Q: This has been a winter of unusually stormy and snowy weather, and it looks like my house isn’t holding up too well. After noticing a water stain on an upstairs ceiling I went into the attic and found water stains on several boxes and a general damp smell. Trouble is, there is still ice and snow coating the rooftop, and I don’t feel safe going outside. How can I deal with this? – George in Virginia
A: Climbing onto the roof is definitely not safe in the midst of ice and snow, but you do need to stop water from entering, of course. You can set up a temporary patch from inside the attic, but keep in mind it is very temporary – you’ll need to check it frequently until warmer weather comes and the roof can be properly repaired.
In the attic, trace the water leak to its source. A leak can occur farther up a pitched roof and trickle down the rafters to drip elsewhere. If the water stains follow a path, trace that path upward to where the water marks end and check that area of the roof’s underlayment for damage, holes or apparent water entry points.
Sometimes as the sun melts the ice and snow on the roof, you will be lucky (or unlucky) enough to see water actually dripping through.
Now that you’ve located the leak (or leaks), you need to control the direction of the drip, so it no longer runs down the rafters but instead into a bucket to catch the water. Do this by placing a large nail in the center of the leak and tapping it through the roof’s sheathing until it reaches the shingle outside.
“But Sam,” you say, “I’m trying to fix the leak, not create one!” True, but the damage is already done. For now you need to contain it until a better repair can be made.
Underneath the nail you just punched through the underside of the roof, place a bucket to catch drips. Now the water isn’t running all over the attic.
Next, put on a dust mask and cut away water-damaged insulation from around the hole. This clears the area you need to patch and helps prevent mold growth.
Let the area dry for a day or two; hopefully much of the ice and snow will melt from the rooftop during this time. At any rate, you need the underside of the roof to be fairly dry so that a patch will hold. Once the area surrounding the hole is dry to the touch, you can patch it.
Remove the nail from the hole. Make sure the area is very dry. You also might want to warm the area slightly with a hair dryer if it’s a cold day, so that the patch material adheres.
Fill the hole with roofing cement or roof patch compound (available at home-improvement stores – you’ll need just a small amount) and smooth out to the sides. In some cases, with spring coming, this small plug is all you need. But some DIYers add a little insurance by cutting a thin sheet of plywood into a square that extends a couple inches beyond the hole on each side, and tacking that tightly against the hole using roofing cement (not nails).
Mark the patched area with brightly colored chalk or some other easy-to-see material. When the weather warms, you or a roofing professional must inspect the roof to locate and repair the damage. as the patch will give you only a few months’ reprieve. The roof may be damaged in other areas, or there could be undetected water problems as well.
HOME TIP: Proper attic ventilation is important at all times, but especially when the roof is leaking, as the airflow helps reduce mold growth. Make sure the attic vents aren’t blocked by boxes or deliberately closed off.
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