By Lee Wallender
Do you take your gutters for granted? You might, most of us do. Gutters quietly and efficiently perform the routine miracle of saving your house from destruction by diverting vast amounts of rain or snow well away from your house.
Gutter maintenance and repair – issues that are usually low on most homeowners’ priority lists – are actually more critical than one might imagine.
Neglecting your gutters over the long term can seriously cost you, both monetarily and in terms of labor and frustration. Poorly working gutters can affect your home’s foundation and internal structure. At the very least, ignoring simple gutter maintenance and repair season after season translates into huge, weekend-killing projects for you in the future.
To keep your gutters running effectively, learn tips on how to clean them and repair common problems. Our calendar of gutter maintenance tasks for each season will mean year-round efficiency. And because working with gutters always means heights and most likely a ladder, we will also be showing you how to stay safe and sound.
How to Clean Your Gutters Safely
On the most basic level, clogged gutters lead to the annoyance of rain cascading over the sides of the gutters. Sheets of water hit you as you walk under the eaves. It gets worse. Clogged gutters cause water to back up and push under the shingles, migrating up the roof line, and possibly even dripping into your attic. Heavy gutters, swollen with waterlogged debris, become so heavy that they can fall down. Overflowing gutters, given enough time, will erode the earth around your foundation, causing it to subside.
You will find no shortage of individuals and companies offering to clean your gutters. Why so many? Because gutter cleaning is cheap and simple. Yet many homeowners balk at this easy project because they think it will be unsafe or too hard.
- Use a ladder. Do not access the roof to clean the gutters.
- Use the correct ladder for the job. Usually this means an extension ladder that can extend at least three feet above the level of the gutters. Your six-foot A-frame step ladder will not be tall enough or stable enough.
- Make sure that the ladder is on stable ground. If the ladder is even a couple of inches out of vertical (side to side) this disparity will be magnified as you climb higher on the ladder.
- The base of the ladder should be far enough away from the house so that you can climb without falling off backward. Yet it should not be so far that the legs slip out. The classic method for judging ladder angle is to stand facing the ladder, toes against the ladder legs and arms extended horizontally. If your fingertips touch the rails of the ladder, this is the correct angle.
- Use a ladder stabilizer to rest the top of the ladder on the roof, bridging the gutters.
- When climbing, always keep your body between the two side rails.
- Keep at least one hand on the ladder at all times.
- Heavy Rubber Gloves: Surgical-type latex gloves and even some nitrile gloves advertised as heavy-duty are usually too thin and may tear against the sharp aluminum edges. For best results, use kitchen latex gloves or neoprene gloves.
- Gutter Trowel: Long plastic scoops, thin enough to fit in gutters, can be purchased inexpensively at home centers. However, if your shingles extend too far over the gutters, you may not be able to use a trowel.
- Ladder: If you own a house, it is well worth it to purchase a quality aluminum or fiberglass extension ladder. The money you save on hiring a gutter cleaning company will pay for the ladder after the first one or two years.
- Hose: A garden hose long enough to reach to the gutters when attached to an outside faucet.
- Contractor’s Garbage Bags and Bucket
- Putty Knife or Old Spoon: Or you can use any hand implement that can scrape sediment from the bottom of the gutters.
7 Steps to Perfectly Clean Gutters
Position the ladder so that it is stable and angled correctly.
- Put on your rubber gloves. Place the trowel (if you opt to use) in the bucket, carry it to the top of the ladder, and hang it from a rung.
- Remove gutter covers and place on the roof.
- Gutter debris is usually found in two layers: a top, lighter layer of leaves, twigs, and pine cones, and a heavy bottom layer of dirt and particles from the shingles. Use the trowel to remove the top layer, placing this debris in the bucket. If the trowel does not work, remove the debris by hand and place in the bag.
- Scrape out the bottom sediment with your fingers, putty knife, or spoon.
- Take all items back down. Turn on the hose. Take the hose up to the gutters and use it rinse gutters and check the flow.
- Ensure that downspouts are clear of any debris that may have become lodged. If there is blockage, unclog by removing the nozzle and running the hose up the downspout. At the same time, gently tap the side of the downspout to dislodge the debris.
Top 3 Common Gutter Repairs You Can Do Yourself
In this age of high-tech homes, gutters are refreshingly old-school. No revolutionary, industry-disrupting materials are to be found here: it is all low-cost sheet metal, screws, sealer, and a couple of specialty (but equally cheap) items. Best of all, there is almost no learning curve involved with gutter repair!
What You See: Gutters are sagging, usually at mid-point in the gutter run. They may be hanging so low that water cascades over the side rather than traveling to the downspouts.
What You Do: Install gutter hangers. If you look at your current attachment method and see spikes running through thin tubes, this is called the “spike and ferrule” method and should be replaced with gutter hangers. A gutter hanger is a self-contained unit that includes a spacer that helps you avoid crimping the gutter and a long screw. Attach the gutter hanger at a solid spot in the fascia and screw firmly in. Purchase metal hangers. Avoid plastic hangers, as they tend to break.
What You See: Water is dripping out of the ends of the gutters, near the downspouts.
What You Do: Install new end caps. Take note of the end profile of your gutter, because you will need this information when purchasing new end caps. Also, most end caps are either left-side or right-side, so you will need to buy the correct side. Remove the old end cap. Thoroughly scrub off any debris from around the end of the gutter. Fill inside section of end cap with exterior grade silicone sealant and press end cap onto gutter. Attach with a pop rivet tool or sheet metal screws. Clean off excess caulk with a gloved hand.
What You Experience: Your downspouts wave in the wind or bang on the side of the house when you are trying to sleep.
What You Do: Thankfully this is an easy fix. Purchase a number of downspout straps at your home center or hardware store. These flat, thin strips of metal can be formed by hand into a U-shape that holds the downspout to the corner of the house. Attach straps (or use existing straps, if in good shape) to the house. Form around the downspout, conforming to its shape. Drill pilot holes into the downspout and connect with two 3/8-inch sheet metal screws per strap.
Gutter Maintenance by Season
The biggest misconception about gutter maintenance is that you only need to tend to them in the fall. Year-round gutter inspection, maintenance, and repairs lighten your work load. Instead of undertaking a large, multi-stage project in October or November, when the mercury is dropping, your autumn job is merely debris-cleaning. Add these jobs as reminders on your electronic calendar:
This focus of gutter maintenance in this season is checking on what the previous harsh season, winter, did to them. Check gutters for cracks and sags. See if rising water levels from clogged gutters impinged on your roof structure, fascia, and even into the attic.
With the sun and favorable temperatures, you can take your time on top of the ladder. This is prime time for gutter and downspout repair. Since it is inevitable that some of your gutter guards and shields have come loose or become dented with falling limbs, reattach or purchase new ones and install.
Devote time to scraping out hardened sediment from the bottoms. Remove twigs and pine cones.
After all the leaves have fallen, mount the ladder and remove all leaves from inside the gutters or on the shields. All debris should be gone in order to avoid freezing and clogging.
Winter is the season for rest and observation, at least when it comes to gutters, because ladder work is hazardous in the cold, snow, and ice. Monitor for ice damming. Icicles hanging off gutters may be a sign of heat escaping the home. Take to the ladder only in the event of an emergency, such as ice damming. Educate yourself on methods of quickly and safely clearing ice dams (hint: hacking and chipping are not recommended). If you feel uncomfortable, this is the time to hire a contractor to do the work.
Lee Wallender began remodeling homes when he transformed a World War I-era farmhouse into a comfortable new home. He has been writing about home remodeling on About Home Renovations since 2006.