Heat Cables: Should I Put Them On My Home?

The primary purpose of heat cables/heat tape is to prevent ice dams and create the opportunity to drain melting snow away from the home. Heat cables are an electric heating chord typically installed along the edge of a roofline and through the gutter.

Heat cables can certainly help a home that struggles with ice dams. However, most of the time heat cable should be viewed as a band-aid or short term solution.

How Heat Cables Help 

Heat tape melts ice and snow as they fall along the roof line preventing ice dams and allow water to drain properly into clean gutters. This is extremely helpful because without a channel, the water will begin to back up and will leak into your home. 

The Problem with Heat Cables

Heat cables have one big draw back – expense. In order for them to work, they should be turned on an hour or two before wintery weather hits and remain on anytime ice and snow are on the roof. In Kansas City some winters this cost might be minimal…but in others well…your electricity bill can sky rocket quickly. Especially if your home needs several cables. These are certainly not energy efficient.

How to Keep the Cost of Heat Cables Reasonable

It may cost a little more, but investing in high-quality self-regulating heat cable is worth it. For example, in the following This Old House video it shows heat cables that have a temperature and moisture sensor so they turn on/off for you when you need them. 

The Star Tribune in Minneapolis has an excellent discussion of what type of heat cables to purchase and the cost comparison. In this article, Steve Kuhl who has 30 years experience with ice dam prevention and currently works with Radiant Solution Company was invited as a guest blogger for the Star Tribune.

Kuhl says “Sadly, constant-wattage heat cable is the most widely used roof deicing cable in the country, accounting for roughly 90% of all residential installations and nearly 100% of all complaints. Based on my many years of experience in ice dam prevention and residential construction, my opinion on constant-wattage cable is clear: It is better to not install anything than to use these products on your home. This explains why 60% of the heat tape installations we do in the Minneapolis area involve tearing out constant-wattage and replacing it with self-regulating cable, even on systems less than a year old.”

He continues to give a cost comparison of the constant wattage cables vs self-regulating cable:

“A 100-foot constant-wattage cable will cost you around $75 whereas a self-regulating cable of the same length will be closer to $350. Ultimately, being cheap is the only short-term advantage constant-wattage cable has over self-regulating cable. Self-regulating cable is far cheaper over the long run when lifespans and energy consumption are factored in. If the cable feels very affordable, it is probably because it’s cheap.”

A Longer Lasting Solution For Ice Dams

The cause of ice dams is too much heat rising from your living space to your roofs surface. This causes the ice and snow to melt unevenly on the roof. 

Here’s how it happens: 

Typically the bottom edge of the roof and the gables extend past the living space and get little heat from your living space. This keeps the roof’s outer edge cold. Ice and snow melt last in this area. 

However, the central portion of the roof gets plenty of heat from the living space. The result: large amounts of ice and snow melt from the majority of the roof, to get caught and refrozen at the outer edges: aka an Ice Dam

Really, the issue isn’t that the gables and outer edges of the roof are too cold, the problem is that the central portion of the roof is too hot. The longest lasting, most cost effective, energy efficient solution is to prevent heat escape from your living spaces. The article: Ice Dams – How to Prevent Them explains more how to do this.

Is There A Place for Heat Cables?

There may be a rare situation where a small portion of your roof needs a heat cable. This typically happens around gables. If this is the case with your home – go for it!  Just be mindful to get heat cables with a sensor or be sure to only turn on the cable when you absolutely need it. Your wallet will thank you.      

Clean Gutters & Heat Cables

Sometimes people run heat cables through their gutters to prevent them from freezing over. However, properly sloped, clean gutters should have fewer issues with freezing over. So you could possibly skip the heat cables here, and just make sure your gutters are in good shape before winter. If this is your primary source of ice dams and water issues, contact Gutter Cover KC to receive a thorough gutter inspection and professional guttering advice and solutions.  

Check out Wisconsin Ice Dams Solution blogs for cautionary tales and advice regarding heat tape and heat cables.

Our Recommendation for Heat Cables

Self-regulating heat cables are a useful tool – especially when installed by professionals. In some situations they can even be a long term solution. However, if you have chronic ice dam problems the best solution is to address the underlying issues. If for the next year or so the budget doesn’t allow for long term solutions, heat cables can keep your roof and house safe in the meantime.