Cleaning the gutters is an important part of preparing your home for winter. Credit: Courtesy of Metro Newspaper Service

As you are planning your house and yard maintenance for the autumn, don’t forget an important task: Cleaning your gutters. It’s essential to ensure they don’t become clogged with fallen leaves and debris, especially as winter (and the eventual thaw) approaches.

Gutters relieve water for your roof and redirect it away from your home and foundation. When clean and functioning properly, rainwater and other precipitation flows into the gutters and away from areas where they could cause damage like mold, decay and cracking. Gutters that are not regularly cleaned and maintained, though, will overflow with water and leave it to gather at sensitive areas of the house, like the foundation.

“It’s super important to maintain your gutter system once it’s installed,” said Daniel Lovell, owner of The Gutter Cleaners and Gutter Solutions of Maine based in the Lewiston-Auburn area. “A lot of times, the homeowner can’t see [the damage] because it’s happening behind the gutter. Water that’s getting around the foundation and not drying will freeze and cause water damage. The biggest issue my customers are dealing with is water going into the basement or into the cellar. Moisture around the foundation of the house will [also] cause a lot of insect issues.”

Lovell said that you should clean your gutters once or twice a year, depending on the number of trees around your house. Regardless, though, cleaning your gutters in the fall is the most important to make sure that they work through the Maine winter.

“The last thing you want is a lot of ice and debris in the gutters,” Lovell said. “That causes lots of issues.”

The tools you need to clean your gutters

There are multiple styles of gutters on homes in Maine — wood gutters, half round gutters and box gutters, just to name a few — but Lovell said they all require the same kind of cleaning. In his experience, it is best to clean gutters by hand.

“There are multiple tools on the market and I’ve tried just about every one of them,” Lovell said. “We’ve tried blowing gutters out with leaf blowers and it kicks all the nastiness up onto siding and windows and causes more of a mess. There’s just not a tool that works better than a hand and a bucket.”

To clean your own gutters, you will need gloves, a bucket, a ladder and a hose.

“Wearing gloves is important,” Lovell said. “We tend to use waterproof gloves, rubber base on the outside so they don’t get soaking wet.”

You may also want to consider purchasing gutter covers to use after your gutters are cleaned, which will keep debris out throughout the winter and encourage snow to slough off instead of accumulating and pushing under shingles, where it can cause damage to your roof.

“Take into consideration that we do live in Maine,” Lovell said. “There are a lot of them on the market that are really nice but I’ve found out the holes are so small that they tend to freeze up more than the other gutter covers that have larger holes.”

Gutter cleaning 101

Use a ladder to climb up to your gutters. Ladder safety is essential if you are going to clean your gutters by yourself. One essential rule is to never lean your ladder against the gutter.

“That’s one of the most dangerous things,” Lovell said. “Once you get up there the gutter will slide back and forth. There are ladder mitts that go on each side of the ladder [that] keeps the ladder snug onto the side of the house. It’s probably the best invention since sliced bread.”

If you have a multistory house — or if you are simply not comfortable with heights — you should consider hiring a professional for your safety.

“Don’t do anything you’re not comfortable doing,” Lovell said. “I even tell my employees that. The person that gets hurt is somebody that’s nervous and scared with what they’re doing. Where the tricky part comes in with most of the homeowners [is] not having the ladders they need to get up the side of the house. Usually that’s where the professionals come in.”

If you are comfortable with your ladder and its position, start removing the debris from your gutters by hand.

“We put everything in a bucket,” Lovell said. “We don’t [toss] anything on the landscaping. It just makes for a longer clean up and it’s just kind of nasty.”

Once you are done, flush the gutters out with a hose. This will let you know if there is any clogging in the downspout of the gutters. If there is a clog in the downspout, Lovell said that he will usually snake it, like a plumber does with a clogged pipe.

“Sometimes [the clog] is not that bad and the little pressure of water from the hose will push it through,” Lovell said. “It usually clogs at the top where it attaches from the gutter to the downspout [and at the] curves or elbows.”

Gutter maintenance

Another thing to look out for when flushing the gutter with water is leaking. Lovell said that sometimes gutters are so clogged that they won’t even start leaking until they are cleaned. Any leaks will need to be plugged with a sealant once the gutter is dry. A professional can also help you determine where this kind of maintenance is required.

“Most of the time you can see the discoloration on the gutter,” Lovell said. “I have 26 years in the gutter business, so I can walk around a home or look at the downspouts and see discoloration and see if it’s clogged or not. For the homeowner, it is a little bit more difficult.”

Another advantage to having a professional is that they will have an eye for leaks and be able to do regular maintenance on the gutters to make sure they last as long as possible.

“When I come in, I just don’t clean the gutter system, I also do a tune up as we do it,” Lovell said. “If something needs to be refastened or if there’s a hanger broken or if you see something leaking, we can address that.”

Lovell said that if you maintain them and the installation is done properly, aluminum gutters should last around 25 years. If not, they may need to be replaced after 5 years of use.

“It’s better not to have gutters than to have gutters you don’t maintain,” he said. “You’ll be causing yourself more problems.”