In the ensuing years after he launched Worth’s Seamless Rain Gutters, he received occasional phone calls from homeowners who were worried about snow on their roofs. “One year I got half a dozen calls and so

I started looking into solutions,” he recounts.

GOSeeing an ad in a roofing trade magazine, Worth connected with a Canadian supplier. But since cross-border delivery could take up to a month, he began scouting other options. “About that time I heard a report of someone getting killed by snow avalanching off a roof,” he says. So he was receptive when contacted by Alpine SnowGuards or nearby Morrisville, Vt. The company has now been supplying Worth for more than 15 years.

As Worth learned, products designed to prevent snow from avalanching off roofs are typically called snow retention systems. As do other manufacturers, Alpine sells two basic types: pad-style snow guards that look like a series of bumps on a roof, and pipe-style snow guards that look like small fences with one, two or three rails. Alpine also distributes S-5! ColorGard, a single-rail product that matches the roof color.

Worth estimates that on 10 percent of his jobs he upsells the customer on a snow retention system. Though that may not sound like much, anyone in business knows that even incremental additions to the bottom line can be significant. Depending on factors ranging from roof type to travel time, Worth’s Seamless Rain Gutters installs pad-style snow guards for about $8 to $13 per pad, fence-style for an average of $40 per foot, and S-5! ColorGard for $20 to $25 per foot. Pads break up snow and underlying ice to prevent large sheets from avalanching, while fences keep snow on the roof until it can gradually and naturally melt.

“We make money on these products,” Worth reports, “though profit margins are down in recent years. We used to be the only company in our market that was selling snow retention. But now we’re seeing more metal roofing contractors — not just gutter contractors — adding these products.” He acknowledges that snow retention is too expensive for many customers, which explains why relatively few homeowners add it to a gutter job. “Still,” he says, “many will listen to the argument that it’s less costly than defending a lawsuit.”

Understandably, Worth does not push snow retention products to the same degree he markets gutter systems. His company has advertised via the yellow pages, radio and at home shows. He is most likely to get inquiries about snow retention in the spring, after customers have sat through another winter and been reminded of the avalanching problems.

“Much of our volume is word-of-mouth and repeat business,” he relates. “I’ve done installations at the same house three times. Some of our customers also have businesses.” These relationships provide more opportunities to sell snow retention systems, as do the referrals that Worth receives from Alpine.

GO“Having a knowledgeable supplier is a huge help,” counsels Worth. To install a snow retention system on a metal roof, he states, “you must take into account factors like the roof pitch, the gauge of the panels, the size of the seam, the length of the rafter and typical snow loads for the area. With Alpine as our supplier, we send them project information and photos by computer and they can guide us on the installation.”

However, when customers ask about heating systems for melting snow and ice on the edge of a roof, Worth refers them to an electrician. “That way, I have no liability,” he explains. “Or I can offer to sell the customer a snow rake.”

Pads and pipes    
Serving the Front Range of Colorado, Curtis Middleton of RMS Solutions sells snow retention products on about 25 percent of his residential metal roofing jobs. “On every high-end home that I do,” he says, “I recommend a snow retention solution as an option.” At a price of about $16 to $25 per foot for a pipe-style snow fence, he adds, “We do make money by offering these solutions.”

When Middleton makes sales calls, he brings literature on snow retention products and puts it into the customer’s sales packet. “I’d say about half of homeowners are already aware of the basics about snow retention, while the other half need some consumer education,” he says. Homeowners also initiate inquiries about snow retention, most often in mid-to-late fall or after winter in the spring.

On the other hand, Middleton’s commercial customers readily see the benefits of snow retention. “Metal roofs shed snow,” he explains. “So most building owners understand that avalanching snow can create slick entryways or knock out car windshields in the parking lot.” In fact, many metal-roofed commercial buildings in Colorado are designed and specified by the architect to incorporate pad-style or fence-style snow guards.    

Middleton installs single-rail Snobar products from Action Manufacturing LLC of Englewood, Colo. Three years ago — about the time Middleton launched his business — Snobar introduced its RoofClamp bracket system to ease installation on metal roofs. As such, Middleton says his crews require no specialized training to install Snobar and can easily follow manufacturer instructions.
Since last year, Snobar products are also distributed to the East Coast through Snowblox-Snowjax of Lemoyne, Pa.

While he has installed both pad-style and bar-style snow guards, Middleton prefers the latter. “For Colorado, they just work better,” he believes. When installing snow pads, however, he optimizes performance by following Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association guidelines for placement and spacing of the pads.

On the other hand, RMS Solutions does not install electrical heating systems for melting snow and ice. “The products on the market seem like a pretty mixed bag,” Middleton avers, “and many homeowners might not have the needed electrical outlets and need those installed, too.”

A single-bar snow retention solution is also favored by owner Todd Gruchacz of Gruchacz Construction, a residential roofing and gutter contractor in Stockton, N.J. He installs S-5! Solutions marketed by Englert Inc., the metal roofing and gutter systems supplier based in nearby Perth Amboy. Englert distributes S-5! ColorGard, RamGard, SnoRail and SnoFence products.

“We’ve only recently gotten into snow retention solutions,” Gruchacz affirms, “and in doing our research, it was important to go with a product that performs well and won’t cause call-backs from customers — even if that meant a product that’s more expensive than other alternatives.”

Gruchacz promotes snow retention both to homeowners and home builders in hopes of generating sales for existing houses and new construction. “When I give a quote on a metal roof,” he explains, “I also provide the information on the S-5! system. I do this all year but generate the most interest in the spring.”

When a sale is made, Gruchacz says, “Profit margins for these snow retention products are higher than most other products I sell. My crews can learn to install the system pretty easily and then it installs fairly quickly.”

Hot products
While some roof and gutter contractors do not handle electrical heating products to melt snow and ice, others installers have embraced them. Several years ago, metal builder Kevin Merritt of Glenwood Springs, Colo., was working on a commercial project “when ice kept ripping off the gutters.” He searched for a solution and came across HotEdge, a product made by HotEdge Inc. of Peru, Ill.

GO“I’m located between the ski resort areas of Vail and Aspen,” Merritt explains, “and I could a potentially big demand for HotEdge among all the custom homes here.” Indeed, the development of HotEdge was underwritten by a Colorado homeowner — now the owner of the company — as an alternative to traditional products he found either ineffective or prohibitive to operate and maintain.
Impressed by the potential, Merritt formed Ice Solutions three years ago and became a distributor and installer of HotEdge products. Though a separate entity, Ice Solutions complements his metal building firm, the Metal Building Connection.  

“The conventional solution for ice is to run a heat cable or heat tape in a zigzag patterns along the roof edge,” Merritt avers. “But the cables are exposed and last only a couple of years.”

By contrast, HotEdge runs straight along the roof edge, using two-thirds fewer cables than zigzag systems. Cables are enclosed, extending the life of the system and preserving the aesthetics of the house exterior. According to Merritt, a typical homeowner might spend $25 a month in electricity to run HotEdge.

“Our solution is designed to ‘cut’ the snow at the edge of the roof and drop it, so ice doesn’t build up and cause damming and roof damage,” he notes. His company installs HotEdge as well as a sister product, HotValley, that prevents ice buildup along roof valleys.

When Merritt tells homeowners that damage caused by ice and icicles may not be repairable or covered by insurance, “that puts the upfront cost of our solution in perspective. Zigzag cables cost about $15 a foot to install. Our solution is more, about $20 a foot. But cables only last a couple of years. After that, you’re not protected from potentially costly ice damage.”

After three years of making that pitch, Merritt reports that Ice Solutions now brings in about a third of his overall income. “So even though I opt to hire electricians for that part of the installation,” he relates, “it’s still a profitable product for me.” He advertises Ice Solutions through the yellow pages and newspaper and distributes fliers by hand and via mail. Marketing efforts are aimed not only at homeowners but also general contractors, home builders, roof and gutter contractors and electricians.

“Right now,” Merritt admits, “the time I put into Ice Solutions is more than I get out. But my time is an investment in future growth. Our product is still relatively new to the market and it takes time to build familiarity. Yet the potential for payoff is definitely there.”

That opinion is echoed by Joe Quinlan of Q First Inc. His Internet-based company represents the Roof Ice Melt (RIM) System from Bylin Engineered Systems of El Dorado Hills, Calif.,  and the IceBlaster product line from VersaScreen Gutter Protection of Delafield, Wis. Quinlan sells and designs solutions for existing homes, new construction, upscale builders and architects, and then arranges for the installation.

Having sold snow-melt products in Illinois and Indiana for nearly 30 years, Quinlan observed over the last decade the growing popularity of gutter protection systems led to a new problem. “The leaf guards that came out were promising that you never had to clean your gutter again,” he recounts. “But in solving that problem, the industry created a new problem with ice in the gutter.”

Two years ago, however, VersaScreen and Bylin together developed the IceBlaster product line that combines a gutter screen with an ice-melt solution to created “heated gutter protection.” The traditional exposed zigzag cables are eliminated. Instead, contained cables are run along the gutter edge, gutter trough, and a roof-edge extrusion or (for metal, cedar and tile roofs) a drip-edge extrusion.

While the VersaScreen gutter protection product alone might install for about $10 per foot, estimates Quinlan, its “heated gutter protection” might install for about $20 to $25 per foot. “At that price point,” he affirms, “I’ve been able to work with middle-class as well as high-end homeowners.” Another bonus is that ice-melt solutions can be sold for all roof materials. By contrast, he advises, snow retention systems are primarily for metal roofs.

Quinlan has heard contractors who suggest that problems with roof ice are primarily due to poor roof ventilation and insulation. Their theory is that warm air from the attic interior warms the roof, causes water to form under the snow pack on the roof, and leads to runoff that turns to ice along the eaves. The answer, so it follows, is to improve ventilation and insulation rather than install an ice-melt system.

But while ensuring that an attic is well ventilated and insulated is good, Quinlan advises even the best-built homes are subject to roof ice. Snow can cover top roof vents. Fluctuating winter temperatures can cause melting and freezing cycles. Because the roof surface is higher up, thus accumulates less snow and is directly exposed to the sun, faster melting may occur under the snow pack and create runoff that freezes at the eaves.

“If you can find solutions that work, from quality manufacturers who are experienced and have good references,” counsels Quinlan, “you can make money with these products.”

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