By Mary Ellen Polson
A gutter system in good working order is the last and best defense against water getting into the house. Plugged, faulty, or missing gutters allow water to damage roofing, exterior and interior walls, and floors. Serious water incursions can eventually undermine the foundation. Whether you have aluminum K-style, copper half-round, or historic wood gutters, seasonal cleaning and regular maintenance are the keys to keeping water from getting into your house.
How Gutters Work
Installed along the roofline and eaves of a house, a gutter collects water that runs off the roof during rain storms and channels it toward downspouts installed usually at the corners of the house. The downspouts direct the water to the ground level, where downspout extensions (or leaders) carry the effluent away from the house. Gutters are usually installed on a slight slope that encourages the water to flow toward the downspouts. While gutter pitch is a function of roof area, gutter size, and the amount of rainfall typical in your area, a drop of 1" for every 12' is a good rule of thumb.
On a simple one-storey frame house like a historic Cape, gutter runs are simple to calculate and install. A more complicated dwelling, such as a two or three-storey Second Empire house with multiple rooflines and changes of pitch, will require more complex calculations.
In either event, make sure that the downspouts discharge their water into leaders that empty at least 10' away from the foundation, or into subsurface pipes or drains that carry the water to open ground, such as a culvert. In many localities, it’s illegal to discharge storm water into a storm sewer; it’s also a very bad idea to dump water onto sidewalks and driveways, where it can freeze and create a slipping hazard.
Cleaning & Maintenance
Clean your gutters at least twice a year: before cold weather arrives in the fall, and after the snow and ice have melted in spring. Accumulations of dirt, leaves, and other debris not only reduce the water-carrying capacity of the gutter, but also trap moisture. The moist environment is an ideal breeding ground for mosquitos and will certainly lead to corrosion (not to mention seedlings and vines that can lead to more damage) if not kept in check.
To inspect gutters, use a stout extension ladder, ideally one fitted with a standoff bar that holds the ladder several inches away from the building. Gutters are only strong enough to hold water, so avoid laying the ladder directly against the gutter run.
To clean, wear rubber gloves and use your hands or a small rake or scoop out the mess. While you’re cleaning, inspect the gutter for leaks, rust or rot, failing joints, and missing or loose support brackets. Badly rusted or corroded gutter runs should be replaced, as should missing brackets. Then check the downspouts, screens or basket strainers, and leaders for damage. Leaders are especially vulnerable to movement and crushing, since they rest directly on the ground. (In some climates, the ground itself may have shifted or changed over the winter; make sure the leader is still in the best position to do its job.)
Once the gutter is clean and any minor repairs to the components are made, run some water into the gutter. It should run directly toward the lowest point on the run, the downspout. If water pools or runs in a different direction, adjust the hangers until the slope directs the water in the proper direction.
Types of Gutters