I often see gutter systems on homes, but I was unclear about whether gutters are a necessity or not. So I did a little research and this week I’ll tell you what I found. We’ll talk about who needs to add a gutter system to their house and why, and we’ll briefly cover the basic types of gutter systems and the approximate cost.
Let’s start with a few Pro Terms:
Gutters -the horizontal tubes attached to the roof edge that act as a reservoir for rainwater. Gutters capture rainwater from the roof and direct that water into the downspouts.
Downspouts - the tubes that run vertically and carry the water from the horizontal gutters to the drain system.
Drain System - the in-ground set of pipes that leads the water away from the house.
Splash Block—flat concrete block that you often see on the ground at the end of the vertical downspouts. The splash block directs the water from the downspout, further away from the house.
Okay, let’s get to the mini lesson…
When it comes to homes and roofs, gutters don’t get a lot of attention or discussion, but they're definitely important. The main job of the gutter system is to collect rainwater from the roof and direct it away from the house, keeping excess water from the home’s exterior walls, soil and foundation. Installing a gutter system can help homeowners avoid problems with flooding, mold, erosion and even ugly exterior stains. Gutter systems can also add value to your home.
The wetter your climate, the more you need a properly installed gutter system. Without gutters, water would collect next to the home’s foundation and find its way into the structure of the foundation and home.
Gutter systems may not be needed in dry desert climates where rainfall is rare. But the rest of us need a good gutter system to collect the rainwater from the roof so it can be directed away from the house.
Today’s high performance homes are designed with tight building envelopes meant to conserve or "trap" energy. And that’s what we want. But these tight homes can also trap moisture and that, as you know, can cause big problems. We’re at an increased risk of those moisture problems if we don’t have a gutter system. Let me explain…
If the soil around your foundation is soaked from rainwater spilling off your roof, we can assume that at least some of that moisture will find its way into a basement, crawl space or slab foundation. Once it’s in the foundation, some of the moisture will make its way into the inside of the house and will then be absorbed by the air in the home.
The moisture in the air often finds its way to window surfaces (which we see as condensation) and that moist air can also go attics and inside the home’s walls. Condensation on windows mainly annoying, and not all that harmful, but moisture in attics and in walls it can cause mold growth and wood-rot. A good gutter system helps to control the amount of water and moisture that gets into your house. And that, in combination with a good ventilation system, can prevent damage from trapped moisture. A properly installed gutter system will include gutters on every sloped roof edge.
Alright, let’s talk about some other ways a gutter system can be beneficial:
Gutters Prevent Erosion
Most homes built to code are situated on a very slight slope to guide water away from the foundation. If rain flows off your roof because you have no gutters, the water spillage can cause massive erosion, washing away more and more soil each time it rains. This causes your carefully sloped landscape to wear away, allowing runoff water to flow toward your home, instead of away from it. Erosion also causes the foundation to settle. Eventually, that settling can cause uneven floors and cracked walls and chimneys.
Gutters Protect Flower Beds
Most homeowners want some plants, flowers and shrubs near their house. This increases curb appeal and can shield the house from high winds. If soil erosion occurs because you don’t have gutters, your garden could literally wash away. Even if erosion is minimal, puddles of water can form in your garden bed and drown your plants.
Gutters Prevent Basement Flooding
Without gutters, water can run off your roof and saturate the soil near your foundation. When soil is saturated with water, it becomes very heavy. This means the water running off your roof and pooling around the house places tremendous pressure on your foundation. Over time, this may cause basement walls to push inward or crack.
Tiny cracks in your foundation walls allow water to flow in and potentially flood your basement. But even if the amount of water entering isn’t substantial enough to cause flooding, the excessive moisture promotes mold growth, which, as you know, can become a health hazard.
Gutters Protect Your Home’s Siding
Rainwater from the roof often carries with it leaves, dirt, and tiny particles from asphalt roof shingles. Without gutters to divert that dirty water away from the house, that debris can run down the home’s siding. This can result in ugly staining, negatively impacting your home’s curb appeal. Even brick and stone can be stained.
And if you have wood siding, over time, streams of rainwater can begin to rot that wood siding. Wood rot can create holes that allow pests into your home. If enough water seeps through the siding, it could affect your home’s structural integrity.
Moving on to the basic types of gutter systems.
There are two main types of gutters: seamless gutters and traditional/non-seamless gutters. Both can be made of several materials including copper, steel, vinyl and aluminum. The main difference is that seamless gutters come in very long segments that can only be installed by professionals, while traditional gutters, come in shorter sections that can be installed by the homeowners.
Seamless gutters are fitted by the professionals to ensure that they sit perfectly on your roof. Because of that, seamless systems are typically more expensive. Because seamless gutters have virtually no breaks in the system, they resist leaks. They lack the gaps (which increase the risk of leaks) that exist in traditional gutter pieces. A professional gutter installer can install a gutter system in 1-3 days.
Traditional gutter systems are comprised of a hodgepodge of pieces tethered together and traditional/non-seamless gutters require more maintenance. Traditional gutters often get filled with leaves and other debris which must be cleaned out at least once a year in most areas.
Gutters come in two main shapes — K style, which is the most popular, and half round.
K style gutters are more squared off and half round are obviously more rounded.
For most of us, standard 5-inch K-style gutters or 6-inch half-round gutters will work just fine. These are the most common residential sizes and they are able to handle the rainfall on most houses in most parts of the country.
But houses with big, steep roofs or those located in climates prone to heavy downpours may need wider gutters and extra downspouts to keep rainwater from overflowing.
There’s a formula that can be used to precisely calculate the proper size of your gutters. The formula takes into account the pitch of your roof and the amount rain your region gets. Your gutter contractor should be very familiar with that formula, so consult him for specific recommendations if you have an unusual roof pitch or climate.
Many times people choose the shape of there gutters based mostly on aesthetics. Rounded gutters are a little more traditional style wise. Half round gutters are usually paired with rounded downspouts.
The more squared off K style gutters are often fitted with rectangular downspouts. They come in 5-, 6-, 7-, and 8-inch widths. Obviously, the wider the downspouts, the better they can handle rainwater.
The single largest factor in determining the cost of installing gutters and downspouts in your home is the type of gutter you choose. Gutters are most commonly made of vinyl, aluminum, steel or copper.
The cost of seamless gutters will also vary depending on your region of the country, the pitch of your roof and the size of your home. But here are some average costs, from least expensive to most expensive, based on a standard 2,000 square foot home that doesn't have any unusual features:
• Vinyl gutter system: $3-5 per foot
• Aluminum gutter system: $5-$8 per foot
• Steel gutters system: $8-$10 per foot
• Copper gutter system $15-$25 per foot
Copper Gutters & Downspouts
Copper is much more expensive than other gutter materials and is chosen primarily for how it looks. Over time, copper develops a patina that can be very beautiful and add a lot charm to your home. If you have the desire and budget for copper gutters, just keep in mind the color will change over time and you cannot always predict how it will appear. Typically, though, copper oxidizes to a matte brown after a few months, and turns blue-green patin over decades. If you prefer gray gutters that don't leave green stains, select lead-coated or tin-zinc-plated copper. You should also be aware that copper gutters are sometimes stolen from homes because of the metal's value. Copper never rusts or needs painting and should last 100 years in any climate.
Steel Gutters & Downspouts
To prevent rust, steel gutters are coated in zinc (galvanized) or blended with chrome
(stainless steel). Steel gutters and downspouts might be a good choice if you live in a part of the country where you experience harsh weather conditions. They are stronger and heavier than aluminum so they will withstand harsher conditions and last longer. They are not any more effective in their ability to move water away from your home's foundation. The chief advantages for steel gutters are durability and longevity while the disadvantage is cost. Galvanized steel lasts 8 to 15 years before it rusts and stainless steel never rusts. If you want steel gutters, choose 26 gauge or thicker.
Aluminum Gutters & Downspouts
Aluminum gutters and downspouts are very commonly used, since they are effective at carrying water away from your home, lightweight, easy to install, and inexpensive. However, because it is lightweight, aluminum can be more easily damaged over time and therefore might need repair or replacement sooner than more durable materials like copper or steel. The reason to choose aluminum gutters is that they offer the biggest bang for the buck of all gutter solutions.
Vinyl Gutters & Downspouts
They are the least expensive, most DIY-friendly option because the sections snap together easily. Color choices are limited, although vinyl can be painted. Vinyl won't rust or rot, but becomes brittle in extreme cold and intense sun. It can bend and bow under heavy rain, wind, and snow loads. Choose vinyl gutters and downspouts when you want a very affordable option and do not live in a climate that experiences extreme weather conditions, either hot or cold. When they are in good shape, vinyl gutters and downspouts are very effective in moving water away from your foundation, but they are not durable and do not stand the test of time. The primary reason to choose vinyl is the price. The negative is that it's the cheapest material, which means it will need replacement sooner.
According to This Old house “the best option for most of us is metal—elegant copper, understated zinc, rugged steel, or affordable aluminum. Metal gutters are durable and need relatively little care.”
Here are some final tips for buying and maintaining your gutter system:
1. Have a gutter system installed even it’s not required by code in your region. Most systems will cost just under $1000 to several thousand dollars to install, but it will be money well spent because gutters protect your house from moisture and foundation damage.
2. Make sure the contractor you hire has completion insurance which means that your gutters are still under warranty even if he sells his business.
3. For the lowest installation cost, have your gutters installed during the off-season, when contractors aren't swamped with work. In general, late summer and early fall are the busiest times for installing seamless gutters.
4. Since all roofs and gutter systems, including seamless systems, will need some maintenance, you should do your best to minimize maintenance by keeping tree limbs trimmed so they don’t overhang your roof. Deciduous trees shed most of their leaves in the fall, but most evergreens shed debris all year long. And when there is debris on the roof, clean the roof (or have it cleaned) with a soft broom or air blower. Don’t pressure wash it because you’ll loosen asphalt shingle particles, which adds to the rainwater and gutter debris. The reason clogged gutters cause damage is because they let water flow over the sides of the house, where water can pool all around the foundation. So houses with clogged gutters are almost as bad as having no gutter system at all.
5. Don’t believe the myth that if you don’t have trees around your house, you don’t need to clean your gutters. Gutter cleaning may still be required, especially on houses with asphalt shingles. Over time these shingles lose their granules and these granules make their way into the gutters.
6. Downspouts should not terminate close to the foundation. This is a common mistake that installers and homeowners make. What’s the use of having a complete gutter system that dumps all the water from the roof near the foundation? What’s needed is a minimum of three-foot diversion away from the foundation. In many cases a section of flexible black (it's green in the pic below) plastic diversion piping can be used, or a section of downspout can be attached at the end of the elbow. It’s important to note that the concrete splash blocks that are sometimes used under downspout elbows, are not, in of of themselves, adequate for water control.
7. Install LEAVE GUARDS, but only if they have good reviews.
Leaf guards prevent leaves and other debris from clogging your gutters. There are many products out there that claim to be maintenance-free leaf guards that keep gutters clean. Some of these products are very effective while others actually create problems. The products available are either metal mesh, foam or metal gutter covers. In some applications these products can tend to dam leaves on the roof which can cause damage to roof decking and eaves. Some of the sheet metal gutter helmets and leaf guards products don’t actually work in a heavy rain. Yes, leaves and debris won’t be able to get in your gutter, but water won’t go into the gutter either. Before buying any of these products, check online reviews .
So, in summary
Gutters are essential in helping preserve the foundations and walls of your home. They carry water away from your home's foundation and help prevent flooding. Without proper gutters and downspouts, you run the risk of foundation flooding and premature crumbling or cracking. They also prevent erosion of the land by directing water away from your house and landscape.
Before we go, let’s do a couple of quiz questions.
1. Gutter systems do all of the following except:
A. Divert rainwater from the roof and away from the house and foundation.
B. Decrease erosion
C. Prevent stains on the home’s siding
D. Decrease the risk of basement leaks
E. Move sewage from the house to the street
The answer is E. Gutter systems have nothing to do with sewage.
2. True or False. Two factors that determine the cost of gutter systems are the type of gutter material you choose and the pitch of your roof.
That’s true. Homeowners with very steep roofs will pay more for their gutter systems. But the material you choose is the biggest factor determining the cost of your system. The types of systems you can choose, from least expensive to most expensive are: vinyl, aluminum, steel and copper. According to This Old house.com the best option for most of us is metal—elegant copper, steel, or aluminum and zinc, which is not commonly used. Metal gutters are durable and need relatively little care.
That’s all I have this week. I hope you learned as much as I did. And I hope you'll come back next week for another episode of Build Your House Yourself University-- BYHYU.
Please remember that the purpose of this podcast is simply to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional advice. The information that you hear is based the only on the opinions, research and experiences of my guests and myself. That information might be incomplete, it’s subject to change and it may not apply to your project. In addition, Building codes and requirements vary from region to region, so always consult a professional about specific recommendations for your home.