Why do we have to clean gutters? It’s a question I often used to ask. I thought I knew the answer. Turns out I was a little underinformed.
We clean gutters so rain water doesn’t overflow. Right? Yes, but that’s only the beginning of the answer.
When it rains, our gutters are responsible for collecting the water as it runs off our roofs. Here in northern Ohio, we get rain constantly. In the desert, gutters aren’t really necessary (obvious, I know). Rain water, not properly diverted, is one of the main causes of moisture in basements and other types of foundations.
Excessive moisture along foundations, and especially inside home foundations, creates attractive conditions for molds to grow. Insects also love water. In fact, without high moisture, powerpost beetle larva and termites dry out and die.
So we need gutters (and downspouts) to keep our homes healthy. Unfortunately, gutters and downspouts are not maintenance free. I recommend cleaning gutters in the spring just after winter, in the fall just before winter, and after any overhanging trees have dropped their seedlings.
There are a couple methods for cleaning gutters. The tried and true method, and the one I recommend, is to scoop out the debris with your hand or a plastic scooper. It’s laborious but extremely effective. All you need is a ladder and bucket. Scoop out the debris and put it in your bucket as you go. Be sure to check the downspouts for debris while you're cleaning.
Many people decide their leaf blower is less work and just as effective. In my experience the main drawback to using your leaf blower is that the debris ends up everywhere. I once started cleaning gutters in a retirement condo community and after about 10 feet I had covered the white siding with black muck. Needless to say, it did not go over well. I’ve never used a leaf blower since and don’t recommend it.
There are a few tools that allow you to clean gutters from the ground. They essentially are long gooseneck devices that allow you to blow, spray, or grab the gutter debris from the ground. While I’ve never used them, my concern is that if you never look inside your gutter how do you know when they are clean?
What about gutter guards? Do they really work as well as they claim? There are numerous types of gutter guards, but I’m going to focus on three types. Screens, covers, and brushes.
First up, screens. A simple Google search of 'gutter screens' will bring up so many varieties it can be hard to classify them. I’m going to loosely classify them by hole size. Screens with large holes have the benefit of allowing a lot of water to enter quickly but have the drawback of getting clogged with seeds other plant material.
Screens with small holes, or fine mesh, prevent seeds and other plant material from getting stuck in them. The big drawback I have seen is when screens buildup ice during the winter causing ice dams and shingle heave.
Gutter covers seem to fix the problems with screens. The most popular gutter cover is the Gutter Helmet. Rain water flows in, while debris flies off the gutter. Perfect! Not exactly. Gutter covers don’t work especially well in heavy rains. The water runs too fast, overwhelms the cover, and drops over the edge of the gutter. Covers can also get clogged with debris reducing their effectiveness. Since covers “cover” the gutter, they also prevent the wind from drying out the gutter, potentially leading to rot in wood fascia boards. Finally, they are extremely expensive.
Last up, brushes. Gutter brushes look like giant pipe cleaners. The idea is that leaves are prevented from getting into the gutter. While this is mostly true, the spaces between the bristles are great at holding smaller debris like seeds. Brushes also seem to slow water movement in the gutter which prevents shingle grit and other fine material from washing out. Thus, gutters with brushes tend to have a lot of dirt like material in them. Brushes are a pain to clean because you have to remove them from the gutter to clean everything.
I know, it sounds like I’m not a huge fan of gutter guards. While I don’t recommend them for most situations, they can be effective if you have a lot of trees around your house. I have one tree over my house (actually my neighbors) that used to block my gutter downspout every week or two! I put gutter screens over that section of my gutter and have had success for the most part. I still need to clean my gutters seasonally, but it beats weekly!
Gutter maintenance doesn’t stop with the gutters. After the gutters collect rain water, downspouts still need to get the water away from the foundation. It is important to keep your downspouts clear of debris. A clogged downspout will back up gutters and cause water to overflow. Downspouts need to move the water at least four to six feet away from your house foundation. For a more detailed explanation, check out my post about downspout extensions.
Anyway you look at it, gutters need regular maintenance which is why it should be part of your spring cleaning list. Keeping your gutters clean is critical to maintaining a dry foundation and a healthy home. Gutter guards can be helpful in certain situations but can cause problems in others. Truthfully, if you’re going to spend the money to have gutter guards installed, you’re better off just paying someone to clean your gutters regularly. For most people, a ladder and bucket is the best way to maintain your gutters.