Out of the Gutter

It's time to clean your gutters. It's a headache, I know, but if you don't get it done in the next little while, there can be astonishing repercussions.

For instance, a few years back, I had a spell when I was fed up with thinking about houses all day. So, I made up for it by not thinking about my own house. I let thousands of hackberry, oak, and catalpa leaves just stack up a foot high in my gutters. Seeds sprouted, and gave rise to a miniature arboretum right there at the edge of my roof. Of course, the downspouts got clogged with leaves, berries, and twigs, and that made the gutters useless. When it rained, water just poured right over the sides of the gutters.

Right at the height of my negligence-which was one chilly November evening-came a three-inch-an-hour rainstorm. I walked into my house at the end of my working day, and heard water running. I followed the sound, and found a man-size waterfall in the Jowers mudroom/pantry/cat-feeding room. When I ran upstairs to find the source, I looked through a window and saw wife Brenda standing on the roof, fighting the fog and the driving rain, snatching leaves out of a gutter hand over fist. Within seconds, she had the gutter cleared, and the waterfall was controlled.

That was fine work on Brenda's part, but she wasn't too happy about having to fight a flood from our rooftop. Don't you know, that episode created a little bit of marital discord, and left me with some wall-and-ceiling patchwork to boot.

Since then, I have reformed. Every November, no matter how sick and tired I am of thinking about houses, I call handyman Julius, a fine American, and a man who can build, fix, or destroy and haul away just about anything. Julius cleans my gutters, and he cleans them right.

Now, I know some of you are thinking, I'm going to call Jowers and find out how to reach this Julius. Well, don't waste your time. Too many people know about Julius already. I'm keeping his number and his true identity secret, same as I do with that plumber who has a shed full of contraband 3.5-gallon-flush Canadian commodes. Some people are so valuable, I just can't afford to share 'em.

Anyhow, back to gutter cleaning: It's important. I've seen hundreds of houses with foundation problems caused by leaky and overflowing gutters and downspouts. Over time, if water that should have run out the gutters and downspouts ends up running under your foundation walls, you're going to have some structural trouble.

Generally, gutter cleaning is hard and dangerous work. Unless you live in a low-slung rancher, with eaves just 8 feet or so above the ground, I don't think gutter cleaning is a good do-it-yourself job. As a general rule, I think homeowners should stay on the ground, and leave the ladder work to people who do it every day. Not many homeowners have heavy-duty ladders, ladder levelers, standoffs, and all the other specialty gadgets that take some of the danger out of ladder work. Of course, most contractors don't have this stuff, either. But at least they know the risks involved.

The slickest gutter-cleaning trick I've seen is to put an extension tube on a leaf blower, and use the blower to blast the leaves out of the gutters. On a low ranch house, you can do this from the ground.

I'm highly skeptical of all the whiz-bang "systems" that are supposed to keep leaves out of gutters. For instance, I sincerely dislike gutter screens. Just about every day, I see gutters with screens that have gotten bent, come loose, or fallen off. As far as I can tell, they don't keep crud out of gutters. At best, leaves just sit on top of the screens until they rot, then they fall into the gutters in the form of mulch. The gutters still get clogged. Worst of all, when you try to move or fix the screens, they cut up your hands, and you can never get them back into place.

I'm even more skeptical of the cap systems some contractors put on gutters. The idea is to put a little "roof" over the top of the gutter, so water will run out toward the edge of the gutter, then fall into the gutter via a crack too small to allow in leaves, twigs, and such. Well, leaves are thin. They'll get through any crack. Given enough time, capped gutters will fill up with crud, and there won't be any good way to clean 'em out. Another problem with cap systems: If it rains really hard, water will just fly off the edge, creating the waterfall situation that had poor Brenda on the roof.

The cap systems are truly expensive, around $10 - $12 per linear foot. For that kind of money, you could hire somebody to clean your gutters for years.

So, that's what I say you ought to do: Forget useless and expensive hardware, and spend your gutter-cleaning money on a hard-working contractor who has decent equipment and insurance. Make a standing appointment for the middle of November, and you ought to be able to keep your gutters clean.