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Handyman on Call

Gutters may be partly to blame for icicle woes

By Peter Hotton
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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Q. Help! I have huge icicles hanging from my roof edge and gutters. I had new seamless gutters installed, but now I am getting icicles hanging from the gutters. The icicles are 18 inches long and 4 inches thick. When the ice melts, it drips on my steps, which then freeze over. I have some insulation in the attic floor, but it is rather compressed. How can I keep those icicles from forming? — DESPERATE

Q. We installed LeafGutter Brand gutters around our home a few years ago. We have a Dutch Colonial and we tried to go without gutters, but the water was getting into the basement. We did everything right, including installing more ice and water shield than we needed to prevent ice dams. From the very first winter, we have huge icicles wherever we have a gutter. We never had icicles before. It appears that the snow is melting and the water flows over the top of the gutters and accumulates. Some are extremely thick. They are dangerous and when the weather warms up, they fall onto the walkways. The icicles are too large to be knocked down and they spread across the entire front and back of the house. — GINGERBREAD HOUSE LADY, Woburn

A. Both writers have the same problem, so the Handyman will tackle both with the same answer.

I think the gutters are partly to blame, even the one with the LeafGutter Brand. What is happening is water runs over the guards and freezes, then water will continue to run over the frozen surface, and the dripping creates the icicles. Try taking off the guards, if possible and relatively easy to do, and let the gutters do their thing in warmer weather. The gutters without guards take longer to ice up because there is more water to freeze.

In both cases, water rushes over the gutters and down, creating those humongous icicles. And in both cases, I think heating cables installed in gutters and downspouts will help solve the problem, by keeping gutters and downspouts clear. Turn them on when needed.

Another possible cause is a warm roof. Ice and snow on a warm roof will quickly melt and refreeze as it tumbles over the gutters. Insulating the attic floor and properly ventilating the space can solve that problem. “Desperate’’ should check that compacted insulation on the attic floor and possibly add more, being careful to keep it out of the eaves or soffit vents. She should also check to make sure she has good vents such as a ridge vent and vents in the soffit.

“Gingerbread Lady’’ has a trickier problem, with her gambrel roof. That roof is double sloped, making location of the lower soffit vents difficult. A ventilation man can be helpful in mitigating those problems. And, of course, I think a ridge vent is necessary. An insulation man also can help.

Q. The inside walls of my 1857 house in Maine are insulated, and were covered with plasterboard and painted. Now, I am seeing something that I have not seen in all my years as a realtor: All the screws securing the plasterboard are medium to dark gray. They were covered with joint compound, so the marks are on the paint. What happened, and how can I remove the spots and how can I keep them away? I heat my house with a wood stove. Half of the house is over a crawl space with a sand bottom, the other half over a basement. — TOM MUNSON, Fairfield, Maine

A. OK, what happened? This is a cold climate phenomenon: The screws are colder than the insulated walls, and water vapor in the house condenses on the chilly nails. Then residue from the wood stove and other things such as dust settle on the damp spots. It is dirt, with no reflection on your housekeeping.

Removing the spots: Washing can remove the spots, but painted plasterboard is a soft finish and it does not wash well. You can try rubbing the spots with Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. If the cleaner creates a contrast with the rest of the wall, forget it and live with it until you are ready to paint.

Keeping the spots away: To keep the spots from coming back, reduce the humidity in the house. That is best done by opening two windows just a tad for cross-ventilation, to release that humidity. We create water vapor by breathing, cooking, washing, and bathing. Tom Munson’s big dog is a major contributor of water vapor. You can’t put the dog out, like a husky, so these things have to be lived with.

In rare cases the dark spots might be mold, in which case a mild bleach-water solution will handle it.

I called Mr. Munson on another matter and he said he found the problem: The sand bottom of the crawl space was allowing water vapor to go through the floor and into the house, so he is having heavy polyethylene put on the sand to keep the water vapor in the ground. Also, he can insulate the basement ceiling with fiberglass and a vapor barrier.

Globe Handyman on Call Peter Hotton is also in the g section on Thursdays. He is available 1-6 p.m. Tuesdays to answer questions on house repair. Call 617-929-2930. Hotton (photton@globe.com) also chats online about house matters 2-3 p.m. Thursdays. To participate, go to www.Boston.com.