Properly installed rain gutters collect water running off a sloping roof and direct it away from a home’s foundation walls. To ensure they are doing their job of protecting your house from water infiltration, however, you must clean and inspect gutters and downspouts regularly.

There are two ideal times of year to perform this mandatory maintenance task: after all the leaves are off the trees in the autumn, and after buds and fruits (e.g., maple samara “helicopters”) have fallen in spring.

If there are lots of trees around the property, you should take a look at your rain gutters even more often (and not be afraid to get your hands dirty!). And if you notice a gutter overflowing, immediate inspection is required to prevent damaging water infiltration via the roof edge.

A short guide to successful cleaning

Here are the steps involved in effective inspection and cleaning of your rain gutters:

  • Before you begin, remove the lowest section of any gutter downspout that is connected to a subdrain. This is to prevent any debris dislodged during cleaning from getting stuck in the downspout and blocking the flow.

Water-collection components (the horizontal portions)

  • Hook a bucket onto the gutter before cleaning, and then climb up to the gutter using a good, solid ladder (be sure it is properly set up; see the Tips & Tricks instalment on the topic).
  • Start by removing the largest pieces of debris (leaves, twigs, pine needles, etc.) that have accumulated in the gutter. A plastic spatula that is a bit narrower than the gutter will make the job much easier.

    : To keep debris from falling into the downspouts, start at a downspout junction and work backward from there.
  • From a point as far as possible from the downspout junction, pour water into the gutter to flush out the smallest particles. Tip: A garden hose is the easiest tool for dislodging residue, and you won’t have to move the ladder as often.
  • Make sure water is draining completely from the gutter. The most common reasons for water accumulating are: part of the gutter detaching, too little slope, not enough downspouts, or leaks at junction points.
  • Spray water onto the roof to simulate rainfall, and check that water reaches the gutter around its full perimeter, and doesn’t drip behind it (if it does, this will eventually rot the wood to which the gutter is attached).

Take the opportunity to wash the outside of the gutters to get rid of any black streaks before they become permanent stains.

Water-drainage components (the downspout and ground-level drains or subdrains)  

  • Let water run down all downspouts to make sure it flows properly. If there is water leaking at a junction point, or backing up along the gutter, it means there’s a clog somewhere in the downspout.
  • If there is a clog in the downspout (usually a tight bundle of twigs), use the garden hose or a length of flexible metal cable (e.g., a plumber’s “snake” or electrician’s “fish tape”) to clear it. If that doesn’t work, disassemble the downspout to get at the obstruction.
  • If there is a subdrain to direct stormwater from the gutters far enough away from the foundations, pour plenty of water into it to make sure it’s working properly.
  • If the subdrain backs up, that also means there’s a clog; use the same method as for the downspouts if the tubing is buried in the soil but finishes in the open air (e.g., opens onto a downslope).

If the subdrain leads to a drainage pit and there’s no way to reach the outlet without digging, you’re better off hiring a contractor specialized in unblocking drains.

Note, incidentally, that a drain collecting water from rain gutters must never be connected to a foundation drain (French drain).

Are repairs needed?

Swelling or bursting of rain gutters and downspouts is primarily caused by ice forming inside them.

A collapsed gutter, meanwhile, is usually caused by deterioration of their wooden supporting elements, accumulated snow, or possibly an ice dam at the edge of the roof.

a)    If you find a leak at a junction or other connection point:

  • Remove old sealant by scraping the inside of the gutter or the connection down to the aluminum.
  • Sand the metal to ensure the new sealant will bond to it.
  • Apply a bead of sealant specially designed for gutters.

b)    If a portion of gutter has detached, deformed or collapsed:

  • Use properly sized nails or screws to re-attach the gutter.
  • If the problem is due to a small area of rotted wood, find a rafter end to nail into.
  • If wood has deteriorated over a large area, you will have to remove a length of gutter and make repairs.

c)    If a downspout has burst because of ice build-up:

  • Replace the damaged section.
  • Take the time to attach a length of tubing to the base of the downspout, which can be removed at the start of winter. The purpose is to be able to easily disconnect the downspout from a subdrain or concrete splash block with a low slope that could cause an ice obstruction to form.

Our thanks to Simon Dupuis of Gouttières MRO and Steeve Longchamps of Gouttières Charles Brochu, both CAA-Quebec Approved Suppliers, for their contributions to this instalment of Tips & Tricks.