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Getting to know gutters and downspouts

Rainfall can be a wonderful thing; it turns the landscape green, and gives the great outdoors a beautiful, clean look and smell. But it is no friend to your house. Especially if your gutters (eavestroughs) or downspouts are clogged, causing water to come into your house through the roof, or the basement walls.

What are gutters and downspouts?

First of all, gutter and eavestrough are interchangeable terms for the same thing; gutter is more commonly used in the U.S., while eavestrough is more commonly used in Canada. Gutters or eavestroughs are situated around your roof, and collect rainwater as it runs off the roof. They direct the water to a downspout, which carries the water down, and away from the house. Imagine if you didn’t have these gutters on your home. Water would run off the roof, landing near the bottom of the house. Likely it would run into the basement, and leave a wet, soggy mess around your house. Improperly directed water can cause your siding to rot, and your landscaping to wash away.

How do gutters and downspouts work?

Gutters are attached to the fascia along the outside edge of your roof, and as mentioned, they’re designed to collect rainwater and direct it away from your house. They can be made of zinc, aluminum, copper, vinyl, or galvanized steel and come in all sizes and colours. Vinyl is easy to install, as it just snaps together, but it may not be the best in most parts of Canada and the northern United States, as it can crack in very cold temperatures. Aluminum is definitely the most popular; it’s affordable, it won’t crack, and it doesn’t rust. It comes in various weights (light, medium, heavy), and the heavier it is, the less likely it is to dent or bend. Copper gutters will never rust or need painting and can last up to 100 years. Do your research, and choose the type that best suits your needs and your budget.

There are several different styles and gutter extensions to choose from: half-round, u-shape, or k-style, as well as enclosed or covered styles with leaf barriers and debris stoppers. You can also install a gutter diverter which lets you choose where the rainwater should go; into a rainwater barrel or away from your home. If you have trees around your house, the leaf barrier style may be for you. Nothing plugs up gutters more quickly than falling leaves. Pine needles are a big problem as well. Aerotech has a helpful buyers guide which details the average price and pros and cons for each type of gutter.

A professional installer should make sure that the gutters slope toward the downspout, preventing pooling. Gutters can be installed in sections, but the best type of gutter is a seamless one. The fewer seams, the less chance of leaking. Seamless gutters are rolled out on site, to enable a custom fit. This is definitely not a do-it-yourself project, and should be handled by a professional. This Old House has more information on various types of gutters:

  • An inch of rainfall on an average roof adds up to 1900 gallons.
  • Wood troughs require a lot of maintenance, while vinyl troughs have a short life span.
  • Metal troughs are often the best choice (copper, zinc, steel or aluminum). Very durable and low maintenance.
  • Parts of a gutter or eavestrough system: a ‘gutter’ captures the water running off the roof, an ‘end cap’ closes the end of the gutter, a ‘fascia bracket’ attaches to the eaves and supports the gutter from below, a ‘downspout’ carries the water from the gutter to the ground below, a ‘downspout bracket’ secures the downspout to the side of the house, and an ‘elbow’ can be installed to change the direction of the downspout.
  • The least expensive materials are vinyl, aluminum, and coated steel. The most expensive are copper and zinc.
  • You can install gutters yourself (if you’re handy) and you just need straight sections available at a home supply store. If your house is more than one storey, or if you’re looking at seamless gutters, you’ll need a professional.

What should you do when something goes wrong?

What can go wrong with gutters? Well, there are a number of things:

  • Clogs: If you see water pouring over the edges of your gutters, they’re likely clogged. The usual culprits are leaves from overhanging trees, but it could also be caused by other debris or even a bird’s nest. You’ll need to clean the gutter (or hire someone to do it for you.). If this is a regular issue, you may want to consider investing in leaf guards or debris stoppers. There are many different kinds, so do the research and decide which type is right for you.
  • Leaks: Leaks can occur along seams if you have a sectional gutter, or at the corners, or any place where there is a joint. It may just require caulking with a waterproof substance. Or it could be that the fasteners have given out, and the gutter is pulling away from the house, causing any water to miss the gutter altogether. Another common cause of leaks is improperly installed joints. If water can’t exit through the downspout, it will likely make it through the nearest connecting joint. Leaking joints need to be repositioned or replaced.
  • Ice dams: Water can pool in the gutter if there is insufficient slope towards the downspout, and then freeze once temperatures drop. This will clog the gutter, and prevent any water from flowing to the downspout. Or, there may be insufficient insulation in your roof. This can cause heat to escape, melting any snow, and turning it to ice in the gutter.
  • Rusting or sagging gutters: If you notice rust, cracks, stains, or sags, it might be time to look at installing new gutters.
  • Fires: If you live in a dry climate, leaves, pine needles, and the like can collect in your gutter, and act like tinder in a wild fire. Regular cleaning is always important, especially during wildfire season.
  • Improper connections to sanitary sewers: Sewer systems are not designed to handle large volumes of runoff resulting from heavy rain or snowmelt. If your home’s downspouts or drains are connected to the sewer, you may be at risk of contributing to an overload of the system, which can cause water backups. You may want to consider disconnecting your home’s downspouts from the sewer system, and simply have the water drain onto the ground, far away from your house. Complete any necessary repairs to ensure that the water is not running onto your neighbour’s property.

The best way to prevent problems is regular maintenance and cleaning. If you’re comfortable and handy, you can often do this yourself, but you may feel better hiring a professional to take care of this, especially if your house is higher than one storey.

What can you do to maintain your gutters and downspouts?

To maintain your gutters, you’ll need to clean them regularly. If you can’t do the job safely from a ladder, or if your home has more than one storey, it is best to call a professional. This should be done at least once a year. In Canada and much of the U.S., the most logical time to clean the gutters is in the fall, after all the leaves have fallen. Not much point doing it before that.

If gutters are not properly cleaned, leaking is not your only problem. Gunk can build up in the gutters, providing a home for mosquitoes or termites, and a place for plants to take root. Also, check to make sure that your gutters are properly sloped, or pitched, allowing water to run downhill to the downspout. If it’s not sloped correctly, water can pool, causing leaks or, in the winter, ice dams.

Regularly look for any signs of damage, such as rust, holes, or sags. If you notice any damage to your gutter, DON’T wait for your scheduled maintenance to take care of it. Fix it now. And if there’s been a major storm, check for leaves or branches that need to be cleared. Remember, clogged, leaking gutters can cause real problems, including damaging your siding and basement.

This Old House has some information on gutter upkeep. Bob Vila also has some tips for doing your own gutter cleaning.

What is the life expectancy of gutters and downspouts?

This really varies, depending on the type of material used to make your gutters. Proper installation and regular maintenance have a bearing on the life expectancy as well. Gutters can be built to last a few years, or for the life of your house. Here are some estimates from the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors:

  • 20 to 40 years for aluminum gutters and downspouts
  • 50 years for copper gutters and 100 years for copper downspouts
  • 20 years for galvanized steel gutters and downspouts
  • 25 years for vinyl gutters and downspouts

What will your home insurance provider want to know?

Because damaged or improperly installed gutters can lead to extensive water damage, home insurance providers want to know that everything is in good shape when they issue you a policy. If you have an older home, they may want to look at photos to see if there is any visible damage, or if any gutters or downspouts are missing. Keeping your entire home in good repair, including your gutters and downspouts, will help prevent future damage, and may just help to keep your insurance rates down. For more information, or to get a home insurance quote, contact Square One at 1.855.331.6933.

image of a gutter and downspout

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