Rain gutters are an inconspicuous but necessary building component that homeowner associations deal with. Their need to perform consistently triggers ongoing maintenance and repair to themselves, exterior paint, siding, roofs and trees. Failure to keep the gutter system running smoothly causes overflows, water intrusion, interior damage, structural dryrot and enormously expensive repairs. There is a lot riding on this often ignored building component.
Until the late 19th century virtually all rain gutters were made of wood. With the advent of metal roll forming machines around 1900, the ability to create metal gutters became possible. The roll forming process shapes long coils of flat metal into long, formed sections of gutters in a variety of designs. Up until the 1970s, most rain gutter was produced on stationary roll forming machines weighing up to several tons. Then, lighter portable roll formers on trailers became available. With portable roll formers, contractors measure and form gutters onsite.
The three most common metal gutter systems are made of aluminum, steel and copper. The first two have the advantage of being custom painted while copper (unless properly clear coated) will weather and change color over time. All metal gutter options have a 20+ year life or more as long as they are not damaged. Aluminum is the lightest weight metal option and most easily damaged. Downspouts should be located away from areas where damaging forces are likely (vehicle, pedestrian, etc.) or properly protected with landscaping or posts that prevent contact.
One of the most important functions of rain gutters is to prevent foundation movement due to water. Once rainwater has made it to downspouts, the downspouts need to direct the water away from the foundation, either in subterranean rain drains which lead to a french drain (a cistern like system that allows the water to be gradually reabsorbed into surrounding soil), run off to an above ground ponding facility that also allows gradual absorption into the soil or connection to a grid of storm water drains that carry to water back to streams and rivers. Some states and jurisdictions have restricted hard surface (roof, street, parking lot) storm water run-off to onsite collection facilities to avoid contamination of streams and rivers.
Splash blocks are a low tech alternative that move water away from the foundation. A splash block is a rectangular wedge about a foot wide and two feet long that is placed under the downspout outlet. Rainwater hits the block and is diverted away from the building and works well as long as there is positive drainage. However, in areas with high volumes of rain, splash block drainage may create additional problems with boggy areas in the landscaping or flooding downstream neighbors. In these areas, more sophisticated drainage systems are in order.
An ongoing maintenance issue with gutters is the accumulation of tree and roof debris that block or slow water drainage. This is particularly burdensome in areas of heavy deciduous tree cover. In those areas, ongoing tree pruning and selected tree removal is necessary to reduce the problem and related costs. Gutters typically should be cleaned at least twice a year. Heavy tree cover will trigger “hotspots” where more frequent cleaning is necessary. The HOA should identify these hotspots and do regular preventive maintenance to minimize damage caused by overflows.
Airborne dirt and roofing granules wash into the gutters and accumulate in gutters and create a hindrance to water flow. Removal of this sludge requires hand work by scooping, flushing with high pressure water hose or blowing out with a leaf blower. The last two can be create additional mess to the landscaping, walkways and building but are quicker and cheaper to accomplish.
There are quite a few options for gutter covers that claim to eliminate the need for gutter cleaning. They come in many different designs and price points and do reduce the need and frequency of cleaning but none can prevent the accumulation of sludge that finds its way passed even the best gutter cover systems. Since these systems are expensive, part of the selection criteria should be ease of removal to flushthe sludge.
Gutters and downspouts are a wonderful piece of engineering when properly installed and maintained. While “in the gutter” is a description for someone that is “down and out”, rain gutters are indispensable for getting rainwater down and out to where it does no damage.
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