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Gutter Cleaning for Water Damage Prevention & Fire Risk Reduction

Gutter cleaning and maintenance is boring and often dangerous. A member of my immediate family broke her leg in several places cleaning her gutters a couple years ago. Look at this x-ray! Aside from being physically dangerous, gutter cleaning does help reduce risk of water and fire damage. This maintenance item is essential to any home. And even if you “don’t have gutters,” there are still maintenance check lists items for managing water around your building.

Cleaning gutters to protect from water damage

The most obvious function of a gutter is to safely move bulk water (usually rain) that comes gushing down a roof. Without a gutter it is common for water to run down wooden facia or splash into a mud-line immediately below the roofline. Both outcomes increase risk of water damage, mold growth, and dry rot – all of which can be expensive to repair. So having and maintaining gutters is an investment in risk reduction. One form of insurance via better water management.

Gutters connect to downspouts. Gutters run horizontally and usually have a slight pitch to shed water to downspouts. Downspouts are vertical (usually) and direct water from the gutters to a predetermined location near ground level.

Downspouts may connect to existing site drainage pipes that lead to the street curb (aka “gutter”, “storm sewer”), rainwater cisterns, ponds, or simply discharge into a lawn or onto hardscape. Through our work performing mold inspections, we routinely find water damage due to downspouts dumping water too close to foundations. This is quite common, and often leads to water migration into a crawlspace, basement or finished lower level, and under the worst conditions can lead to foundation failure or structural wood decay. It is always best practice to extend downspouts so they release water at least three feet away from a foundation – and downhill!

Clean your gutters before the rainy season, and check and clean at least once during the rainy season or if you see water flowing in inappropriate places.

Fire danger from gutters full of leaves

Another significant threat in Northern California is fire spreading via flying embers. In recent fires scientists have documented burning embers being carried hundreds of yards from the nearest fire. These flying embers pose a serious risk to expanding the fire, and when the hot ember meets dried leaves in a gutter it is an easy place for a house fire to begin.

Pine needles, juniper droppings, leaves from Eucalyptus trees, and just about any dry leafy matter becomes fuel for any ember that may land in a gutter. Keeping gutters clean is an easy method of fire risk reduction and home hardening.

Gutter guards and maintenance requirements

Good gutters guards are worth their weight in gold. They will keep out leaf debris and other materials that might clog a gutter or downspout, and it should greatly reduce the amount of effort it takes to maintain clean gutters. Gutters with gutter guards should still be inspected and tested regularly, and often times a portion of the gutter guard needs to be removed to access a downspout or clear a small clog. However, for the most part, metal gutter guards are relatively low maintenance and do a good job on their own.

Inexpensive gutter guards can create more harm than good. Cheap gutter guards may break, clog drains, allow debris in and make it difficult to clean out, and/or catch fire if exposed to burning embers. Ideally go with a metal gutter guard if you have the option. And look to models with long warranties and “trained installers.” A gutter guard is only as good as the craftsmanship of the person who installed it. So make sure you get an experienced professional if you decide to buy gutter guards.

When to clean gutters or install gutter guards

We recommend inspecting and cleaning gutters quarterly. If you are redoing your roof it is an ideal time to include gutters and gutter guards. Because they have to be properly flashed, when a roof is torn off and about to be replaced it is an ideal time to install new gutters or have your existing gutters tuned up. You can install gutter guards any time of the year. Site drainage should be tested at least once before rainy season. Downspout extensions should be installed before rains come.

Maintaining gutters and downspouts is a relatively low-cost way of reducing several significant risks. Cleaning gutters before and during rain season is just as important as keeping gutters clean during the fire season. If you’d like some help with your gutters year round – please call Home Stewards for a quote on our subscription home maintenance services.

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