Maintenance Tips: Gutters and Downspouts
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Has your head been in the gutter lately? A properly installed gutter and downspout system performs a seemingly simple task, collecting water that drains off the roof and directing it away from the home. Quite often, homeowners pay little to no attention to their gutters and downspouts, and the system in turn performs poorly or even fails. Lack of maintenance allows for clogs, leaks, and potentially damage to your home. These issues are more extensive and costly to repair then to prevent with a little maintenance.
Maintaining gutters and downspouts requires the use of a ladder. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has stated, "Each year there are more than 164,000 emergency room-treated injuries in the U.S. relating to ladders." If you are going to perform maintenance on your gutters and downspouts, you should feel comfortable and safe on a ladder. A variety of safety tips are available from the American Ladder Institute. If you don't feel comfortable and safe on a ladder, consider hiring a professional gutter cleaner to perform the work.
The most common problem with gutters and downspouts is clogging. All sorts of things find their way into our gutters: leaves, seedlings, buds, sticks, balls, nests, and debris. These things build up over time, filling our gutters and stopping the flow of water. When this occurs, water has nowhere to go but over the edges, eventually causing damage. The most important task in maintaining your gutters and downspouts is keeping them free of debris, which allows water to easily flow down the gutter, into the downspout, and away from the home. Doing so requires that you maintain your gutters and downspouts twice a year, in the spring after the buds and/or seedlings have fallen from the trees and then again in the fall after the leaves have fallen from the trees. If you live in a heavily wooded area, you will want to clean your gutters more frequently.
Keeping your gutters free of debris is a relatively easy task that usually only takes a couple of hours to complete. Using a ladder to access the gutter, scoop out any debris inside the gutter, placing it in a bucket for disposal. Flush the gutter with water from a spray nozzle attached to a garden hose.
After the inside of the gutter is clean, remove the spray nozzle and place the garden hose at the far end of the gutter, away from the downspout. Turn on the water, keeping the water pressure fairly low, and observe what occurs. The idea is to allow the gutter to carry the water to the downspout, not to force the water down the gutter.
Does water easily flow down the gutter, into, and out of the downspout?
Is water pooling anywhere along the gutter?
Are there any locations along the gutter or downspout where water is leaking?
If water is not leaking or pooling and easily flows down the gutter, into, and out of the downspout, your system is functioning properly. If you answered "yes" to any of the above questions, see below.
Where Is the Water Pooling?
Near the drop outlet, into the downspout?
If water is pooling near the drop outlet, the downspout is clogged with debris and needs to be cleaned. You will need to clean out the debris using a plumber's snake or drain auger.
At the far end of the gutter, away from the downspout? Somewhere in the middle?
If water is pooling in the middle or at the far end, the gutter hangers may be pulled out, loose, broken, or missing and need to be better secured and/or replaced. Water pooling also can occur where a gutter is bent, sagging, or not properly aligned. Depending on the extent of the damage, gutter sections may need to be replaced or simply realigned. Should you need to adjust your gutter's pitch, ensure that your starting point at the high end is 1-1/4" below the drip edge. The gutter should then be pitched so that it drops approximately 1/16" for each 1' of length, from the starting point at the high end to the drop outlet at the low end.
Where Is the Water Leaking?
At the seams along the gutter or at joints, like end caps or corners?
If water is leaking at seams and/or joints, ensure that the surfaces are cleaned and properly attached, then seal the gutter using a high-quality gutter sealant.
At the back of the downspout or through elbows attached to the downspout?
If water is leaking out the back of the downspout, the rear seam has been damaged and the downspout will need to be replaced.
Through holes in the gutter?
If water is leaking out of holes in the gutter, the gutter will need to be patched. Pinhole leaks should be patched with roofing cement. Use a putty knife to apply roofing cement to the area over and around the pinhole leak, smoothing out the roofing cement to allow water to flow freely in the gutter. Larger holes should be patched with a durable material large enough to cover the hole. Clean the interior surface of the gutter to bare metal with an abrasive brush, pad, or paper product. Wipe the surface with a clean cloth. Using a putty knife, apply a layer of roofing cement and position the patch material over the hole. Then coat the top of the patch with another layer of roof cement. Be sure to smooth and feather the edges of the roof cement so that water can flow freely down the gutter. In addition, any missing sections of the gutter should be replaced.
Directing Water Away
After testing and observing how your gutter and downspout interact with water, inspect a few additional areas of your system to ensure proper performance.
- Inspect and secure all gutter hangers and downspout straps.
- Inspect the grade at the foundation near the downspout for evidence of erosion. The grade around the home should slope 1" per foot for a minimum of 6' away from the home. If there is noticeable erosion, and the grade is sloping back toward the home, water isn't being directed away. Depending on what directs water away from the home at the base of the downspout – below-grade drainage pipe, downspout extension, or splash block – evidence of erosion near the foundation signals a problem.
- Below-grade drainage pipes can become clogged with debris, causing water to back up. When this occurs, the debris needs to be removed with a drain auger, similar to unclogging the downspout.
- Splash blocks work well when they serve small roof areas. However, if a splash block is used to direct high volumes of water from a large roof surface it may not be sufficient. Consider replacing splash blocks with downspout extensions that extend a minimum of 6' away from the home. If your current downspout extensions have been damaged or disfigured, they should be replaced.
Although it is necessary to perform this basic gutter and downspout maintenance twice a year, keeping an eye on your gutters and downspouts during the year, specifically during times of heavy rain and snow, isn't a bad idea either. Overflows, leaks, and large icicles are all signs that your gutter may not be functioning properly and that some general maintenance is required. Reducing, but not eliminating, gutter and downspout maintenance is possible. Cutting back tree limbs that hang over the gutter will reduce leaves and debris. If you live in a heavily wooded area or have below-grade drainage pipe, you might consider installing wire screening, gutter shields, foam filters, or a strainer over the top of the gutter to keep debris from clogging the system.
Given the damage that water can do to your home, you will derive significant value and importance in maintaining your gutters and downspouts. Properly maintained, they will keep water away from your home, reduce grade erosion, and prevent water from leaking into basements and crawl spaces. Avoid unnecessary, costly repairs in the future and make the effort to put gutter and downspout maintenance on your list of things to do this spring and fall.
Jeff is an Editor-at-Large for Buildipedia.com who writes and edits Featured At Home and Knowledgebase content. Prior to joining Buildipedia, Jeff's work experience included carpentry, construction documentation, specification writing, construction administration, project management, and real estate property inspection. Jeff is a member of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) and an educator at Columbus State Community College and enjoys challenging DIY home improvement projects.