Off-the-Shelf Ice Dam Steamers vs. Custom-Equipped Ice Dam Steamers: What to Know If You Need Ice Dam Removal
Dishonest or misguided companies buy equipment sold as “ice dam steamers,” and assume or pretend they have the best equipment to remove ice dams correctly. Then, out of ignorance or desperation, they accuse better-equipped companies of using “pressure washers” for ice dam removal. That claim is deceptive and false, and it can waste your money.
What those people (usually out-of-work roofers or window washers, desperate for your business) don’t know or don’t mention is that all ice dam steamers begin life as “pressure washers.” The only significant differences are (1) whether they are customized at the factory or aftermarket, and (2) who has customized them: a maker of pressure washers, a reseller of pressure washers, or experienced ice dam removal specialists. Most self-described ice dam removal companies use the minimum viable product.
Unethical companies hope you’re in a rush and don’t care about technical facts, because that’s the only way you’ll pick an inexperienced or cheap ice dam removal company (or, worse, an inexperienced and expensive company). Any misunderstanding about equipment helps them and may (they hope) take a bite out of us, the most trusted name in ice dam removal (just Google us). Be wary of any company that only seems like the better choice after they’ve trashed a competitor.
That misunderstanding hurts you, too. The ice dam steamers used by deceptive companies can be inefficient and slow, can damage your roof (despite their operators’ claims), and often lack the safety features of an ice dam steamer customized in-house by experienced ice dam removal specialists. Our Steamzilla™ steamer is the prime example of a steamer customized to do multiple tasks masterfully. But nothing (other than experience, ingenuity, technical skill, investment, and effort) stops other companies from also creating an ice dam steamer that’s safer, more versatile, and more efficient than a generic off-the-shelf type of steamer. They just simply haven’t bothered to do so. (We have.)
We aren’t accusing anyone of not using an ice dam steamer. Even many of our slipperiest competitors use a type of ice dam steamer. It has its merits, but is NOT the only type of steamer. That’s where philosophies like “To each his own” or “Let the marketplace decide” might normally come in, but slippery ice dam removal companies don’t want that. The make incorrect claims, including that their steamers are the best, and that they’re incapable of damaging a roof. As you’ll see in a moment, those claims are hogwash and deceptive.
Fun fact: Many companies claiming”electric steamers are great” and “gas-powered steamers are bad” in fact run their electric steamers off a gas-powered generator. That’s like claiming your electric car is better for the environment, yet you’ve got a gas-powered generator strapped to the roof to keep your batteries charging.
If you learn only one thing from this long piece, it’s that there are several types of ice dam steamers, and that whether they’re safe and efficient on your roof depends on exactly what modifications were made to them, and depends even more on the skill of the operator.
If you glean only one other thing from this, it’s that claims like “triggers, colored nozzles, and gas-powered engines are characteristics of only pressure washers” and “electric ice dam steamers are the best” are false and are meant to dupe customers who simply don’t know any better and are in a rush to make a decision.
We’ll explain all of the above in detail, but it will require some ramp-up. We don’t assume all of our info interests you. So, unless you’re a start-to-finish reader, please click a link (below) to drop down to a specific section.
Read this whole thing and you’ll know much more about ice dam steamers than any competitor who touts electric ice dam steamers, or who makes nonsense claims like “triggers, colored tips, and gas engines are bad.” In fact, you’ll know more about ice dam steamers and pressure washers than 99.9% of every self-proclaimed ice dam removal professional on Earth (no exaggeration). Read only the “Quick Facts” section if you just want to know the basics.
Either way, if you stick with us, you’ll know exactly what kind of equipment – and what kind of people – you can trust with a job like ice dam removal.
Table of contents
The Problems with off-the-Shelf Steamers: a Summary
The Ideal Ice-Melting Recipe
How Do Roofs Get Damaged During Ice Dam Removal?
What’s the Difference Between a Hot-Water Pressure-Washer and a Steamer?
Parts Common to All Kinds of Ice Dam Steamers
Parts and Specs of an Off-the-Shelf Steamer
Parts and Specs of a Hot-Water Pressure Washer
Parts and Specs of a Pressure Washer / Steamer Combination Unit with no Aftermarket Modifications
Parts and Specs of a Pressure Washer / Steamer Combination Unit with Aftermarket Modifications (e.g. Ice Dam Guys®’ SteamZilla™)
Why the Misinformation?
Some Companies Aren’t Straightforward about Ice Dam Steamers. So What?
The easiest way for us to provide some quick facts on ice dam steamers, their parts, their functionality, and their effectiveness is to address questions we’re frequently asked. Below are some of those questions.
“Are triggers good?”
Triggers allow the operator to stop the flow of steam instantly and safely. That’s all they are there for. Triggers are like brakes on a car. Spray-guns without triggers are always shooting out steam and cannot be stopped or interrupted, even for a moment.
A spray-gun with a trigger (such as our Steamzilla™) can stop and start the flow of steam on-demand by the operator’s releasing or depressing the trigger.
“Gas-powered or electric-powered steamers?”
Because electric-powered steamers run on the homeowner’s power supply, they will increase your electricity bill. Furthermore, if a fuse is blown in your home, if the circuit is overloaded, if a GFCI is tripped, or if your power goes out even for a moment, an electric steamer will almost always freeze up before the operator can diagnose, repair, and regain power. In colder temperatures, a steamer can freeze up in 60 seconds or less. Freezing up renders the steamer useless for the remainder of the day, while the ice dams are still on your roof and the water still drips into your home for yet another day. Also, if a grounded exterior outlet can’t be found, the ice dam removal company may be forced to run a cord through your house (leaving a door or window cracked for cold air and mice to infiltrate your home or business). Worse, if you don’t have a grounded outlet they may use a “ground plug adapter,” sometimes referred to as a “pigtail adapter.” You should never allow the use of an adapter that bypasses the need for a grounded outlet, as there can be serious consequences to the safety of your home and to your technician as a result.
Gas-powered steamers (like our Steamzilla™) are self-contained and rely solely on their own combustible fuel source. No electricity is needed.
“Interchangeable nozzles or fixed nozzles?”
A fixed nozzle limits the operator’s ability to adjust the shape and strength of the steam quickly. Most off-the-shelf electric steamers use a fixed tip. Also, with fixed tips, the wet steam is concentrated on the outer edges of the pattern and isn’t evenly distributed throughout the pattern. A fixed nozzle is a one-size-fits-all, non-adjustable piece of metal with an ordinary hole in it (a hole one would make using a standard drill bit). These tips are as primitive as rubbing two sticks together to make fire.
On the other hand, a steamer that uses interchangeable nozzles (as our Steamzilla™ does ) lets the operator quickly select the steam-pattern best able to melt the ice most efficiently and safely. A narrower stream melts ice faster, but can be harsher on the substrate. A wider stream melts ice more slowly, but can be gentler on the substrate. All the while, the steam is evenly distributed throughout the pattern, not just on the edges.
Note: Notice how I say “can be harsher on the substrate” and “can be gentler on the substrate.” That’s because, as with “any” type of steamer, tip, level of heat, pressure, etc., it is the operator in control of the steam wand that dictates whether or not the substrate is damaged during the ice removal process, not the other way around. Quite frankly, you could damage a roof with a garden hose if you continually spray the same area for too long, too close, or at the wrong angle. This same principle applies to all of what you’re about to read.
“Adjustable pressure or fixed pressure?”
Most off-the-shelf electric steamers cannot increase or decrease the pressure of the steam via a turn-valve, and instead generally run at a one-size-fits-all, fixed, non-adjustable pressure (PSI).
An adjustable-pressure steamer (like our Steamzilla™) allows the operator to easily increase or decrease the pressure of the steam being emitted by turning a simple screw-valve. (Turning the valve clockwise creates more pressure and melts ice dams faster, but can be harsher on the substrate. Turning the valve counter-clockwise creates less pressure and melts ice dams more slowly, but can be gentler on the substrate.)
“Adjustable temperature or fixed temperature?”
Too much heat can damage a roof just as easily as can too much pressure or volume can. Being able to lower the temperature can help protect any type of painted roofing material or gutters, and further reduces the likelihood of scarring or melting asphalt shingles. Most off-the-shelf electric steamers do not allow for any temperature adjustment via an adjustable thermostat. Instead, they most often run at a very-hot fixed temperature, using what’s referred to as a high-limit switch. Or they require a manual tip exchange to increase or decrease the temperature (a cumbersome process that requires tools, made difficult by trying to use frozen hands while standing on a slippery roof or ladder). Adjusting the temperature by changing the tip also will have a direct and uncontrollable effect on the volume of steam being emitted, which is not ideal. That makes the fixed-temperature type of steamers nearly impossible to fine-tune, because one adjustment affects another (e.g. changing the temperature changes the GPM).
An adjustable-temperature steamer (such as our Steamzilla™) lets the operator adjust the temperature of steam up or down with the turn of a dial. Note: This does not affect the volume (or GPM) of steam being emitted, which makes it easy to get the perfect balance of temperature and volume every time.
“Adjustable GPM or fixed rate GPM?”
Often it is useful to be able to adjust the gallons per minute (GPM) of steam produced by a steamer, so as to increase or decrease the amount of steam that ends up in contact with the ice. (More volume melts ice faster, but can be harsher on the substrate, and less volume melts ice slower but can be milder on the substrate.) Most off-the-shelf electric steamers do not allow for any GPM adjustment via a turn-valve, and instead run at a fixed GPM. Or they require a manual tip exchange to increase or decrease flow, which also has an uncontrollable and often negative effect on the temperature of steam. Again, that makes fixed-rate ice dam steamers nearly impossible to fine-tune, because one adjustment affects another.
An adjustable-GPM steamer (like our Steamzilla™) allows the operator to easily adjust the volume of steam being expelled (up or down) with the turn of a dial. The flow rate can also be adjusted by a quick tip exchange that takes the operator 5-10 seconds. Note: The temperature of the steam is not affected by either of these methods of GPM adjustment, which allows the operator to reach the perfect balance of volume and temperature.
The Problems with off-the-Shelf Dedicated Steamers: a Summary
Melting an ice dam depends mainly on 6 factors:
- Pressure of steam (measured in pounds per square-inch, or PSI).
- Volume of steam (measured in gallons per minute, or GPM).
- Temperature of steam (measured in degrees Fahrenheit).
- Shape or pattern of the stream of steam (and how evenly the steam is distributed in the pattern).
- Distance of steam from ice.
- Angle at which steam comes into contact with ice.
What limits dedicated steamers bought off-the-shelf and not customized beyond factory specifications is that typically the operator has little or no control over 4 of those 6 factors:
- The pressure of steam cannot be controlled by the operator – quickly, easily, or at all.
- The volume of steam cannot be controlled by the operator – quickly, easily, or at all.
- The temperature of steam often cannot be controlled by the operator – quickly, easily, or at all.
- The shape or pattern of the stream of steam cannot be controlled by the operator – quickly, easily, or at all.
- The distance between steam and ice can be controlled by the operator.
- The angle at which steam comes into contact with ice can be controlled by the operator.
Why do the pressure, volume, temperature, shape/pattern, distance, and angle of the steam matter in ice dam removal? Here is a quick summary of each factor and how it affects the ice-dam-melting process. By the way, the right combination of these six factors can save you substantial money. The wrong combination costs you money, because your technician will spend longer on your roof (remember: billing is “by the hour”), and because you may need roof repairs in the spring.
1. Pressure (PSI): The lower the pressure of steam being emitted, the gentler it can be on a roof, but the more slowly it melts ice. Inversely, the higher the pressure of steam, the harsher it can be on a roof, but the more quickly it melts ice.
Being able to adjust the pressure of an ice dam steamer (like our Steamzilla™) quickly and easily can be a huge benefit to speed along the removal of ice dams. Or, in rare cases, when a delicate surface is iced over, it can slow down the ice removal process so as to reduce the risk of damaging a fragile substrate.
Users of fixed-pressure, off-the-shelf steamers will say that if their pressure is too high, they can just increase the distance between the steam nozzle and the ice. But because steam cools so quickly in the winter air, this is a horrible technique (for you, the customer). It will take longer to melt the ice & will end up costing you more because the farther-away/cooler steam won’t melt ice as quickly. And…with pressure higher than needed, that means they’re still one hand-slip away from damaging your roof
2. Volume (GPM): The lower the volume of steam being emitted, the gentler it can be on a roof. Lower volume means less risk of damaging shingles and painted metals, and it also means less water poured on a roof that may be leaking already. But lower volume melts ice more slowly. The higher the volume of steam, the harsher it can be on a roof, but the more quickly it melts ice.
As with the adjustable pressure (like our Steamzilla™), being able to adjust the volume up or down is highly useful when removing ice dams.
Two notes on volume:
- Wet steam is quickly condensed back to its liquid form when steaming an ice dam, which is why we refer to “water” poured on your roof.
- The more water you use to remove an ice dam, the greater the residual payoff is, in that the ice that’s near to (but not directly under) the steam nozzle also melts.
- The higher the volume of steam, the greater the chances are of accidentally eroding the substrate, especially asphalt shingles which become quite vulnerable to erosion once heated.
3. Temperature: The lower the temperature of steam being emitted, the gentler steam can be on a roof, but the more slowly it melts ice. The higher the temperature, the harsher steam can be on a roof, but the more quickly it melts ice.
As with the adjustable pressure and volume, using a steamer that is capable of adjusting the temperature up or down (like our Steamzilla™) is useful when removing ice dams.
A few notes on temperature:
- The higher the temperature, the more quickly it melts ice dams, but also the greater the chances are of accidentally damaging or melting painted metal roofing material, or scarring asphalt shingles. The lower the temperature, the more slowly it melts ice, but also the less the chances are of accidentally damaging/melting painted metal roofing material, or scarring asphalt shingles. Warning: turning the heat up past 250 degrees is usually nothing but a waste of fuel, because any super-heated dry-steam being emitted from the burner output is generally cooled down to 212 or so degrees by the time it travels through a 100-foot rubber hose and exits the nozzle. Ignore any company bragging about its “temperature gauges.” It’s a marketing gimmick based on the assumption you don’t know much about steam. I imagine there will be a lot of ice dam removal companies running out to their steamers with a turkey thermometer after reading this. Perhaps they’ve been so brainwashed by the salesman that sold them on they’re “high-temp” steamer, they’ve never bothered to actually check the temp of the steam leaving the nozzle.
- A hint of dry steam (or vapor) is the most reliable indicator that you’ve reached optimal wet steam for most efficiently and effectively melting ice dams. Note: If you were able to produce wet steam hotter than roughly 212 degrees at the nozzle (which I have yet to see any steamer do in the dead of winter – running a 100+ feet of hose over snow-covered ground) you might be able to cut ice faster. But with the increase in dry steam over wet steam, you would lose some of the peripheral cutting power that a wet-steam ice dam steamer has near its nozzle. That would more than negate the benefit of trying to achieve hotter temperatures of steam.
4. Shape or Pattern: The wider or more broken-up the stream of steam is, the less the chance of damaging the roof, but the more slowly it melts the ice. The narrower or more condensed the stream of steam is, the greater the chance of damaging the roof, but the more quickly it melts the ice.
As with the adjustable pressure and volume and temperature, using a steamer that quickly and easily allows for adjustment of the pattern of steam (like our Steamzilla™) is useful when removing ice dams.
5. Distance: The farther the steam nozzle is from the roof, the less the chance of damaging the roof, but the more slowly it melts the ice. The closer the steam nozzle is to the roof, the greater the chance of damaging the roof, but the more quickly it melts the ice.
Any steamer can be held a certain distance away from the ice dam. That’s 100% under the control of the operator. The operator’s experience is crucial when it’s time to figure out the proper distance from various types of ice (thick ice, thin ice, white/soft ice, black/hard ice, etc) when the operator is working various surfaces (e.g., painted metals, asphalt shingles, slate shingles, cedar shake shingles, brick, etc.).
6. Angle: The shallower the angle of steam emitted, the safer the steam can be on a roof, but the more slowly it melts the ice directly beneath the nozzle. Conversely, the steeper the angle of steam emitted, the less safe steam can be on a roof, but the more quickly it melts ice directly beneath the nozzle.
Any steamer can be held at the proper angle to the ice dam. That’s 100% under the control of the operator. But, as with the distance to the ice dam, it’s the operator’s experience that determines whether he’ll steam the ice dam safely and efficiently without damaging the substrate.
Two notes on angle:
- There is increased residual benefit in using a more-oblique angle, in that the overspray of steam helps to melt ice out ahead of the nozzle that isn’t yet directly under the stream.
- There is decreased residual benefit in using a more-acute angle, in that the overspray of steam is scattered and therefore doesn’t help as much to melt ice out ahead of the nozzle that isn’t yet directly under the stream.
The Ideal Ice-Melting Recipe
Only the right mixture of the above six ingredients will make ice dam removal safe, effective, and efficient. Too much heat or too much pressure may result in a damaged roof and costly repairs. Too little pressure or too broad a steam-pattern may drag out an ice dam removal project unnecessarily.
There are endless possible combinations of those six ingredients, and only experience can produce consistently – on every job – the ideal blend of pressure, volume, temperature, shape, distance, and angle. Inferior equipment – like a non-adjustable electric ice dam steamer – or a lack of experience (or both) may cause an ice dam removal company to make those mistakes or others.
One thing to know about our uniquely adjustable Steamzilla™ ice dam steamer is that we can reduce or increase the pressure, volume, and temperature of the steam we use. Likewise, we can easily adjust the shape and pattern of the steam as it exits the nozzle.
With the Steamzilla™ ice dam steamer, none of those adjustments affects the others. We can change just one thing. Let’s say you had scuppers on the side of your brick building, or you had giant icicles hanging from your roof, or maybe you had ice dams on your metal roof. With a fully adjustable steamer, the operator would choose steam with much higher pressure and GPM. That increase in pressure and volume, combined the operator’s skill, lets us cut through the ice much more quickly without risking damage to the substrate. Depending on the substrate (if any), the operator may also choose to use a 0-degree tip and crank-up the temperature, which would slice up your ice dam like a laser gun. The end result is you can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars when combining a skilled operator with a fully adjustable Steamzilla™ ice dam steamer.
Our preference is to finish your job as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible, all while causing no damage to your roofing material, and leave you relieved and happy, and move on to our next mission. But on the off-chance you want to insist on the low-and-slow technique – and are fine with the project taking longer and costing you more – we will oblige. We’ll turn our pressure, GPM, and temperature down to whatever you’d like.
How Do Roofs Get Damaged During Ice Dam Removal?
First of all, most shingle damage is caused by improper and careless shoveling of a roof, not steaming. That being said, it doesn’t matter what pressure, GPM, or temperature the steam is, or whether the steamer is gas-powered or electric-powered. Damage to a roof is caused only by two factors: the distance and the angle of the steam jet. As we explained earlier, both of those factors are in the operator’s control, whether the operator uses an off-the-shelf steamer, a customized ice dam steamer, or any other machine (good or bad). The simple answer to this question is “An inexperienced operator is what damages a roof.”
Now, whether the job gets done safely and efficiently depends on the operator’s experience and ability to adjust the steam to the situation, which is where a fully adjustable steamer (like our Steamzilla™) is uniquely effective at ice dam removal.
What’s the Difference Between a Hot-Water Pressure-Washer and a Steamer?
By definition, a wet-steamer is any device that emits steam 212°F or higher (at any PSI), at sea level. Most commonly wet steam is used to heat, sterilize, or clean a surface.
There is also what’s known as super-heated “dry steam.” Dry steam is not relevant to this discussion. That’s because it’s simply not useful for ice dam removal because it is too quickly cooled by ambient air. (Not that dry steam would even be very hot by the time it leaves the nozzle. By the time it snakes through 100-200 feet of cold hose, it’s roughly 212-degree wet steam at the nozzle.)
In this piece, we will explain the roles of wet steam and hot water in ice removal on rooftops, gutters, pipes, and the like.
Parts Common to All Kinds of Ice Dam Steamers
Three types of hot-water-generating or steam-generating machines are used for ice dam removal:
- Ordinary hot-water pressure washers.
- Ordinary steamers.
- Hot-water pressure washer/steamer combo units.
The basic components of all three machines generally are the same. Although some manufacturers may eliminate certain components, they rarely (if ever) replace those parts with anything functionally different.
13 functional parts are common to all 3 types of ice dam steamers. Although there are more parts – like fuel pumps, igniters, etc. – those are present in nearly every hot-water or steam machine, and their presence does not affect the ability of one machine or another to remove ice dams. That is why our comparison will not cover those common, non-differentiating parts.
Common part 1: Motor/Engine: Gas or electric, the motor or engine drives the water pump with a certain amount of torque, horsepower, and at a desired RPM. Motors and engines come in a wide variety of sizes, various amp draws, horsepower ratings, etc.
Common part 2: Pump: Pressurizes water – often fed by a traditional garden hose or gravity feed reservoir – to a certain PSI. The pump also is partly responsible for the GPM (gallons per minute) of water pumped through the system. The engine’s RPM, pulleys, gears, and other parts affect how quickly the pump turns. The pump, in turn, produces a certain pressure and GPM.
(How to measure gallons of steam? If a steamer is rated at 2GPM, the steam emitted from the nozzle after a minute of use – if it were entirely condensed back to its original liquid form – would equal 2 gallons of water.)
Common part 3: Unloader/Bypass Valve: If present, the unloader valve has two important functions:
First, the unloader or bypass valve is where the PSI and GPM of water being pushed from the pump to the burner can be adjusted. Most often, the unloader valve is a type of screw-valve that has a large plastic turn-handle on it, making it easier for the operator to turn in or out. Turning this handle clockwise increases the pressure and volume of water being sent to the burner, and ultimately of out the end of the nozzle. It also lessens the backpressure put on the pump. Inversely, turning this valve counterclockwise reduces the pressure and volume of water being sent to the burner, and ultimately out the end of the nozzle. It also increases the backpressure on the pump. Should you ever reduce the output of pressurized water expelled from the pump (any amount less than what the pump naturally produces without restriction), that excess pressure and water will be redirected through the bypass valve and recirculated back to the pump inlet.
Second, if the flow of steam and/or hot water is terminated while the pump is operating (often a result of releasing the trigger on the spray-gun), the bypass valve in the unloader will provide a secondary route for the pressurized water to travel. When in full bypass mode (i.e. the trigger is released), the pressurized water will circulate between the bypass and the pump continuously. Without a bypass valve, the pressurized water has would have no place to go, and the pressure would build-up to the point that one or more components would rupture or explode.
Whether a steamer, hot-water pressure washer, or a combination unit is an open-loop or closed-loop system depends almost entirely on the presence of an unloader or bypass valve. Without some type of unloader/bypass valve you have a closed-loop system. With an unloader/bypass valve you have an open-loop system.
Common part 4: Thermal Relief: A thermal relief protects the pump seals and plungers from overheating when an open-loop system runs in bypass mode for too long (typically longer than a few minutes). The friction created by continuously recirculating the same water through the pump and the unloader/bypass valve is enough to heat the water. If the temperature of the water exceeds roughly 145°F, a small wax-like seal is melted, allowing the hot water to escape, and allowing cool water to enter the pump. Although some types of reusable thermal relief valves can open and close, most thermal reliefs open once and are not reusable. Once blown out they must be replaced, as is the case with the wax seal type of relief discussed above.
Common part 5: Flow Sensor: The flow sensor is a safety device that will shut down the burner if the flow of water entering the burner is stopped or reduced too much. Without water in the burner, continuing to heat the coils inside the burner would not only be a waste of fuel, but more importantly would create a dangerous buildup of pressure that may cause an explosion.
Common part 6: Burner: The burner is most commonly diesel-fired or kerosene-fired, and heats the pressurized water to a specified temperature, typically between 120°F and 300°F. That is done by routing the pressurized water through several meters of steel tubing tightly coiled around the inside of a vertically or horizontally positioned burn chamber (often called a “standup” or “laydown” orientation). Although a vertically oriented burn chamber has been proven to heat water more efficiently, a horizontally oriented burn chamber makes the machine more compact and easier to transport.
Common part 7: High-Temperature and High-Pressure Relief Valves: Different from the thermal relief valve, which protects the pump, the high-temperature and high-pressure relief valves (sometimes a single part) mainly protect the operator from injuries resulting from a failed part (often a burst hose) due to excessive temperature or PSI.
Common part 8: Burner Output: The burner output is where the steam and/or hot water exit the burner after being heated to the desired temperature. Typically, it’s a short metal pipe that is threaded and equipped with a quick-coupler.
Common part 9: Thermostat or High-Limit Switch: Whether your machine has a thermostat or a high-limit switch, somewhere in the burner output is a temperature probe that measures the temperature of the steam and/or hot water as it exits the burner. That temperature reading is relayed directly to the thermostat or high-limit switch (typically by means of a copper capillary tube). The copper capillary tube style of thermostat relies on the expansion of viscous liquid to open or close a switch (i.e. “telling” the thermostat when to turn the burner on or off).
In an ice dam steamer (e.g. our Steamzilla™) equipped with a thermostat, you can adjust the temperature of the steam and/or hot water to your desired level.
With a high-limit switch, you cannot adjust the temperature of the steam and/or hot water. Instead, it is factory-preset to a specific temperature. For example, if the ice dam steamer, hot-water pressure washer, or combination unit was designed to run at a fixed temperature of 275°F, a 275°F high-limit switch might be used. That way, if for any reason the water is heated higher than 275°F, the burner will shut down and will only reactivate when the temperature of the steam and/or water has cooled to something less than 275°F.
Common part 10: Hose: Attached to the output of the burner by means of threads or a quick-coupler, the flexible steel-reinforced rubber hose carries the heated water and/or steam to the spray-gun.
Common part 11: Spray Gun: Connected to the output end of the hose, the spray-gun typically allows the operator to control the flow of steam and/or hot water by means of a large trigger. In some cases the gun has no “ON/OFF” valve or trigger. In those cases the spray-gun is used only to help the operator hang onto the lance and direct where the steam or water sprays.
Common part 12: Lance: Often called a “wand,” the lance is connected to the output end of the gun. The lance is simply a means of extending the reach of the expelled steam and/or hot water by using a rigid metal pipe or tube, typically a few feet in length.
Common part 13: Nozzle: Connected to the output end of the lance, the nozzle helps shape the spray pattern of the steam and/or hot-water where it exits the lance (or “wand”). The diameter of the hole in the base of the nozzle can affect significantly the amount of steam and/or hot water (measured in gallons per minute) that exits the nozzle. Some nozzles are easily interchangeable by virtue of a small quick-coupler, and allow the operator to adjust quickly and easily the pattern of steam and/or the volume of steam emitted through the nozzle. These types of quick-change nozzles are also often color-coded to help the operator quickly identify the various degrees of angle offered by each tip. Others nozzles are fixed and cannot be easily changed without a wrench, thread-tape, and shutting down the steamer unit.
Now that we’ve explained the basic components of the hot-water pressure washer, the ice dam steamer, and the hot-water pressure washer/steamer combination unit, it is time to compare the anatomies of each type of machine, and to compare the specs of each part commonly found in each type of machine when used for ice dam removal. In our comparison, we will also include a 4th type of ice dam steamer – an aftermarket-customized hot-water pressure washer/steamer combination unit – which is what our company uses.
Parts and Specs of an Off-the-Shelf Steamer
Summary: One of the most commonly used “electric” off-the-shelf dedicated steamers suitable for ice dam removal, with no aftermarket modifications made to it. It seems to be what most newcomers to the ice dam removal industry use, for reasons good and bad.
Closed or Open-Loop System: Most common off-the-shelf electric steamers are closed-loop systems, meaning the flow of water and steam cannot be interrupted, even for a moment. (As you may recall, that’s because they lack an unloader/bypass valve.) Once the motor has been turned on, and pressurized water is flowing through the system, the ice dam steamer cannot be stopped without powering down the entire unit (which by the way cannot be done in the dead of winter without completely anti-freezing the machine top to bottom). A closed-loop system adds no utility other than that it has fewer moving parts, it can be manufactured and sold and bought more cheaply, and that the flow of steam cannot be controlled by the operator.
Motor/Engine: Typically a 115V electric motor, less than a single horsepower. (See this link.)
Pump: Produces very little non-adjustable pressure – around 350 PSI, with an output of approximately 2+ gallons of water per minute. Note: although the PSI of a steamer is typically considered to be non-adjustable, the actual pressure of steam emitted from the nozzle may theoretically be changed by using a different nozzle (with a larger or smaller orifice), but that will also have an indirect/extreme effect on the GPM emitted. Adjusting the pressure by switching nozzles is far from ideal, and for that reason doesn’t constitute truly adjustable pressure.
Unloader/Bypass Valve: Ice dam steamers are almost always closed-loop systems and thus have no unloader/bypass valve present. The pressure at which steam is generated and/or emitted (in this case, about 350 PSI), is not adjustable via an unloader/bypass valve. Because a closed-loop system cannot support the use of a triggered spray-gun, the operator cannot pause the flow of steam once the steamer has been fired-up. Without the ability to pause the flow of steam with a triggered spray-gun, the pressurized water will never need a secondary route of travel (like an unloader/bypass valve), because its primary exit route (through the spray-gun and out the nozzle) is always available.
Thermal Relief: A thermal relief typically is not present. Because a closed-loop system has no unloader/bypass valve, there is no reason to protect the pump from heat caused by recirculating water between the pump and the unloader/bypass valve for an extended period of time. That would only happen as a result of releasing the trigger, for which it does not have.
Flow Sensor: A flow sensor is almost always present, because it would be unsafe for the burner to continue super-heating water in the event the water supply was stopped accidentally (because of a kinked supply line, clog in the system, freeze-up, etc.).
Burner: Inefficient, horizontally oriented, kerosene-fired burners are most common in off-the-shelf designated ice dam steamers, and can heat water roughly to 290 F (measured at the burner output, not the nozzle). To say the least, they are fuel hogs.
High-temperature & High-pressure relief valve(s): Typically there is only a high-pressure relief valve present (and no high-temperature relief valve). The lack of a high-temperature relief valve can be explained by the likelihood that the off-the-shelf dedicated steamer cannot reach a higher temperature than it or its parts can tolerate. The reasons for the lack of a high-temperature relief valve vary between brands and models.
Burner Output: There is a burner output, because any heater coil has both an inlet and an outlet.
Thermostat or High-Limit Switch: Most commonly a high-limit switch is used in an off-the-shelf dedicated steamer. With a high-limit switch, the temperature of water and/or steam emitted from the burner (often around 290°F) is set by the manufacturer and is not adjustable. Although some companies advertise higher temperatures, rarely (if ever) do steamers used for ice dam removal actually generate steam greater than 290°F (measured at the burner output, not the nozzle). Note: some models offer an adjustable thermostat as an option, but that’s not common.
Hose: Standard steel-reinforced rubber steamer hose, properly rated for the PSI and temperature at which the steamer is set by the factory to operate. We’ve seen off-the-shelf designated steamers come factory-furnished with hose that is not properly rated for the temperature the steamer is “advertised” to as able to produce. That is typically because the steamer, in turn, can’t produce the temperature its manufacturer or operator claims it can.
Spray Gun: Although off-the-shelf dedicated steamer manufacturers do offer the option of a triggered spray-gun (along with additional parts to accommodate the trigger), most off-the-shelf dedicated steamers come standard with a non-triggered spray-gun.
Lance: Standard metal lance, typically several feet in length.
Nozzle: Typically a tubular or flat metal cone is used, often made of brass or steel. Those two styles of nozzles are not adjustable, nor are they quickly interchangeable. Most often the tubular cone style of nozzle is used on off-the-shelf dedicated steamers that are used for ice dam removal. It’s a one-size-fits-all type of nozzle. Although many nozzles are available, they differ only in the size of the hole drilled in its base – and most manufacturers recommend using only one hole size. So…although these nozzles “can” be interchanged, in most cases the manufacturer doesn’t recommend it.
Parts and Specs of a Hot-Water Pressure Washer
Summary: An “Off-the-shelf hot-water pressure washer” best suited for ice dam removal – although not recommended for it – with no aftermarket modifications made. A “hot-water pressure washer” is never the ideal choice for ice dam removal.
Closed or Open-Loop System: Hot-water pressure washers typically are open-loop systems (but not always), meaning the flow of hot-water can be momentarily stopped if the operator so chooses (by releasing the trigger on the spray-gun).
Motor/Engine: Gas-fired engine or 115V electric motor. Either is readily available. Link
Pump: Produces a wide range of pressures, but typically cannot be turned down much lower than approximately 1,500 PSI, with an output of approximately 3-4 GPM or more of water flow.
Unloader/Bypass Valve: An unloader/bypass valve is commonly present (but not always), making the PSI and GPM adjustable.
Thermal Relief: A thermal relief almost always is present. Because most hot-water pressure washers are open-loop systems, they have unloader/bypass valves, so the pump requires protection from heat produced by recirculating water between the pump and the unloader/bypass valve for too long.
Flow Sensor: A flow sensor is almost always present, because it is not efficient or safe to continue heating water with no flow or severely restricted flow of water through the heating coils.
Burner: Horizontally or vertically oriented, typically burns diesel or kerosene, and can heat water roughly to 120-160 degrees Fahrenheit. Some models heat water as high as 210 degrees. All temperature readings are based on the temperature at the burner output, not at the nozzle.
High-Temperature & High-Pressure Relief Valve(s): Both a thermal relief valve and a high-temperature relief valve are almost always present. Those safety measures are essential to the safety of the operator.
Burner Output: There is a burner output, because any heater coil has both an inlet and an outlet.
Thermostat or High-limit Switch: Most commonly an adjustable thermostat is used on commercial hot-water pressure washers, making the temperature of hot-water emitted completely adjustable. Though it’s not uncommon to see a high-limit switch used in replacement of an adjustable thermostat.
Hose: Standard steel-reinforced rubber hot-water pressure washer hose, properly rated for the range of PSI and temperature your pressure washer is capable of producing.
Spray Gun: A standard triggered spray-gun is almost always used. Because hot-water pressure washers almost certainly have an unloader/bypass valve present, whether you choose a spray-gun with a trigger or without a trigger, the choice is yours.
Note: If using a hot-water pressure washer for ice dam removal (not recommended), it is wise to opt for a triggered spray-gun. Why? Because when it’s time to transport the pressure washer on a below-freezing day, first you’ll need to run antifreeze through it. To do so, you need to stop the flow of hot water, so as to push anti-freeze into the unloader/bypass valve. That requires a trigger. Without anti-freeze being circulated through the unloader/bypass valve (and the short hose connecting the unloader to the pump inlet), the steamer will freeze and burst or crack.
Lance: Standard metal lance.
Nozzle: Typically uses many interchangeable tips (sometimes color-coded) to change the spray-pattern and/or the flow rate of hot water allowed through each nozzle.
Parts and Specs of a Pressure Washer / Steamer Combination Unit with no Aftermarket Modifications
Summary: An “off-the-shelf pressure washer/steamer combo unit” suitable for ice dam removal, with no aftermarket modifications made to it. That is similar to what we, Ice Dam Guys®, use to remove ice dams, though we will describe later exactly what we use.
Closed or Open-Loop System: Typically hot-water/steam combination units are open-loop systems, meaning the flow of hot water and/or steam can be momentarily stopped or started whenever the operator chooses (by depressing or releasing the trigger on the spray-gun).
Motor/Engine: Gas-fired engine or 115V electric motor, either/or are readily available. Link
Pump: Typically the pressure produced by a combination unit is between 900 PSI – 3000 PSI, with a flow rate of 2.5 GPM – 4 GPM of flow. However, there are a handful of these combo units that can run at 350 PSI (or lower).
Unloader/Bypass Valve: An unloader/bypass valve is almost always present, making both the PSI and GPM adjustable.
Thermal Relief: A thermal relief is almost always present. Because the vast majority of hot-water pressure washer/steamer combination units are open-loop systems, they will have an unloader/bypass valve, so the pump requires protection from heat caused by recirculating water between the pump and the unloader/bypass valve for too long.
Flow Sensor: A flow sensor is always present, because it’s never efficient or safe to continue heating water with no flow (or a severely restricted flow) of water circulating through the heating coils.
Burner: Most commonly Vertically positioned (i.e., standup orientation) and can typically burn diesel or kerosene, capable of heating water to at least 250°F wet steam (at the burner output).
High-Temperature & High-Pressure Relief Valve(s): Both a thermal relief valve and a high-temperature relief valve are present, for the safety of the operator.
Burner Output: There is a burner output, because any heater coil has both an inlet and an outlet.
Thermostat or High-Limit Switch: An adjustable thermostat is used on most all combo machines, making the temperature of hot water and/or steam emitted completely adjustable. Very rarely is a high-limit switch used.
Hose: Standard reinforced rubber hot-water pressure washer/steamer hose, properly rated for the range of PSI and temperature your pressure washer/steamer combination unit can produce. Dual-rated pressure washer/steamer hose is most common.
Spray Gun: Usually comes standard with a trigger spray-gun, although any hot-water pressure washer, off-the-shelf designated steamer, or in this case a combination unit, can run a non-triggered spray-gun.
Lance: Standard metal lance.
Nozzle: Although a combo unit is capable of running any type of nozzle, most commonly they use interchangeable tips (sometimes color-coded) not only to change the spray-pattern, but also to reduce or increase the total GPM of hot water and/or steam emitted from the nozzle.
Often there is a special nozzle for creating steam. That steam nozzle simply restricts the amount of steam and/or water allowed to flow through the nozzle’s hole. That creates additional backpressure in the burner (holding the water inside the heating coil for a slightly longer period of time), which makes the water hotter (thus creating wet steam).
Parts and Specs of a Pressure Washer / Steamer Combination Unit with Aftermarket Modifications (e.g. Ice Dam Guys® SteamZilla™)
Summary: An “Off-the-shelf pressure washer/steamer combo unit with aftermarket modifications ” made to it, suitable for, and specifically designed for ice dam removal (as in our proprietary Steamzilla™). That is what we, Ice Dam Guys®, use to remove ice dams. Although our system is proprietary, below is a basic description of its anatomy and functionality, with as much detail as we can disclose.
System: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers are open-loop, meaning the flow of hot-water and/or steam can be momentary stopped or started whenever the operator so chooses (by simply depressing or releasing the trigger within the spray-gun).
Side-note: We are baffled as to why someone would not want the ability to stop the flow of steam on-demand. An ice dam removal technician will need to climb a ladder, drag or re-position a hose, throw large chunks of ice off the roof with both hands, shovel snow, take an important call from the customer or the office, climb a dangerously steep and slippery rooftop, etc.
While performing those tasks and perhaps others, one can simply release the trigger rather than set down the steam wand and soak the customer’s roof (or damage shingles while the nozzle is lying on the roof unmanned).
Also, what happens with the steamer and its steam if the technician slips on or falls off a roof or a slippery ladder? The steam wand will keep blowing out scorching steam, could land on him or someone else, be pointed in the wrong direction, or cause other havoc. To have a trigger on an ice dam steamer is safe, responsible, and just plain common sense. To suggest otherwise – as many ice dam removal companies do – is deceptive, unsafe, and of questionable legality. The only technician or company that is “anti-trigger” could only be someone that has either never had a trigger before, was sold their triggerless steamer by a slippery salesman, or they know better and are simply trying to sell you what they use by bashing others that use something different. To not use a trigger is sheer ignorance, wrapped in stupidity (not to mention it’s not safe for the operator or your roof, for the reasons I mentioned above).
Motor: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers use a gas-fired engine, relying on our fuel and not on our customer’s electricity, nor on the integrity or limits of their electricity or other power source.
Side-note: One of the happiest moments of my ice-dam-steaming career was when we switched from electric to gas-powered ice dam steamers well over a decade ago. Having a self-contained steam machine that only requires water was a game-changer, and provided much peace of mind. Those who brag about electric-powered steamers (as though they’re the only or best choice) are either greenhorns, lunatics, or too cheap to buy their own fuel. It also amuses us that many companies that buy and brag about electric-powered steamers run them off of gas-powered generators.
Pump: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers run a modified, nearly bulletproof triplex plunger Caterpillar pump. It can produce very little pressure (300 PSI or lower) with a GPM output of less than a single gallon of water per minute, or it can produce several gallons of water per minute, or any amount of pressure or GPM in-between. It’s completely adjustable.
Unloader/Bypass Valve: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers have an unloader/bypass valve present, making both the PSI and GPM completely adjustable.
Side-note: We can go even “lower and slower” than can any steamer we’ve seen advertised, or we can turn up the PSI and GPM to be as aggressive as possible on ice dams, yet low enough that it’s safe on your roofing material or whatever type of substrate is beneath or behind the ice we’re melting. Why anyone would operate at a fixed pressure and GPM is beyond me. I suppose because the “lower and slower” they go, the more billable hours they rack up. Or because whoever sold them the steamer convinced them that their fixed-rate “low and slow” electric steamer was the best and only steamer for ice dam removal. In either case, fixed-pressure steamers are a bad deal for an ice dam removal company’s customers, in my opinion.
Thermal Relief: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers have a thermal relief present. Because our steamers are an open-loop system, they have an unloader/bypass valve, so the pump requires protection from heat caused by recirculating water between the pump and the unloader/bypass valve for too long.
Flow Sensor: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers a flow sensor is present, because it’s never efficient or safe to continue heating water in the absence of (or with a severely restricted) flow of water circulating through the heating coils.
Burner: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers use diesel or kerosene fired burner (uses either/or) capable of heating water to beyond 300+ degrees Fahrenheit (although we don’t often run them that hot).
Side-note 1: We choose to run diesel fuel with an anti-gelling additive, as diesel fuel is readily available, thus it can be found in every city, town, or village from coast to coast. Though some companies that run electric steamers pride themselves on burning kerosene (as there are fewer fuel-gelling issues with kerosene in sub-zero temperatures), finding kerosene suppliers is a giant pain, as is hauling around unlimited gallons of it for fear you’ll run out and not be able to find more close to your job site. Not to mention kerosene burns faster than diesel, which means you’ll need even more of it. Using an electric kerosene-fired steamer isn’t impractical in my opinion for a nationwide ice dam removal company (or even for a little company).
Side-note 2: 300°F wet steam may sound wonderful, but it doesn’t pack the punch you think it does. Although every rooftop can be different, we’ve discovered that in most cases hotter is not better. The hotter you drive up the temperature of your steam, the more vapor (dry steam) is produced. By using a very short steam hose, we’ve tested dry steam on ice many times, and becuase it does not retain heat as well as wet steam does (not even close), it doesnt pack nearly the melting power of wet-steam. Dry steam may look dramatic, especially on an extra-cold day, but its effectiveness at melting ice is weak when compared to that of wet steam. Spoiler Alert: No matter how hot or dry the steam is at the burner output, after it’s traveled through 100-200 feet of rubber hose, it will almost always be cooled down to 212-degree wet-steam by the time it leaves the nozzle. The 100+ feet of rubber hose lying on the snow-covered frozen ground acts like the radiator in your car: it cools the steam as it makes its way through the hose and to the nozzle. Pay no attention to the claims companies make about the super-hot temperature they can reach. What the gauge says means nothing. All that matters is what’s expelled from the tip (like 212-degree wet-steam). Running a steamer in the dead of winter (with at least a 100 feet of hose lying on snow and ice) at anything more than 250-275 degrees (at the gauge/burner-output) is nothing more than a sales pitch, slippery marketing, a waste of fuel, and another bullet hole in our ozone layer.
High-Temperature & High-Pressure Relief Valve(s): Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers have both valves. Those additional parts do cause us a few headaches now and then, but the safety of our technicians while on your property and doing their job is worth the extra trouble.
Side-note: It’s crazy to me that some of the most popular electric steamers don’t have a high-pressure relief valve. Although they’re not designed to reach high pressures, there are multiple reasons a low-pressure electric steamer may reach dangerous levels of PSI. That risks the safety of the operator, and it puts the homeowner at risk of being dragged into a lawsuit – like if the operator is injured while on the property.
Burner Output: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers have a burner output, because any heater coil has both an inlet and an outlet.
Thermostat or High-Limit Switch: Our Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers use a custom fully adjustable thermostat, allowing us to dial in the most efficient and safest temperature possible to melt ice dams the fastest and safest way possible, regardless of the substrate (even a glass roof).
Side-note: Being able to adjust the temperature of the steam or water is an absolute must, in our experience. Ice can attach itself to any surface, and those surfaces often require different temperatures. Being forced to use a one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf, electric, non-adjustable steamer is something we would never even consider (which is why the three we purchased for R&D sit unused during ice dam removal season). In 2019 (a crazy year for ice dams) we completely ran out of steamers, and rather than send out our three electric steamers (the very steamers most all of our competitors use), we opted to stay true to our morals and leave them in the shop.
Hose: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers use an aftermarket dual-rated hot-water/steam hose, which is red in color and causes fewer hose markings. Although those hoses have served us and our customers well, we’re currently replacing them with something even better: Our top-secret, proprietary new hoses (blue or gray in color) can safely handle any temperature and PSI produced by an ice dam steamer/combo unit. It took us more than 15 years to find a company that could meet our demanding specs.
Spray Gun: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers have triggers, which enable the operator to start and stop the flow of steam on-demand. For us, minimizing the amount of water being dumped on our customer’s rooftops while maximizing safety was a no-brainer.
Side-note: if users of closed-loop steamers added a simple bypass valve, they could use a triggered spray-gun. The manufacturers will do that upon request. So either certain ice dam removal companies don’t even realize that they can add a bypass valve to their steamers (making them open-loop steamers), or they simply prefer the simplicity of operating trigger-less steamers, regardless of how that affects their ability to perform ice dam removal safely and efficiently for their customers or their operators. We aren’t sure why those companies “stick to those guns,” but the point is that the “if it has a trigger, it’s a pressure washer” assertion is false. The exact steamers they use can be ordered with a bypass valve and a triggered spray-gun.
Lance: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers use a standard metal lance with a custom flex-end.
Side-note: Our aftermarket flex-ends are just one more way we speed up our ice removal process and your job. Having the ability to flex and bend the ends of our steam wands is an advantage you’d have to use for hundreds of hours to truly appreciate.
Nozzle: Our custom Steamzilla™-branded ice dam steamers use non-factory interchangeable tips (sometimes color-coded). Those enable the operator to change the spray-pattern quickly, and on occasion they also allow the operator to adjust the total GPM of steam being emitted from the nozzle. Yet another time-saving option we use to save you money.
A few of the other efficiency-boosting features of our customized ice dam steamers:
- Custom-built anti-freeze buckets that help prevent job-derailing breakdowns, as well as speed up the process of anti-freezing and de-anti-freezing our steamers (saving us time, and you money).
- Quick-disconnect fittings on everything, including on our anti-freeze buckets, garden hoses, the garden hose inlet, and nozzles. That makes our technicians more efficient in setting up and taking down our equipment, saving our customers money “on the meter.”
- Custom-installed circuitry for quickly solving a breakdown or malfunction. (All steamers have problems from time to time, because water and winter don’t always mix well.)
- The Ice Dam Guys® toolbox, which each of our technicians receives and occasionally uses to save the day. Though it looks like any tool-chest, it functions as a magician’s hat. It includes one of every part that is most likely to fail, as well as every specialized tool needed to troubleshoot and fix a problem (most times with the over-the-phone help of our own full-time steamer mechanic).
Side-note: We own several off-the-shelf designated steamers – the exact same steamers many of our competitors use – in a grimy corner of our shop. Some are used, some are brand-new. Any time another company brags about its steamer, we immediately buy one and put it to the test. Although occasionally we learn something that may make our steamers even better, we have never found a steamer that meets all of our standards – or, by extension, our customers’ standards. The ice dam steamers most companies brag about just don’t cut the mustard. Period.
The Verdict on Each Type of Steamer
Most off-the-shelf designated steamers, once operating, run at a very low PSI and very high temperature all the time. Due to the absence of a trigger and unloader/bypass valve, the low-pressure, high-temperature flow of steam cannot be stopped unless the unit is physically turned off by the operator (which is not something you don’t want to do in below-freezing temperatures). Once the unit is started, that’s what you have to work with until the job is done. You can’t adjust the temperature (if it uses a high-limit switch), nor can you adjust the GPM or the PSI without tools and a tip change (and your not altering the GPM or PSI by w whole lot by doing this).
Because there’s so much steam vapor, the steam cools quickly in the long hose, and what leaves the nozzle is much cooler than what leaves the burner. The resulting steam is in most cases no hotter than about 212 degrees. That’s why there’s no point in using a steamer that theoretically can produce 300-degree steam: By the time the steam reaches the nozzle it’s cooled to 212 degrees. But it sure sounds powerful and effective if you’re a desperate homeowner on the phone with an ice dam removal company that wants (and needs) your business bad.
Not having a trigger in the spray-gun is unsafe and foolhardy. Yes, in theory it does allow the steamer to maintain a more consistent temperature, but at the expense of safety. (Again, it’s like having a car without brakes.) The lack of a trigger also results in unnecessary gallons of water pouring onto an already-leaky roof, and it may scar the roof if the steamer wand is set down for a split-second too long.
Electric-powered steamers are great for the company using them, but there’s little or no upside for the customer. Even the theoretical benefits are outweighed by all the problems.
The only way of using an electric steamer that makes any amount of sense is by using a gas-powered generator to supply the electricity. But at that point, why even buy an electric-powered steamer in the first place? Now there are two pieces of equipment to maintain, and two pieces of equipment that can fail and hold up the job. And…with all the “other” downfalls of using electric steamers, I would never recommend using them for ice dam removal.
A fixed brass nozzle is less than ideal. It wasn’t designed to melt ice, it was designed to degrease engines. It’s better to use a standard color-coded tip, available in many degrees of spray pattern and flow rates. They’re also quickly and easily interchangeable on the fly.
It might surprise you to know that in one respect we recommend off-the-shelf steamers: they’re beginner-friendly. The fixed low pressure means the chances are lower that an inexperienced operator can slip up and damage the shingles or other surfaces. On the other hand, because of the higher GPM (about 2 GPM), the chances of eroding or damaging the shingles are greater. Despite the claims made in some YouTube videos, low-pressure steam in the hands of someone untrained is plenty dangerous on your roof!
If you’re new to the ice dam removal industry, and you like the idea of a steamer that’s always “low and slow,” you can just as easily purchase a gas-powered fully adjustable steamer and simply run it low-and-slow, if that’s all you’re comfortable with. (Whether the customer likes that is a different question.)
Hot-water pressure washers are inexpensive, with parts readily available. But we do not recommend them for ice dam removal. The chances are too high that the operator will damage the shingles or other roofing material. In the hands of an experienced user, a hot-water pressure washer may get the job done safely, but in the hands of a greenhorn, the risk of damage is too high. Also, they lack the heat necessary to remove ice as quickly and safely as an ice dam steamer or combo unit can. If a hot-water pressure washer generates a maximum of 210 degrees at the burner output – before running through 100-200 feet of cold hose – what comes out the nozzle will be more like bathwater than steam.
Hot-water pressure washer/steamer combinations in the right hands are safe and effective at ice dam removal, but only if used in steam mode, at a very low PSI, and if the burner is capable of reaching a minimum temperature of 250F. Cooler maximum temperatures will reduce your nozzle temperature to below 212 degrees and will slow down the melting power unnecessarily. That will cause an ice dam removal job to drag on at the expense of the customer, which is neither right or fair to the unsuspecting customer). Ice dam removal companies should consider using nozzles rated for lower gallons-per-minute, no greater than 3 GPM (which, in the case of a combo unit, does not mean the steam comes out of the nozzle at 3 GPM).
A hot-water pressure washer/steamer combo unit is the best choice for people who have a few solid seasons of ice dam removal under their belts. It’s fully adjustable, runs on its own power (using unleaded fuel), burns kerosene or diesel, has an unloader/bypass valve, uses a triggered spray-gun, uses quick-change tips, and can be customized beyond factory specs if you care enough to put the time, effort, and money into R&D.
Customized ice dam steamers (like our Steamzilla™ steamers) can be outfitted and maintained with parts available virtually anywhere in the Lower 48. Our customized steamers can do everything that an off-the-shelf pressure washer/steamer combo unit can do, but more safely and with a much greater range of GPM, PSI, and temperature (and with far fewer breakdowns than any steamer in existence). When you’ve cleared ice dams from nearly 8,000 rooftops across the country, you learn quickly what you want and don’t want in a steamer. We started customizing these particular steamers about 10 years ago, and not a single year goes by that we don’t make changes to our entire fleet of steamers. We never stop inventing and improving. And quite frankly, we have a blast doing it!
Warning: Customized ice dam steamers are not for beginners. Not only do they take a lot of knowledge to modify safely, but you probably won’t know what you want from your custom steamer until you’ve spent years steaming ice dams. It helps if the operator has experienced firsthand the shortcomings of the alternatives (the hot-water pressure washer, the off-the-shelf pressure washer/steamer combo unit, and the dreadful “electric” off-the-shelf steamer). We were able to create a best-in-industry ice dam steamer partly because we know the inner workings of all the mediocre-to-bad alternatives.
If you’ve been steaming ice dams for years and you know exactly what you wish someone else would manufacture, we think it’s worth building yourself. That’s what we have done, and every year we make improvements to Ice Dam Guys® ice dam steamers. Every year we see the results, and our customers thank us for completing a difficult job safely and efficiently. Though we’d wager no other company can create a Steamzilla™, we hold out faith that some other ice dam removal company refuses to settle for the mediocrity of an off-the-shelf steamer (especially an electric one), and will create another excellent ice dam steamer that helps the operator exceed customers’ expectations, as well as elevate the industry vs. dragging it (and us) through the mud as so many of our competitors choose to do.
Why the Misunderstanding?
Many companies use ice dam steamers that are user-friendly, easy to buy, cheap, and not necessarily bad at removing ice dams, but that aren’t as effective as a proper custom rig (that is, a customized pressure-washer / steamer combination unit with aftermarket modifications), like our Steamzilla™ steamers.
The trouble for those companies is that most customers focus on results. They care above all whether a company will remove the ice dams safely and efficiently. They aren’t too concerned about whether the steamer is made for inexperienced operators, or is easy and inexpensive to buy. They care about costs, but they also understand that a job done once and done right costs less than two sloppy jobs or a sloppy job plus repairs.
Because the companies that use off-the-shelf steamers charge rates similar to those of companies that invest in customized steamers, they got themselves into a bind where they have no choice but to make their results seem better. It appears the only way they can do that is to claim that customized ice dam steamers are dangerous (or to refer to them as “pressure washers.” As I have explained, that’s not the case, but facts don’t matter much to dishonest ice dam removal companies. They reason (correctly) that most customers are too hurried and too interested in “bargains” and a company’s “response time” to question untrue statements repeated over and over again. FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) works to their advantage, but not to the customers.
Some Companies Aren’t Straightforward about Ice Dam Steamers. So What?
Most people don’t choose one company over another only on the basis of what equipment it uses. That would be like picking a surgeon only because of the type of scalpel he or she uses. Rather, most people try to get a sense of the companys’ experience, the number of positive online reviews, and the overall impression of professionalism. Because those qualities are in short supply at most ice dam removal companies, desperate companies bring up equipment as a marketing ploy and as a diversion from their problems.
To the extent ice dam removal equipment matters, we’ve explained how custom-outfitted ice dam steamers (like our Steamzilla® steamers) compare technically and functionally to off-the-shelf ice dam steamers, and we’ve explained the benefits of each kind. We’ve never claimed that our competitors “don’t use steamers.” Most of them use steamers, as do we. We hope you’ll draw your own conclusions as to who’s more above-board.
Our competitors’ approach is simple:
- They sell you on the belief that their electric squirt-guns are so gentle that they can’t possibly damage your roof, which is untrue (and they know it). We own several of the exact steamers they use and brag about, and we’d never use them as a third-string bench-warmer backup to our customized ice dam steamers.
- They create fear of triggers, colored tips, and gas engines, all of which are common to nearly all adjustable steamers. Again, those companies know those to be lies. Triggers, colored tips and gas engines do not mean that a steamer is actually a pressure washer, and those components have nothing to do with the safety of the ice dam steamer on a roof.
- They create and join phony ice dam removal associations that help validate and spread lies that mislead and harm customers.
- They sell unsuspecting and hurried customers on their “low and slow” approach to ice dam removal as the “only” safe and effective way to remove ice dams, all while plumping their billable hours.
You might think, “Well, it’s just marketing,” or “Everyone thinks their stuff is the best.” We’d probably agree with that, if an ice dam removal company simply touted the effectiveness of its equipment, and maybe explained exactly why they feel it’s more effective. But that’s not the case here. Many ice dam removal companies are deceitful because they knowingly make false claims about competitors’ ice dam steamers, including ours. Those claims range from saying certain steamers aren’t steamers at all, to “They’re bad” or “They’re dangerous,” for reasons we have debunked.
We hope the facts we’ve provided show you how some ice dam removal companies deceive customers. We assume deception alone is a deal-killer for you. Of course, it also makes you wonder whether a company is lying about things like its experience, insurance, and legal ability to work in your state. We assume a deceitful company is not one you’d like to hire, let onto your property and possibly into your home, and owe money. But if you needed yet another reason, you can choose not to hire them because their steamers aren’t so effective at removing ice dams, and now you know exactly why.