By Sam Wasson
Updated Oct 10, 2022
Gutters are an all too forgotten and vitally important system in your home. They keep your lawn from becoming waterlogged, reduce foundation damage, and protect other sections of the home from severe water damage. The only major downside to gutters is their admittedly high maintenance cost. If not properly and regularly cleaned, gutters can become clogged and function poorly, or become damaged, resulting in even more problems.
To help you ensure that your gutters are functioning at 100%, we have compiled a list of valuable tips for maintaining your gutters throughout each season.
Generally speaking, you should clean your gutters twice yearly, once during the early spring and again during the end of fall. This schedule ensures that gutters are free of clutter to best handle the heavy spring rains and winter snow. Spring gutter cleaning is arguably the most important for gutters. It allows you to make necessary repairs from winter freezes and flush out any remaining debris in preparation for heavy late-season rainfall.
One of the best ways to reduce the total amount of debris within your gutters is by managing nearby trees and other foliage. Certain trees can cause higher-than-normal debris for gutters. Maple trees, for example, produce massive amounts of “helicopter” seed pods that will clog gutters just as fast as falling leaves. We recommend reading up on your property’s tree species to be aware of any extra debris.
Most tree species produce large amounts of pollen, seeds, and other materials that can, over time, clog up your gutters. This debris isn’t usually a problem unless trees directly overhang your gutters. That’s why we recommend trimming your trees early as a part of your spring cleaning routine. By removing overhanging limbs, you will reduce the total amount of cleaning your gutters need year-round and keep most pollen out of your gutter system. Polen removal is particularly important because when combined with water, it can become corrosive, weakening your gutters.
Winter wear and tear is standard for even the most well-maintained gutters. As winter runoff from snow filters through your gutters, it can freeze and expand within cracks or openings. This expansion can lead to gaps between straight connectors, loosened hangers, small cracks, and other minor issues. You should check for these while cleaning and make the appropriate repairs or replacements before heavy spring rains exacerbate any damage.
Gutter guards are one of the best ways to keep your gutters from collecting large amounts of debris. If you don’t already use gutter guards, the best time to install them is after a good spring cleaning and repair process. Once your gutters are in tip-top shape, you can protect them from future debris by installing gutter guards. These guards are typically metal or plastic mesh that sits on top of the gutters, protecting them from falling materials.
Summer gutter cleaning, while less common, might be necessary depending on your region or the trees on your property. Summer gutter cleaning has many of the same rules as spring gutter cleaning and should be done early in the season before the heat becomes unbearable. Keep an eye on your gutters in the early summer, and if they appear to be getting clogged, a quick cleaning may be in order.
The biggest hurdle for summer gutter cleaning is the heat. Since you will be so close to your roof, the shingles absorb and radiate additional heat from the sun. When cleaning your gutters, do so early in the morning, and take frequent breaks to avoid overheating. If it becomes too hot, it’s best to stop for the day and resume early tomorrow.
Your gutters make perfect homes for many kinds of pests. Stinging insects like bees, wasps, and hornets love these moist, enclosed environments. Furthermore, these insects see peak activity during the late spring and early summer, so it’s possible to miss them during an early spring cleaning. Other critters like birds, wood-boring insects like termites, and even the occasional possum are also known to live in gutters. Keep an eye out for any of these creatures. If you spot any, don’t try to handle them while still on your ladder. Try to remove the pest safely before you continue cleaning, or better yet, contact a professional to take care of the problem.
While you should always take the time to flush your gutters, a thorough flush at the beginning of the summer offers additional benefits. Summer flushing helps remove any remaining residual pollen from late spring blooms. These substances can, over time, erode your gutters and cause problems down the road. So even if your gutters aren’t clogged, and don’t require a complete cleaning, a quick flush with the hose can still help.
Gutter cleaning can be nasty and dangerous work, meaning you should always take proper safety measures. Always wear gloves, eye protection, a face mask, and long-sleeve clothing when cleaning your gutters. Gutters can contain dangerous materials, like bird and squirrel droppings, dead insects, and even dead animals like rats, birds, and frogs, which can be highly hazardous to your health. The heat from the summer can make these things break down and become even more dangerous.
The fall is when gutters become the most clogged. Falling leaves, trigs, nuts, and seed pods are blown around by the autumn wind and always seem to find their way into your gutters. Gutters will naturally collect foliage throughout the entire autumn season, so you should clean as late into the fall as possible. If you clean too early, your gutters will fill back up again. Fall cleanings are also essential, as this foliage can make thick clogs. These clogs then lead to ice and snow buildup, making damage and gutter failure more likely during the winter.
Fall debris is thicker than that of any other season. Wet, sticky leaves compact down inside the gutters, combine with other foliage materials, and can become a thick, heavy mass. Getting your hands into this matted mess of grime can be tricky (and downright unpleasant). A good gutter cleaning scoop is the best way to clear heavy fall debris. They make several kinds, but most are designed to fit into “K” style gutters and resemble small hand trowels. Gutter scoops are reasonably priced and available in most home improvement stores, but if you’re in a pinch, a child’s sandbox shovel or a standard hand trowel will also work.
This tip applies to all homeowners but is doubly important for those in areas with heavy snowfall. As gutters become filled with debris, the weight will slowly pull on the hangers and attachment spikes that hold the gutters to the facia. Eventually, these spikes loosen, resulting in the gutters sagging or leaning away from the house. If this occurs and the gutters get hit by heavy snowfall, the weight of the compacted ice and snow can cause the gutters to break free and fall. So when doing your fall cleaning, check your gutter spikes and tighten them if they have become loose.
Fallen leaves and twigs have an annoying habit of getting jammed and clogging downspouts. This clogging can quickly happen during cleaning if you work from one side of the gutter straight to the other. As you push the leaves, they will eventually fall into and clog the downspout. To avoid this, work from one downspout to about the center of a gutter, stop, go to the other side and work from there toward the center again. This way, you keep your downspouts free and clear of as much debris as possible.
Speaking of downspout clogs, you will want to clear them out before winter kicks in. Have you ever walked by a downspout and seen ice popping out of the sides, ice overflowing from the top, or the entire outside of a gutter covered in ice? If so, the odds are good a downspout clog caused that. When a downspout becomes filled with material, it can become so clogged that ice, snow, and water cannot pass through. During the winter, this can lead to a frozen clog that is bad enough to completely freeze parts of the downspout. You can avoid this by thoroughly flushing out your downspouts and declogging them during your fall cleaning.
Ideally, your gutters should be functioning correctly in the winter and not require any cleaning or maintenance. In most cases, you should only have to clean your gutters twice, or at most three times a year during the spring, fall, or summer. However, under the right circumstances, ice and snow can build up on properly maintained gutters, requiring some work to clear them.
As mentioned above, you shouldn’t have to clean your gutters in the winter, but it can still pay off to keep an eye on them. If gutters are not properly draining water, they will freeze up and become iced over. When this happens, the tops of your gutters will resemble a massive, frozen mixture of ice, snow, and other debris. This formation is called an “ice dam” and can cause costly problems, including roof leaking, sagging, and even gutter collapse. It should also be noted that ice dams can result from other sources, such as poor attic ventilation. If you cleaned your gutters in the fall but are still getting ice dams, that may be the cause.
Any form of gutter maintenance in the winter is even more dangerous due to the slick and icy conditions. When working on gutters in the winter, be sure to proceed with the utmost caution and do the following:
There are many online guides and tips for removing and clearing ice dams, some of which contain downright dangerous methods. First, while pouring hot water on an ice dam can be an effective way to clear it, this method is dangerous and can lead to slipping, falling, and burning. It is better to use a roof rake to clear away as much ice and snow as possible, then apply a layer of ice melt or salt. This process takes longer but is much safer. Also, remember that long-term salt application to your gutters can cause deterioration, so only use it sparingly.
Your downspouts can be prone to freezing and clogging in the winter. If not properly cleaned in the previous fall, a downspout can clog and freeze up to the top of the spout. This clogging can lead to the entire gutter being frozen, resulting in an ice dam. Generally, downspouts can become clogged at the spout’s top or bottom. For topside clogs, you will want to rake away as much snow and ice as possible with a roof rake, then apply salt or ice melt. For bottom clogs, you can apply hot water to the outside of the spout until the ice melts, dislodges, and gets pushed free.
Keeping your gutters clean and free of debris is essential for them to function correctly. Typically, you should only need to clean your gutters in the early spring and late fall, but summer and winter cleaning can be necessary under the right circumstances. You should keep an eye on your gutters year-round and take appropriate action when clogs, sagging, or leaning are present. If you follow these tips, you will be able to have well-maintained gutters that can keep your lawn, foundation, and other house structures free of water.
If you have never cleaned gutters before, this video by Home Depot provides a great example of how to clean gutters quickly and efficiently.
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