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Gauging Gutters

Gutters bring roof runoff down to earth. Here's the (long and) skinny on what to look for.

Photo by Ned Martura

Gutters aren't glamorous. But unless there are long overhangs on your roof and your property is steeply graded, they're essential for routing roof runoff away from your home. Installed properly, gutters keep basements and crawl spaces dry, preserve topsoil, protect siding from backsplash stain and rot and shield windows and doors from water infiltration and damage.

Which material?

Gutters and downspouts - the vertical sections that send runoff down to the ground - are made out of aluminum, vinyl, galvanized steel, stainless steel and copper. Wood is also an option, but wood gutters are rare, except for restoration work. They're also expensive, starting at about $12 per linear foot installed and, depending on the wood species, running as high as $20 per linear foot. Copper is another material usually reserved for classic restorations. It's handsome, never rusts and never needs painting. But at about $15 per linear foot, it's also expensive. Stainless-steel gutters are strong and rust-free, and maintain their high sheen for years. But as with other high-end custom materials, the drawback is cost: about $20 per linear foot. For this reason, galvanized-steel, aluminum or vinyl gutters are the predominant varieties.

Steel and aluminum gutters are the types most homeowners choose. With prices ranging from about $4 to $8 per linear foot installed, galvanized-steel gutters are the most economical. Steel gutters can stand up to ladders and fallen branches better than aluminum. But even thick galvanized steel eventually rusts through. Aluminum gutters, however, never rust. And at $5 to $9 per linear foot installed, they're still relatively inexpensive - two reasons why aluminum has the edge in popularity, according to Lyle Brandt, of All New Gutter Service, an installer in Fargo, North Dakota. "Ninety percent of what we install is aluminum," Brandt says. "If downspouts get plugged and water collects, you don't have to worry about rust, as you do with steel." When buying any metal gutters, choose the thickest you can afford - optimally .032 in. Though .027-, .025- and .019-in.-thick gutters are available, they won't hold up as well. When buying aluminum gutters, insist on primary aluminum, which is the thickest and most consistent kind. Avoid secondary aluminum, a recycled product that's often plagued by inconsistent thickness.

Vinyl gutters, besides being impervious to rust and rot, are easiest to cut to size; you can install them yourself in a weekend or less. But vinyl can get brittle with age or in extreme cold. And while gutter sections cost just $3 to $5 per 10-ft. length, they still wind up at about $3 and $5 per linear foot installed when you factor in the cost of couplings, hangers and downspouts.

Sizing up Your Options

Choosing new gutters also brings several other decisions that involve balancing convenience, esthetics and long life.

Sectional versus seamless. All gutters are either sectional or seamless (or continuous). Sectional gutters are sold in pieces and installed as component systems. All do-it-yourself gutter systems are sectional, though pros install these, too. The sections themselves can be over 20 ft. long each or cut to any size with a hacksaw. Snap-in-place connectors join gutter sections to each other and to downspouts. All sectional systems have end caps, corner pieces and drop outlets for connecting to downspouts. The drawback to sectional systems is that all those seams can eventually invite leaks. Seamless gutters won't leak at seams because there are none; sections join only at inside and outside corners and at downspout outlets. That's why they're the most popular configuration. Seamless gutters, made of aluminum, galvanized steel or copper, are extruded to custom lengths on site using a portable machine. But, as you might have guessed, seamless gutters must be installed by a contractor.

Sizes and shapes. Most gutters come in several sizes and shapes called profiles. These include U shapes as well K configurations, in which the ogee-shaped front looks like the letter K. Gutter channels are available in 4-, 5- or 6-in. diameters; 5-in. Ks are the most common. You'll also find downspout choices that include 2X3-in. or 3X4-in. rectangular shapes, as well as 3- or 4-in. round pipes. Particularly in leafy areas, use larger downspouts, which minimize clogs. Color. Sectional aluminum and steel gutters come in more than 25 different colors - ideal for matching trim and house colors. Gutter colors are baked on at the factory. Vinyl typically is brown or white; the latter color holds up better in intense sun. Copper is prized for its natural color and comes unpainted. If you like the look of copper but not the price, Alcoa sells a faux-copper gutter made of aluminum. Called Musket Brown, it sells for about $9 per linear foot installed.

Getting Gutters Installed

Gutter installation is an easy-entry business that requires only a few tools and a $20,000 seamless-gutter machine. As a result, carefully choosing a pro is crucial on gutter projects. Check references, and drive by finished jobs. Always get more than one bid; if one is considerably lower than another, there's a good chance the gutters used by the contractor who made the lower bid are less than .032 in. thick. There are other ways to guarantee a good installation. Before you hire someone, insist on a free estimate, and be there when the pro checks out your project. Clearly point out where you want gutters and downspouts installed. Also make sure the bid includes all carpentry-repair work. Before installation starts, replace rotting fascia boards (the trim boards at the eaves). And for proper drainage, be sure the contractor slopes the gutter 1»4 in. for every 4 ft. of run. Finally, check the warranty. For gutters and accessories, look for a warranty that runs at least 20 years, though a lifetime backing is preferable. For labor, one-year coverage is the minimum. Also be sure the contractor has completion insurance, which continues coverage on the gutters if he goes out of business.

Doing it Yourself

If you install your own gutters, be sure to work on a calm day. Use sectional vinyl, which features snap-together pieces that are easy to figure out. The Rain Master system from Bemis, for example, is typical of what's available. Connectors with leak-proof silicone gaskets, which maintain their seal through both hot and cold weather, join the vinyl sections. Then the assembled gutters snap into hangers that attach to the fascia boards with galvanized wood screws. Sectional galvanized-steel gutters are also available as homeowner-installed systems. But components must be soldered together - a literal test of fire for any novice. And despite the galvanized finish, standing water or wet leaves will eventually cause the gutters to rust. "Bonderized steel" gutters, which are chemically treated for painting, are yet another option. Prep them by removing any chemical residue with a solution of distilled vinegar or galvanize wash, available in hardware stores. Then use an antirust primer and finish them with a good exterior-grade paint recommended for metal. If you're doing the installation yourself, stay away from spike-and-ferrule hangers, which tend to pull out over time. Instead, use screw-in hidden hangers or roof-strap versions for most gutters. You can also use snap-locks for most K-profile gutters. And be sure the ends of the downspouts run to a suitable drainage system or absorbent, properly graded soil.

Where to Find It:

Aluminum Gutters: Alcoa Building Products

Box 716, Dept. TH398, Sidney, OH 45365

800/962-6973 Connecticut Seamless Gutters

209 Wheeler Rd., Dept. TH398, Monroe, CT 06468 Homeshield

Box 907, Dept. TH398, Chatsworth, IL 60921

800/332-2227 Hungwell Gutter Systems

Newtown, CT 06470

Serves Westchester County, N.Y. and Fairfield and Litchfield counties, Conn. Rollex Corp.

2001 Lunt Ave., Dept. TH398, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007

800/251-3300 Aluminum and Vinyl Gutters: Amerimax Home Products

450 Richardson Dr., Box 4515, Dept. TH398, Lancaster, PA 17604

800/347-2586 Copper Gutters: Berger Building Products

805 Pennsylvania Blvd., Dept. TH398, Feasterville, PA 19053

800/523-8852 CopperCraft

2143 Joe Field Rd., Suite 100, Dept. TH398, Dallas, TX 75229

800/486-2723 Steel Gutters: The W. F. Norman Sheet Metal Mfg. Co.

300 Mill St., Dept. TH398, Sheboygan Falls, WI 53085

800/558-7651 Genova Products

Box 309, 7034 E. Court St., Dept. TH398, Davison, MI 48423

800/521-7488 Wood Gutters: Truitt & White

642 Hearts Ave., Dept. TH398, Berkeley, CA 94710