Expert advice on how to clean rain gutters, with helpful gutter maintenance tips and diagrams
During a rainstorm, gutters route runoff from a very large surface—a home’s roof—to where it can drain away from the house. By doing so, they protect siding, windows, doors, and foundations from water damage and help prevent flooding in basements.
To do their job, gutters and downspouts must be clear of leaves and debris. If they aren’t, drain outlets will dam up and rainwater will fill the gutters, overflow, and eventually pull the gutters loose. Water that pools in troughs will rot wood gutters and rust sheet-metal ones.
You can hire a service to clean your gutters, but doing it yourself can save you $100 or more. Plan to clean gutters at least twice a year—more often if the roof is directly beneath trees or you live in a region with frequent storms. But only take on this task if you can work safely from a ladder or the roof. If your roof is higher than a single story, you’re better off hiring a gutter-cleaning pro.
Choose a sturdy ladder, and place it on a firm, level base. A tall stepladder can be easier to use than an extension ladder. If you must lean an extension ladder against a gutter, protect the gutter by placing a short piece of 2 by 4 inside it. Stand on the ladder with your hips between the rails, and don’t lean out over the sides. Never stand on the top two rungs.
If you’re comfortable working from the rooftop and your roof has a very low pitch, this can be easier than working from a ladder. But only do this under extremely safe conditions. Never work on the roof in wet, icy, or windy conditions. Wear non-slip shoes, and never lean over the edge or work near power lines.
When cleaning gutters, wear heavy work gloves to protect your hands since gutters often have sharp metal parts or screw points sticking out into their troughs. Also wear safety glasses or goggles. In some situations, it’s helpful to have a bucket for collecting debris and a dropcloth for protecting areas beneath the gutter.
Before you begin, rake the leaves and debris off of the roof so the next heavy rain doesn’t wash it down into the gutters, filling them up again.
The conventional method for cleaning gutters is discussed below. A method sometimes used by home handymen on low-sloped roofs is to blow dry debris out of gutters with a leaf blower. If you use this method, wear goggles and a dust mask, and be extremely careful when working on top of the roof—this is dangerous!
Leaf-catching gutter systems can be helpful, but most are not a complete solution. Debris eventually settles through them, and the screens must be removed to clean out the gutters.
Also, some systems are very expensive. If you opt to buy a leaf-catching system, be sure it can be easily removed for cleaning. For more about these, see How to Buy Gutter Guards & Leaf Catchers.
To clean gutters:
1 Scoop out loose debris. Starting at a drain outlet at the low end of a gutter, use a narrow garden trowel to scoop out loose debris, working away from the drain outlet. It’s usually easiest to do this when the debris is slightly damp and pliable, not soggy or dried and encrusted. To minimize cleanup later, you can scoop the debris into a plastic bucket.
2 Blast out the gutters with a hose. Using an on-off high-pressure nozzle mounted at the end of a water hose, wash out each length of gutter, working toward the drain outlet. This can be a messy job; try to avoid splattering mud all over your house. If necessary, use a stiff scrub brush to remove encrusted dirt.
3 Clear obstructions in drainpipes. If water doesn’t drain freely through the drainpipes, try flushing the debris down them with a hose. If that doesn’t work, use a plumber’s auger (snake) to free and pull out the debris from the bottom or, in some situations, to push it through from the top.
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Inspect and clear gutters in both spring and autumn. You also may have to loosen dirt that has blown into the gutters and scrub them with a stiff brush. Flushing gutters with a stream of water from a hose will clear material that has become lodged in the eaves troughs and downspouts.
The slope of gutters may need to be adjusted from time to time to keep water moving toward downspouts. Run water through them, and, if they drain slowly, reposition them so that they slope toward the downspouts at a rate of 1/4 inch for every 10 feet.
Be sure your downspouts expel water well away from your house. If necessary, add downspout extenders to carry the water away (see How to Fix Downspouts That Pool Runoff Water). Also consider concrete or plastic splash blocks, which are slightly sloped and extend away from the house at least 4 feet.
If your climate delivers abundant rainfall, you may want to have your downspouts run into a dry well. The well should be a hole 2 to 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep or a 55-gallon drum, with both ends removed and filled with rocks, that you’ve buried and punctured with holes. Underground drainage pipes should slope to the dry well, which will effectively keep water away from the house’s foundation. Check local building codes before installing.
Also check downspouts for rust, flaking, or peeling paint, plus leaks, and make sure they are affixed tightly against the fascia boards. Check the fascia boards themselves for dry rot or other damage, and, if need be, replace them with lumber treated with wood preservative that is finished to match the other boards.