The Trouble with Gutters: Inspecting Your Gutter System from the Ground Up

by David Bobby, Licensed Residential Builder, CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist)

Other than the fact that most people don’t like the look of their gutters, the main problem is common gutters are designed to fail.  Here you have an open trough around the perimeter of your home that is designed to catch everything that lands on the roof.  Even if you don’t have leaves and or needles – gutters “catch” shingle granules, rain, snow and ice.

Most homeowners don’t like heights and probably don’t have a safe ladder that would enable them to look into their second story gutters.  (Speaking of ladder safety – never place the weight of a ladder against your gutters – always use a stand-off and attach to the top of an extension ladder.  In this way – your weight and that of the ladder is resting on the roof and not against the aluminum gutter – which is not designed to take that much weight.)

There are a number of things you can see with your feet solidly on the ground that can tip you off to problems above with your gutters.  Here are a few things for which to look:

  1. Gutter Gardens

Gutter Garden Atlas

When looking up at your gutters, if you see trees, shrubs, grass or any other type of green vegetation growing in your gutters – you’ve got a “gutter garden.”  This garden is no cause for celebration – instead it signals a serious problem – namely that your downspouts are blocked (with something) and your gutters have become a fertile place for things to grow in and a breeding ground for mosquitoes.  Solution is simple, though difficult.  Someone has to go up there and dig that mess out.  Warning:  it is going to stink to high heaven and be full of mold, mildew, bird droppings and other animal scat.  The downspouts need to be cleared and then the gutters hosed down with a hose to clean and clear them.

  1. Tiger Striping

Tiger Striping Atlas Captions-01

From the ground looking up at your gutters, you can often see vertical, dark lines on the face of the gutters. We call this “tiger striping.” You have a similar thing going on as in gutter gardens (above).  In this case, the downspouts are blocked and water lays in the gutter, leaching the tannins and tannic acids from leaves and pine needles.  When it rains, this mess rises to the top of the blocked gutters and overflows down the face of the gutters causing the vertical stripes.  See solution above for correction and fix.   By the way, you cannot clean these stripes off as they chemically “etch” the gutter factory paint finish. The gutters will have to be replaced (recommended) or painted (not recommended).  Tiger Striping is especially noticeable on white and lighter colored gutters.

  1. Spike & Ferrule Attachment Systems

Proud Gutter Spikes Atlas Captions-03

From the ground looking up at your gutters, if you can see the big nail heads of the spikes holding up your gutter system, you have a spike & ferrule attachment system.  Definitely old school, we see this very often and even on relatively new houses.  It is an inexpensive way to hang gutters, but can cause a lot of problems unbeknownst to most homeowners.  Warning:  be especially concerned if you see the spikes sticking out from the gutter face or even missing.  This is a sure sign that the hole into which that spike was originally driven is wet, punky and maybe rotted.  Many people with this situation have a house that is rotting from the top down and they don’t even know it.  The problem is that the spike and the ferrule (inside the gutter and used as a spacer) direct water back towards the house and cause the fascia board to have constant contact with water.  If you are lucky, your fascia board is not rotted but the only solution to eliminating the problems inherent with spike and ferrule attachment is a new gutter.  You cannot overcome the damage to the gutter from being pierced in two places by the spike.

Gutter Damage - Fascia Rot Atlas Captions-02

If, after your inspection, you find yourself compelled to replace your gutters, consider it a great opportunity to do the right thing for your home.  Most homes (except for a small bungalow) really need a 6” gutter which will handles 60% more water than the regular residential 5” K-style gutter.  Even in the heaviest rainfall, your gutter will be able to handle the flow!  Plus they cover the entire 6” fascia board in most cases and make the house have a much nicer appearance from the curb.  While you are upgrading your gutters, upgrade your downspouts as well.  Ask for 3”x 4” downspouts, which are one inch longer in both length and width, but will yield twice as many square inches of output and will empty the gutters much quicker – which is a good thing.  Be sure your downspouts have at least a 3’ kicker, that is an extension that will help direct all that water away from the foundation and keep your basement or crawl space dry.

Gutters and downspouts are not elegant or exciting but are the third most important system of your home after your roof and foundation.   They perform a very important task – collecting and directing water away from your home.  A little routine maintenance twice a year will save you a lot of money and aggravation.  Better yet, invest in a straight faced gutter which will render them nearly “invisible” from the street and a gutter protection system – that really works – so you “Never Have to Clean Your Gutters Again!®”


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