Gutters and downspouts

Written by the Square One team

Updated June 12, 2024 | Published November 11, 2013

Did you know- water damage is the leading cause of home insurance claims, accounting for more damage than fire and theft combined. In fact, a recent study determined the average cost of a flooded basement in Canada to be $43,000.

Gutters and downspouts are one of your home’s silent heroes. One inch of rainfall on an average roof generates over 7,000 litres of water; all of which must be moved away from your premises to avoid flooding or water damage.

But, how often should you maintain the system? And, what should you do if something goes wrong? Here’s everything you need to know.

Man cleaning gutters

What are gutters and downspouts?

When a home is built, the excavation process results in a potential problem. The earth surrounding your property isn’t as compact as it was prior to the home’s existence. So, in heavy rainfall, water can filter through the soil and exert pressure on your basement walls and foundation. In some cases, you’ll experience a flooded basement. In extreme instances, the structural integrity of the foundation could be compromised. Gutters and downspouts are part of an overall rainwater management system designed to prevent flooding or moisture problems.

A gutter (or eavestrough) is a pipe that’s attached to your home’s fascia, perpendicular to the roof. It’s designed to capture water that falls onto the property. Pipes are usually made from metal or plastic and sit at a slight angle in order to direct the flow of water towards a downspout.

While the gutter sits horizontally, as the name suggests, a downspout sits vertically, carrying rainwater to ground level. In most cases, water is discarded either in a municipal drain or far enough from the property that it won’t compromise the foundation. However, to reduce your overall water consumption, it can be a great idea to collect this rainwater for use in your landscaping. Check out our article on rain barrels for more information.

Several different styles of gutters and downspouts exist, including half-round, U-shaped, K-style and fully enclosed.

Pipes also come in a variety of materials. Wood requires the most maintenance, while vinyl is easy to install, but has a shorter lifespan than metal. Vinyl is also prone to cracking in cold weather, so may not be the best option for most of Canada. Aluminum and coated steel are both sturdy and inexpensive. Aluminum is the most popular choice for gutters and downspouts as, unlike steel, it won’t rust. Copper and zinc require more up-front investment, but can last up to 100 years without needing replacement.

For more information on the best system for your home, check out this buyer’s guide from Aerotech.

What is the life expectancy of gutters and downspouts?

This varies depending on the type of material used. Proper installation and regular maintenance also affect the lifespan of your gutters and downspouts. Here are some estimates from the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors:

  • 20 to 40 years for aluminum gutters and downspouts.
  • 50 years for copper gutters and 100 years for copper downspouts.
  • 20 years for galvanized steel gutters and downspouts.
  • 25 years for vinyl gutters and downspouts.

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Maintaining your gutters and downspouts

Most systems require very little maintenance for the pipes themselves, but it’s essential to clear both the gutters and downspouts of debris frequently to ensure they remain effective in heavy rain. We recommend doing this twice per year; once in spring and once in fall.

Cleaning gutters and downspouts is quick and easy, though if you’re uncomfortable with heights, contact a professional to do the job for you. Here’s what you’ll need to do:

  • First, check the weather forecast. You’ll find this job easier after a few days of no rainfall.

  • For this job, you’ll need a hosepipe, a trowel, a ladder, a bucket, and a wire hook to secure the bucket to the roof fascia. Work gloves are also recommended as decaying organic matter often leaves an unpleasant odour.

  • Start near the downspout with larger debris like leaves or twigs.

  • Use your trowel to remove any mulch, and don’t forget to remove and clean any strainers.

  • Work your way along the gutter, putting the debris into your bucket. Then, connect your hosepipe to an outlet and spray water into the gutter to remove any leftover debris. If the water doesn’t drain, there may be a blockage in the downspout.

  • To find out, remove the bottom end of your downspout by removing the connecting bands and pulling it free. Turn on your hose and feed it upwards into the downspout, then agitate as much as you can.

  • If this doesn’t work, use a plumber’s snake to remove the blockage.

  • Reattach your downspout and flush the system one more time.

While you’re there, check the seal that attaches the pieces of your gutter together. If you notice any leaking, you may require additional sealing using a gutter-specific sealant.

But, leaking isn’t your only concern. If ignored for substantial periods of time, the organic matter that collects in your gutters makes a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, termites or plants. So, keep an eye out for any insect damage, too.

Why gutter cleaning matters

Gutters may not be top of mind when you think about your home, but ignoring them can lead to costly damage. Gutters drain the water from your roof and funnel it to the ground, preventing damage to the structure. If your gutters and downspouts are clogged, costly problems may result, including:

  • Mould: Clogged gutters result in standing water. If the water can’t escape, it will stagnate and breed mold. If the mold gets inside your house, it can cause health problems for your family and affect the value of your home.

  • Leaks: Standing water will eventually accumulate on the roof and soak through the shingles, causing damage in the eaves and beyond. Water collecting in your gutters can cause damage to your roof, your siding, your soffits (gutter supports) and your fascia (the metal bands surrounding the piping).

  • Bugs and Critters: Decaying vegetation can attract bugs, and bugs can attract rodents interested in a good meal. Once they settle into your gutters, it’s a short step for them to creep into your house itself. No one wants an infestation of mice or other rodents.

  • Foundation Cracks: If your downspout is blocked, water can seep into your basement, ruining the foundation of the house as well as items you store below ground level.

  • Swampy Gardens: Gutters that aren’t draining properly can also lead to too much water. Water can collect on your lawn or in your garden, destroying vegetation.

Regular inspection and maintenance can prevent damage and protect the value of your home.

How often should you clean your gutters?

Experts generally recommend that you clean your gutters twice a year, both in the spring and the fall. However, the frequency of gutter maintenance depends on the climate. If you live in a hot, dry desert climate and there are no plants near your home, a gutter cleaning once a year may be enough. However, if you live in a wooded area or if your home is surrounded by trees, you may need to clean your gutters three or four times a year.

How to clean your gutters

If you aren’t handy, you may want to consider hiring a professional to clean your gutters. It will be money well spent.

However, if you have a do-it-yourself mentality, it’s not difficult to clean gutters, even though it may be time consuming. First, gather the following items and tools:

  • Gloves: Sharp objects may collect in the gutter, so protective gloves are a must to prevent cuts and scrapes.
  • Safety Goggles: If debris goes flying, you want to make sure your eyes are protected.
  • Dust Mask: Prevent yourself from inhaling any dust emanating from the gutter.
  • Garden Trowel: A gardening staple can do double duty by helping scoop debris from the gutter.
  • Drop Cloth: Spreading a ground cloth will allow you to easily collect the debris you shovel out of the gutters.
  • Ladder: Unless you are 5 metres tall, you’ll need to do a bit of climbing to reach the gutters. You may want to work from the roof, rather than from a ladder.
  • Spotter: Don’t risk falling off the ladder; make sure someone is there to stabilize it for you.
  • Garden Hose: Running water is helpful in assessing blockages inside the gutters.

First, use the hose to run some water through the gutter to see where debris collects and blockages occur. Gather the dirt and debris that collect and dump them on the drop cloth below. Once your gutters are clear, run more water and look for leaks or other problems.

For more information on preventative maintenance, check out this article from This Old House.

What to do when something goes wrong

Aside from the leaking and clogging already mentioned, here are a few things to watch out for:

  • Ice dams: If your gutter isn’t sufficiently sloped towards the downspouts, water can pool in the pipes, freezing in cold weather. This clogs the gutter and obstructs the flow of rainwater. This can also occur if your roof is insufficiently insulated, as heat causes snow to melt, turning back to ice in your gutters.

  • Rusting or sagging gutters: If you notice rusting, cracking, sagging or stains, it may be time to install new gutters.

  • Fires: If you live in a dry climate, leaves, pine needles, and other flammable debris can collect in your gutter, posing a significant fire risk. Regular cleaning is always important, especially during wildfire season.

  • Improper connections to sanitary sewers: Sewer systems are not designed to handle large volumes of runoff resulting from heavy rain or snowmelt. If your home’s downspouts or drains are connected to the sewer, you risk overloading the sewer, resulting in water back-ups.

What will your home insurance provider want to know?

Damaged or improperly installed gutters can lead to extensive water damage, so home insurance providers may inquire about their condition during the quote process. If you have an older home, your provider may request photos before they’re willing to issue a policy.

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