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Gutters — How to clean your house gutters

April 23, 2020

Is cleaning gutters on your spring to-do list? It’s (still) on mine, and I’m kinda looking forward to it. It’s an outside chore (I’m eager to be outside), it’s doable (now that Alan and I live in a more reasonably sized house), and it’s rewarding. No, clean gutters aren’t rewarding in the same “before” and “after” way that a new coat of paint is rewarding. But taking care of your home — by maintaining things to keep them functioning well and looking their best — is very satisfying. As in, “I showed my home some TLC today!”

Cleaning your rain gutters protects your house (think roof, fascia, foundation, and basement, for starters) and the surrounding landscape. When your gutters get full of leaves, pine needles, twigs, and other debris, they can sag and encourage mold growth. Full gutters can encourage insects and other little critters to take up residence, too. (I try not to think about this while I’m cleaning out the gutters!)

The best times to clean gutters is in the spring (before the heavy rains) and in the fall (after the season’s leaves accumulate in them). If there are shedding trees nearby, you might have to clean your gutters out more often, say every few months. Pick a day that’s not too windy. A day after a few dry days is ideal, because wet debris is harder to remove than dry. 

Of course, if the job is just too big or too dangerous, please hire a professional to do it!

But if it’s a chore within your reach (from an extension ladder), here’s all you need to do:

corner of roof and clean gutter on a seafoam-green house

• Place your ladder on level ground. If necessary, use a stabilizer to keep it in place. (A standoff stabilizer will keep the ladder from resting on the gutters and damaging them.) Make sure there are no powerlines around you. Ideally, have someone hold the ladder for you for extra security. Otherwise, make sure someone knows you’re on the ladder. And never overreach from the ladder. (You’ll be very tempted when cleaning gutters!)

• Put on some work gloves. You need to protect your hands from the debris, which may include more than dirt. Sharp twigs, roofing nails, and other objects that can cut you might easily hide in the gutter, under a cover of leaves.

•  Use your hands to remove large debris from the gutters. Toss the debris into a pail or bag (if you can hang one on the ladder), or toss it onto a tarp that you’ve placed below you. (Some workers like to attach a pail to the gutter itself. They cut the metal handle and curl it to sit on the gutter. I worry that it will damage the gutter, especially as it fills up.) If there’s a lot of debris, the tarp is probably your best option, as it will keep you from having to empty the pail or bag repeatedly. 

• With a hand trowel or gutter scoop, remove any remaining, compacted debris. A garden trowel works well, though some people prefer a plastic tool to keep from scraping the gutter.

• Wash out the gutter and downspout with a hose and strong spray nozzle. Start at the end opposite the downspout. Using a vinegar and water solution (about ¼ cup vinegar to 1 cup water) and a wet rag, wash the gutter inside and out as necessary to remove mildew and dirt.

•  Use the hose to run water down the downspout. (If your downspout hooks to an underground system, unhook the bottom end first.) If the water doesn’t come out the bottom full force, it means there’s a clog in it. To unclog, take your hose and run it up the downspout. Turn it on full force. With any luck, that will clean out the clog. Otherwise, you’ll need a plumber’s snake to unclog it. Feed the snake from the top of the downspout down to the clog. Once it’s clear, run water through the downspout. (If your downspout has an elbow or two, try to disassemble it, clean it out, and reassemble it. This is a common place for debris to gather.)

Testing

I’m not usually one to look for trouble. But now that you have clean gutters, it’s the perfect time to check for problem areas.

So, run water into the clean gutters and take a look:

clean roof and gutters on a brick house

• Are there any leaking seams or little holes? If so, mark them for repair. After the gutter is completely dry, return with gutter-caulking compound and apply it along the leaking seam. For little holes, use a putty knife to apply roofing cement. Patch larger holes with a sheet-metal patch and roofing cement.

• Is the gutter sagging or pulling away from the house? If so, it won’t drain properly. You may need to tighten the gutter hangers or install new ones. 

• Does the gutter have water marks underneath it? That’s a telltale sign it’s leaking. There may be a crack you can repair. (See above.)

• Is there standing water anyplace in the gutter? If so, you’ll want to check the slope of the gutter. It needs to slope —towards the downspout, of course — about a quarter-inch every 10 feet. Unhook the hangers and adjust the slope, then reattach the gutters.

Gutter Accessories

There are all kinds of gutter accessories made to simplify the gutter-cleaning chore, from mesh screens that sit on top of the gutters to brushes that sit inside them. All are designed to prevent the accumulation of debris in the gutters. All have their pros and cons, too. Most are expensive, and none of them completely eliminate the need for an occasional, thorough cleaning. Even if that’s only every few years, it’ll mean taking off the accessory, which some people consider more of a hassle than simply cleaning out the gutters now and then.

Do your gutters sport accessories? Which ones, and how do you like them?

Have you ever grown anything in your rain gutters? (I’m serious; one spring we skipped cleaning a gutter that was difficult to reach, and by fall we had a corn stalk growing in it!)

You might also like: How to take care of your garden hoses so they last, unkinked! and Garden tool care and keeping.

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