All About Gutters
Everything you need to know to select and maintain these unsung heroes of roof-water management
An inch of rainfall doesn't sound like much. But when it falls on an average-size roof, it adds up to a 1,900-gallon torrent sluicing off the eaves. That's an awful lot of water that can cause an awful lot of damage if your gutters aren't up to the task of controlling it. Yet we barely give gutters a second thought until they're clogged and overflowing, or ripped from their moorings by ice and snow.
So now that summer's here, it's time to take notice. Maybe a simple cleaning is all your gutters need, or maybe they need to be replaced altogether.
If you're starting fresh, there is a veritable deluge of shapes, sizes, and materials to choose from. Aside from pricey, maintenance-heavy wood troughs and short-lived vinyl ones, the best option for most of us is metal—elegant copper, understated zinc, rugged steel, or affordable aluminum. Metal gutters are durable and need relatively little care.
Pictured: Copper half-round gutters and round downspouts nicely complement traditional house designs. Note how each section has been neatly soldered to the next for long-lasting, leak-free joints and a handcrafted look.
Find out everything you need to know to properly size your gutters and downspouts.
Gutter: Captures water shedding off roof.
End cap: Closes end of gutter.
Fascia bracket: Attaches to eaves; supports gutters from below.
Downspout: Conveys water from gutter to ground. Also known as a leader.
Downspout bracket: Secures downspout to side of house.
Elbow: Changes direction of downspout.
How much do they cost? The least expensive materials—vinyl, aluminum, and coated steel—run about $1 to $8 per linear foot; the most expensive—copper and zinc—sell for about $9 to $18 per foot. Prices do not include installation.
DIY or hire a pro? Straight sections of vinyl or aluminum sold at home centers or online are well within a DIYer's grasp. Call in a pro if your house is taller than one story, or if you want seamless gutters, which are custom-made on site.
How long do they last? Anywhere from a few years to the lifetime of your house, depending on the material you choose and how well they're installed and maintained.
How much upkeep? If trees tower over them, gutters need periodic cleaning, even when fitted with gutter guards. Pine needles are especially notorious for causing clogs.
The least expensive, most DIY-friendly option because the sections just snap together. Color choices are limited, although it can be painted. Vinyl won't rust or rot but becomes brittle in extreme cold and intense sun. It can bend and bow under heavy rain, wind, and snow loads. Available in K-style (shown), half-round, and a faceted U shape. Look for a warranty of at least 20 years.
Cost: About $1 to $2 per foot
This popular, low-cost metal won't rust and comes in an array of colors, including ones that resemble aged copper and zinc. Available in seamless or in sections held together with rivets or screws and sealed with caulk. Lightweight (.025 inch thick) and medium-weight (.027 inch) aluminum are susceptible to denting and bending; heavyweight (.032 inch) aluminum lasts longer, about 25 years.
Cost: About $1.50 to $8 per foot
To prevent rust, it's coated in zinc (galvanized), a zinc-aluminum alloy (Galvalume, shown), or blended with chrome (stainless steel). Available in seamless or sections; joints should be soldered. Galvanized steel lasts eight to 15 years before it rusts; Galvalume has a 25-year warranty; stainless steel never rusts. Choose 26 gauge or thicker.
Cost: About $2 to $8 per foot for galvanized, $2 to $4 for Galvalume, $4.50 to $12 for stainless
Strong, rustproof, and weathers to an attractive matte gray. Pro installation recommended because of its high contraction and expansion rate when temperatures change. Seams are soldered, but the process is more difficult than with copper. Lasts 30 to 50 years, depending on its proximity to saltwater. Vulnerable to acidic runoff from cedar-shingled roofs.
Cost: About $9 to $10 per foot
Never rusts or needs painting; should last 100 years in any climate. Available in seamless or sections, and in three weights: 16, 18, and 20 ounces. Seams should be soldered. Oxidizes to a matte brown in a matter of months, blue-green over decades. If you prefer gray gutters that don't leave green stains, select lead-coated or tin-zinc-plated copper.
Cost: About $11 to $18 per foot
The semicircular trough with its curled front lip or bead is a natural fit on traditional homes. Goes best with round downspouts.
Round downspouts drain water more efficiently than rectangular ones.
Shown: 5-inch, 26-gauge painted galvanized-steel sections, about $5 per foot; Park City Rain Gutter
Comes in 5-, 6-, 7-, and 8-inch widths. Their curved sidewalls allow half-rounds to drain more thoroughly than K-style.
Shown: 6-inch, 20-ounce zinc, about $10 per foot; The Canadian Rain Gutter Company
This most common gutter shape became popular after World War II. It has a flat bottom and a profiled face that resembles crown molding; often fitted with rectangular downspouts.
Similar to Shown: 5-inch, .032-inch-thick aluminum sections, about $1.60 per foot; Gutter Supply
Comes in 5-, 6-, 7-, and 8-inch widths. Handles more than twice the runoff of a half-round of the same width.
Shown: 6-inch, 16-ounce copper sections, about $12 per foot; The Brothers That Just do Gutters
An aluminum hood with a curved lip draws water into a narrow slot that blocks most debris.
These gutters must be professionally installed, at a cost of $15 to $30 per foot, and, when necessary, professionally cleaned—typically an included service.
Shown: 5-inch, .032-inch-thick aluminum K-Guard, about $23 per foot; K Guard
No device completely eliminates the need to clean, but these add-ons significantly reduce the number of trips up and down the ladder.
Gutter Genius DIY
Water follows the hood's round edge into the gutter; debris slides off. Install it yourself and remove it when the trough needs cleaning. 15-year warranty, about $1.67 per foot; Gutter Genius
UV-protected foam lets only water through. A snap to install as long as the gutter has a front lip or hanger. Not visible from the ground. Easy to remove and shake clean when needed. 25-year warranty, about $4.60 per foot; Leaf Defier by FXI
Fine-mesh stainless-steel screens block all debris but have to be swept occasionally to reduce splash-over. Mesh is supported by a stiff aluminum grille that's anodized to allow mounting on copper. 25-year warranty, about $9 per foot; Gutterglove Gutter Guard
A slick plastic grate helps leaves and needles slide off but lets in plenty of water to flush away any small debris that may get in. 10-year warranty, about $3.25 per foot; Raindrop Gutter Guard Systems
Gutters attach to the eaves two ways: to the fascia—the boards that cover rafter ends—or to the roof. Fascia-hung gutters are sturdier and more secure, but if the fascia is nonexistent or covered with crown molding, roof mounting may be your only choice.
For Plumb Fascia: Bracket
Cradles trough from underneath, so it's open and easy to clean. Cast brackets are stronger than stamped ones. Place every 32 inches, or every 24 inches in snow country.
Bridges interior of gutter, largely hidden from view, but interferes with cleaning. Hangers with built-in screws (shown) hold better than spikes and don't mar gutter faces.
Pro advice: To drain properly, a gutter should slope at least ¼ inch for every 10 feet of run. Increasing the pitch increases a gutter's handling capacity, but the gutter may look askew over a long run. The easiest way to check pitch: Dump in a bucket of water and watch how it flows.
—Gene Stucky, Park City Rain Gutters
Use as a last resort, when gutter can't be hung from fascia. In areas with severe winds or winters, choose hangers with rods, which are stronger than flat straps.
One way or another, debris will find its way into your gutters, and someone—you or a gutter service—will have to climb a ladder and clean them out. Here are some basic tricks of the trade to make the job easier.
Use a standoff. It lets you rest a ladder on the roof, preventing gutter scratches and dents and increasing ladder stability.
Stay on the ladder. Falls are more likely if you work from the roof.
Protect your hands. Wear gloves and use a gutter scoop.
Start at the downspout. You'll give standing water a way out.
Check the elbows. If clogged, use a forceful spray from a hose to open them up. Otherwise, take them apart, drilling out any rivets, then reassemble the pieces with short, stainless-steel sheet-metal screws.
Flush. Once gutters are clean and downspouts are reattached, hose them down to make sure they're draining as they should.
Check the brackets or hangers. Tighten, relocate, or replace hardware if it's loose or if water accumulates in low spots.
Seal leaks. When the gutter is dry, fill small holes and seams from the inside using a butyl-based gutter caulk. Scrape away old caulk and clean the surface before applying the new stuff.
Pro advice: One good way to prevent clogs is to fit your gutters with big downspouts, either 4-inch round or 3-by-4-inch rectangular. Bigger downspouts also allow a gutter to handle more runoff without overflowing.
—Tom Silva, TOH general contractor
Leads water from the gutter directly to the ground, without any clog-prone elbows. Typically anchored to a gravel dry well. Best for houses with deep overhangs; chains tend to splash during downpours.
Shown: Waxed bronze rain chain, about $22 per foot; A. B. Rain Gutters
Gives downspout extra time to drain in a downpour or consolidate runoff from multiple gutters.
Shown: copper Windsor conductor head for 4-inch downspout, about $435; Gutter Supply
These solid cast pieces fix downspouts to the house, secure against wind and theft.
Shown, for 3-inch round downspouts:
1. Waxed bronze Fleur-de-lis, about $40; A. B. Rain Gutters
2. Brass Rope, about $29; Classic Gutter Systems LLC
For 2-by-3-inch downspout:
3. Brass Fleur-de-lis, about $51; Gutter Supply
Fitted to the bottom of a downspout, it provides a classy and rugged exit point for water.
Shown: cast-aluminum garden boot for 3-inch downspout, $160; Classic Gutter Systems LLC