OK, so my subject this week, gutters and drains, may at first blush seem boring with no room for my usual bent toward a little humor or sex, but it’s one well worth considering if you want to avoid some very unsexy problems in your home. Problems like wet basements, damaged soffits, deterioration of siding materials, and soil erosion around the house.
While maintaining house gutters and drains in good working order can indeed be a real drain, it’s one of those essential jobs that can’t be avoided in protecting your life’s major investment.
When I lived in the city, my house had a Mansard roof, only slightly pitched, that drained beautifully from just one drain at its lowest point without my having to do anything to keep it going that way. But when I moved to the country and found that my house was developing dampness on my basement floor, I called my first handyman named Niles who immediately knew the problem: “It’s your gutters and drains!” he proclaimed, “they’re clogged!” Simple, right? But not so simple, considering that it’s been a matter of constant vigilance ever since.
Before I knew the important function of gutters and drains, I thought that they looked like ugly, vestigial appendages that mucked up the aesthetics of a house and should just all be ripped down, letting rain water go where it’s naturally going to go. But, wiser folks than I had seen the necessity of diverting water from a house for quite some time.
From 1066 and the Norman invasions, churches and residences were built with stone roofs having gutters that terminated in the mouths of gargoyles which literally “spit” the water clear of the building. And by 1240, the Tower of London had erected what may have been the first downspout to protect the whitewashed walls below.
But right here and now, I confess, there have been times when I have forgotten about cleaning my drains for as long as two years, but the dampness factor in the basement warns me that I’m in arrears with maintenance.
There are other telltale signs of clogs that the homeowner can look for: water might spill over the edges of the gutter or may spray like a fountain at the seams or elbow joints, or there may be no water making its way out of the downspout extensions. There might be eroded earth directly below a gutter, as though a machine gun hit the ground in a linear pattern parallel to the house; there can be peeling paint on the siding and fascia; or, there can be moist or dirty siding beneath the gutter. A more obvious sign can be the gutters actually pulling away from the fascia due to the excess weight of the debris.
While removing leaves from the gutter would seem to be the more obvious cure, other check points for clogging must be considered. A real culprit can be the downspout cage, a wire strainer designed to trap debris while allowing water to flow through, located where the downspout intersects the gutter. Elbows and seams are likely spots for clogs as well. The point of the clog can be determined by tapping on the outside of the downspout with a screwdriver and listening for a dull thud, as opposed to a hollow ring. That problem can be corrected with a plumbing snake. If that doesn’t work, the downspout must be disassembled to remove the clog.
There are other abuses to consider, namely from extreme weather conditions, particularly ice and snow, which affects gutters and drains more than any other component of the house. Gutters can be damaged from ladders as well as falling tree limbs. And the pitch of gutters must be maintained to have the rainwater drain correctly to the downspout. So there’s a lot of thought, if not angst, that goes with keeping rain water at bay.
When I was a little boy, if I’m not mistaken, the gutters in our modest ranch house were originally made of wood, because I remember my dad replacing them with metal in a half-round shape. Shortly after that time, in the late 1960s, roll-formed metal gutter technology was introduced that allowed gutters to be made lighter and less expensively. Today, we primarily use vinyl snap-together gutter systems which are easy to install.
To avoid all the problems associated with clogging, it is best to clean rain gutters at least twice a year. You can do it yourself if you’re not afraid of heights as I am. Correction: I’m not afraid of heights; I’m afraid of falling off the ladder and breaking my neck. If you’re in the same category, the job is simple: just find a good gutter cleaning service online.