With the winter season upon us, our to-do lists turn into everything-about-the-holidays lists: shopping, decorating, meal planning, scheduling family trips. Unfortunately, home maintenance slumps further down the list, and some of our most crucial tasks get sidelined altogether, like cleaning and repairing gutters and downspouts. When there’s so much merry fun and frolic to plan, who wants to think about the muck that’s been hiding overhead for months? But when that muck can end up costing you more money when the springtime rains come, there is no better time than now—when the leaves have stopped falling and before the harsh winter weather hits—to move the task to the very top of your list.
It’s easy to put our gutters “out of sight, out of mind” when we can’t see what they have collected above from our comfortable vantage point on the ground. But the reality is that a heavy rain or one large snowstorm and a quick thawing can spell havoc for a home with clogged gutters and downspouts.
It only takes a couple of inches of rain on the roof of an average-sized home to produce several thousand gallons of runoff. Water weighs about 8 pounds a gallon, so that’s a lot of stress on a drainage system that isn’t functioning properly.
Just as our doctors will often talk to us upfront about the severe consequences that we will face if we ignore their advice (to motivate us to change our habits, of course), roof and gutter experts will tell us what will happen if we neglect our gutters: damage amounting to thousands of dollars in roof repairs and more still to repair a foundation.
When rainwater stands in gutters, any surface it stays in contact with will start to rot and break off, including the roof sheeting, roofing boards, and the fascia to which the gutters attach. Many a roof repair has been made due to clogged gutters—damage that could have been prevented with regular maintenance.
Excessive rainwater in gutters can also hurt your landscaping, as water overflows and pools in flowerbeds along the side of the home. Your shrubs and plants may not be thanking you come spring for having endured a soggier winter.
The more water that can be drained away from the home by clean gutters and downspouts, the less chance you’ll have to be visited by pesky insects, like termites, which are drawn to moisture. Proper drainage lessens the likelihood of dealing with mold and mildew on your walls, too.
Full gutters and clogged downspouts mean they could meet their own demise: the heavier they are, the more likely they are to fall away from the house. If your gutters seem to be pulling away from your home or sagging, they may simply need new spikes (nails) in new holes or new bracket hangers.
But then there’s every homeowner’s worst nightmare: a cracked, shifted or sunken foundation caused by poor drainage. These repairs require a professional and are costly, not to mention the headaches that come from sopping up floors and personal items inside.
Generally, biannual checkups are recommended, no matter what type of gutter system you have. If your home is in an especially wooded area, and with pine trees, up to four times a year may be recommended. Many experts will suggest the fall and the spring, but if all of your trees are done shedding their leaves, it makes sense to do a thorough check now to prevent a springtime catastrophe.
Assess the Situation
A gutter system is not too complex for a homeowner to understand; it’s not like trying to take a stab at plumbing or electrical work. Suit up in rain gear during a downpour, go outside, and survey your gutters and downspouts to see if water is flowing properly away from the house. Watch for any leaks or aberrant waterfalls resulting from a clogged area; a common place for clogs is the elbow at the top of a downspout. If you don’t have a seamless gutter system on your house, check your gutters for holes or cracks at the seals where caulk is.
Also make sure water is exiting onto splash blocks and is not creating a pool or a stream that heads back toward your home. (Most experts will recommend using drain extensions at least 5 feet from the home to be extra sure the water is flowing far away from the foundation.)
When the weather has been dry for a couple days, and if you feel comfortable rising to the occasion on a ladder, clean your gutters with gloves and a short-handled trowel, not forgetting to also check if the spikes and hangers are still firmly attached. (The muck makes great compost and mulch in a garden, by the way.) Once you are done, run the water hose (handy attachments are available that peek up and over into your gutters), or put your pressure washer hose into your gutters and test the system to flush out any other debris. (Be sure to follow directions for your pressure washer to use the appropriate attachments and pressure level.)
High Time for Help
While some people do prefer to climb a ladder and take care of cleaning the gutters themselves, the risk of injury and the lack of time have many of us seeking professional help. There are many businesses in the area that offer multiple services, from installing, cleaning, repairing, and adding the latest gutter guard, to designing a full system on new homes or older homes in need of an update. There are also contractors who specialize in exteriors that offer gutter repairs and installation. If it is your first time hiring a professional for the job, make sure it is a licensed company with worker’s compensation and liability insurance. Your neighbor or best friend might be one of the most helpful people you have ever known, but when it comes to jobs with a safety risk involved, leave it to a professional.
Hiring a contractor business has some advantages. While they are up to date on building codes and recommendations from the Environmental Protection Agency, they can inspect your entire system, whether the gutters have the correct pitch toward the downspout (1/4 inch for every 10 feet recommended), the proper locations of downspouts (every 5 feet, some guidelines say), and the grade of your land. And while they are inspecting the gutters, they may spot structural damage that needs your attention. If it’s time to start thinking about a new roof, they can guide you in making that decision and in choosing new gutters.
Hiring a full-service gutter specialty company has its advantages, too. Besides being able to show you the latest products on the market, including a range of guards that require less regular cleanings, they will clean and flush your systems on schedule and can make a repair or replacement as needed. Cleaning costs will vary depending on the size of your home, how many feet of gutter, and what type of roof you have.
The task of keeping your gutters free and clear cannot be neglected if you want to prevent water damage, so make it a priority. Don’t worry; your holiday errands will all get done, or we wouldn’t call this the most wonderful time of the year.