Gutters deserve your attention
Water is the most important thing to watch out for with houses.
The New York Times
Every week for the past three summers, I've kicked a footlong tube of curved white aluminum into a bush while hustling by with my lawn mower.
It's a ritual. I punt the thing into the bush. The bush spits it back when I turn my head.
It might have occurred to a responsible homeowner that this cheap piece of metal (which I vaguely recalled seeing once on a downspout somewhere on my house) could be used for something other than bonding with a shrub. But that ain't me, babe.
I discovered how important it was when I finally got around to fixing the gutters that stood up to the winter of 2010 the way the Washington Generals stand up to the Harlem Globetrotters.
In the snowy onslaught, one ice-filled gutter section nearly brained my wife and instead maimed my grill. Another was bent away from the roof at a bizarre angle. A third section, roughly 15 feet long, fell harmlessly behind the garage — or maybe it has been there since my older son felled it with a soccer ball six years ago.
Three people with expertise in gutters agreed to cure me of my ignorance. They included Apryl Uncapher, a water-conservation consultant; Tom Sullivan, a do-it-yourself repair specialist with Home Depot; and Stephen Gladstone, president of Stonehollow, a home-inspection service in Stamford, Conn.
Gladstone offered the most passionate defense of drainage.
"Water is the most important thing to watch out for with houses," he said. "Whether it's leaks or problems with drainage, everything leads to something expensive with your foundation or with wood that molds or rots."
Gutters, he said, work well to protect the house from water, "but then we foolishly don't clean them or extend them far away from the house so water keeps away from the foundation."
Check things out
The first step toward showing your gutters a little love is buying an umbrella.
"When it's raining, walk around and see if the water's draining properly, or if it's pooling around the house," Gladstone said.
Look for drips or streams from the gutter or behind it.
Gutters often pull away from the house when they are filled with snow or ice, so if you notice a gap, you will likely find nails protruding an inch or more from the gutter's edge.
Next, inspect the bottom of each downspout. You will typically find a curved piece of aluminum on the ground nearby, beside a shrub that looks as if it could use some recreation.
"Those downspouts come off for any reason," Sullivan said. "You might hit it with the lawn mower, or the kids might knock into it. But then water collects around the foundation and you can do tens of thousands of dollars' worth of damage."
I retrieved my kick toy and returned it to its proper place.
Beneath the downspout there is usually a splash block, a wedge of concrete or plastic that diverts water farther from the foundation.
Three of the four downspouts next to my foundation had splashblocks, but in the 11 years I've owned my house I had never once inspected them. One, it turns out, was cracked in half.
The other two were skewed and overgrown with vegetation, and the erosion near my foundation made it clear where much of the runoff was going. (My fourth downspout pointed toward a sloped section of driveway, so it didn't need a splash block.)
I replaced the broken splash block and repositioned the good ones. My basement sump pump, which runs incessantly after a rainstorm, may live a little longer as a result.
Scoop out gutters
The gutters are more complicated, especially for people with multilevel homes and little comfort with extension ladders.
You can usually reach lower gutters with a stepladder, but no matter what type of ladder you use or how high your roof, it helps to have a few key items arrayed at the bottom.
Start with a stick, preferably 4 to 5 feet long.
When you get close enough to the gutter, rap it with the stick and watch for wasps. If they appear, descend, call a local teenager and hand him or her $5 and a can of hornet and wasp spray (Real-Kill Wasp & Hornet Killer, $2.50).
Once the pests are gone, clean out the gutter with a scoop or a gloved hand. (Watch for sharp edges.)
Next, if your gutters are loose, Sullivan advises, replace the nails with long screws (7-inch gutter screws from Amerimax, $11 for a package of 10) that won't pull away from the fascia. Use a cordless screwdriver or drill to save your sanity.
If you are near the downspout, insert a strainer (the one from Amerimax is $2.30) at the top, to keep leaves from forming a dam.
As you move across, look for small creases or tears, which you'll fill with sealer (Seamer Mate, $3 for a 1-ounce tube).
At this point, you may choose to install one of the many types of gutter covers on the market. The old-school version is a length of wire mesh, but those now come with a lip that slides easily beneath shingles, and smoother mesh that doesn't snag leaves (Amerimax Snap-In cover, $2.10 for a 4-foot length).
A newer innovation is a solid cover (Solid Gutter Cover from Amerimax, $4 for a 4-foot length) with a narrow overhang and slots underneath. Water clings to the surface and flows through those slots into the gutter, while the cover keeps leaves out. Sullivan lauded this approach.
Barrels and chains
Uncapher, who is an author of "Creating Rain Gardens: Capturing the Rain for Your Own Water-Efficient Garden," strongly recommended a rain barrel. At the least, she said, "it's a great reminder to you of your relationship with water."
For a homespun rain barrel, you can simply cut the downspout and position a vessel beneath it, but unless you use the water quickly, the rain barrel can become a mosquito hatchery.
I chose a manufactured kit (Fiskars Holden 48-gallon barrel, $70) that comes with hoses, spigots, directions and a lid tight enough to keep out most bugs. Installation took about an hour.
Uncapher also recommends rain chains to replace the downspouts. Some are made with a series of perforated cups (the Copper Bells chain from rainchains.com, $179 for an 8.5-foot length) for areas with heavier rainfall, while others are more straightforward chain designs. They are easy to assemble and install, and in the glint of a sun shower they can be something to behold.
I assembled and installed mine in a half-hour.
That rain chain represented a copper-clad exclamation point to the anchor project of my two-day gutter-Thon: the replacement of the 12-foot section that nearly killed my wife and my grill.
You don't just buy something like that from Home Depot. You have to build it.
I bought two 10-foot pieces ($7.70 each), a seam connector ($2.70), end caps ($1.50 each), braces ($6.50 for a package of four) and rivets ($5.50 for a package of 100 one-eighth-inch rivets), all made by Amerimax, along with a rivet tool (Arrow Light-Duty rivet tool, $10).
After three hours and two how-to videos on YouTube, I stepped back to behold my creation. The result was far from perfect, but it was pretty to my eyes. And it saved me hundreds of dollars on a professional installation.
During a recent deluge, I ducked out of the house with umbrella open and fingers crossed. My gutter worked fine, the rain barrel filled quickly and my formerly wayward spout looked right at home, if slightly off-center.
I gave it a tap with my foot and headed back inside.