As snow piles up, concern grows about roof collapses

In the mid-Atlantic region, many roofs are straining under the weight of record snow. On Wednesday, part of a roof for a storage building owned by the Smithsonian Institution collapsed.

By , Staff writer

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    John Cochran shovels snow off the flat part of his roof at his home in the Capitol Hill East area of Washington, Tuesday.
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    This photo shows the collapse of part of the roof and a wall at Smithsonian Institution's Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, on Wednesday.
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On Wednesday in Alexandria, Va., D.J. Nordquist was looking out her second-floor window when she saw three men on the roof next door, trying to shovel off the snow in the howling blizzard.

“We did it yesterday before the snow hit,” Ms. Nordquist says. “The newspapers say all the snow on the roof is like having an elephant up there.”

Indeed, snow totals for the season are at record levels in places like Washington and Baltimore. And now, many residents are worrying about the cumulative weight of the snow.

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It can be a serious matter. On Wednesday, for example, part of a roof for a storage building owned by the Smithsonian Institution collapsed.

People who market products to remove the snow from rooftops are quick to warn about ice dams, which can lead to water rolling down the inside of a structure. It can also lead to gutters ripping out – not something cheap to fix.

“The heavier the snow, the more compacting you get and the more damage you end up with,” says Todd Miller, who has a website that answers questions about roofing issues.

Replacing the roof on an average 2,000-square-foot house can run from $9,000 to $12,000, says Mr. Miller, who also owns a roofing company in Piqua, Ohio (near Dayton).

If some shingles get cracked by the ice buildup, he says, a homeowner may not be able to match them.

“About all you can do is replace the entire roof,” Miller says. “And if you don’t do something about it this summer, next winter you could have major problems.”

In the mid-Atlantic region, contractors are offering to remove the snow for about $50 an hour. A typical roof takes four hours or more. However, experts caution, homeowners should be careful, because a lot of people are offering to clean roofs but are not doing the job properly.

“It is a ripe time for scammers,” warns Pat Katauskas, owner of MinnSNOWta Inc. in Ely, Minn., which sells a product called a Roof Razor.

Ms. Katauskas’s phone has been ringing off the hook. According to her, people in areas that aren’t usually snowy, such as Virginia and Maryland, are “clueless” about the dangers of ice dams and snow loads.

In addition, she says, many homeowners are climbing out on their roof to try to remove the snow. “You don’t belong up there,” she warns, referring to the potential for injury.

Even when contractors get on the roof, there could be a problem.

“If you already have 30 inches of snow, then you add a 200-pound man. Just the weight of the man and the snow may mean you have your roof and a man in the middle of your family room,” says Cheryl Rotole, who sells a product called a Roof Rake.

Ms. Rotole, in Rochester Hills, Mich., says she is fielding 20 calls an hour from people desperate to get the snow off their roof. “I’ve gotten calls from people who hold their cellphone up so I can hear the roof creaking, and I tell them, ‘You need to get out of the house,’ ” she says.

In Nordquist’s case, she was having work done on her house already and asked her contractor about the snow on the roof. “He said, ‘To replace the gutters will cost you $4,000. To get the snow shoveled off will cost you $300,’ ” says Nordquist, who hired him to do the job. “Right now, anyone with a shovel is getting a kiss.”

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