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Gutters and downspouts: the necessary accessories that move water away from your home

Gutters and downspouts: the necessary accessories that move water away from your home

Gutters just can’t compete with kitchens.  When you save up for those long-awaited home renovations, or even as a part of a new home, gutters usually take a backseat to countertops and appliances.  We get it–spending so much time inside makes you want to beautify the things you see most.  But right now we’re going to bat for those hard-working gutters, because it turns out you’ll probably use them way more than a pot-filler behind your stove.

Unless you live in a desert (and even deserts can have pretty intense flash floods), gutters are the second line of defense (after your roof) against water intrusion.  In conjunction with downspouts, they move water away from your home so it’s less likely to cause damage and rot.   Without them, water falls directly off the roof and lands on the ground next to your home, splashing up and causing the siding to discolor at the very least from erosion, mud and vegetation that gets thrown up, or deteriorate because the water splash is coming from the opposite direction (the ground) than the siding is designed to handle.  In addition, excess water around your home’s foundation can intrude into the basement or crawlspace, causing mold problems that contaminate the home’s air quality.  One family who moved into a home in Hawaii in 2008 became very ill because of mold and myctoxins, and one of the inspection reports of the home revealed the water intrusion problem. “The crawl space had water intrusion, musty mold odor, and visible mold on floor joists. The yard sprinklers were directed towards the house and the eaves did not have rain gutters, permitting the pooling of water. Water entered the crawl space through cement walls and followed piping present in the crawl space. Smoke testing revealed communication between the crawl space and upper level bedrooms via electrical outlets and electrical ducts and plumbing. The conduit holes were not sealed, permitting observance of light coming through spaces in the floor joists. A musty odor was present in the master bathroom and noted to get stronger when the fan coil was turned on.”  The couple, their 2 young children, the family dog, and even a baby born 3 months after moving out of the house, all suffered from the mold growing in the home.  (A Water-Damaged Home and Health of Occupants: A Case Study)  

If you’ve got them, clean them regularly!  We’ve all seen gutters that sag or break because a clog in one area or the downspout makes the water back up through the rest of the gutter.  If you don’t remember from science class, water weighs about 8.3 pounds per gallon.   Let’s do a little math here.  If you have 5” K-style gutters (5” is the width), they can hold 1.2 gallons of water per foot.  (The Definitive Guide to Gutter Sizing)  If you have a gutter run on one side of your house of only 20 feet, almost 200 pounds of water (8.3x1.2x20) could be hanging out in your gutters if it becomes clogged!   Chances are, while the water is stopped up there for days or weeks, it’s dripping from seams or holes into the ground, or into the fascia board if the water line is close to the top.  Then, another rainstorm sends water pouring over the side of them, splashing on the side of your home and making it look like you didn’t have gutters at all.  

If your home doesn’t have gutters, you should investigate why.   “We took them down because they were falling down” or “they weren’t there when we moved in” is not an acceptable answer!   You need to examine the reason for their absence, and understand where rainwater is going in their absence.  That said, there are acceptable reasons and alternatives to gutters, and here are some:

Reasons not to have gutters on your home (Are Gutters Necessary?):

  1. Your home is surrounded by concrete that slopes away from the house.  In this case, the falling water still may splash on the siding, but it’s not running back toward the foundation. 

  2. If your home is on a hill that slopes in all directions away from the home, gutters may not be necessary (but splashing will still occur).

  3. Large roof overhangs (the article says 6-10 inches but that’s really not sufficient if the ground doesn’t slope away sufficiently) may preclude gutter installation.

  4. If you live in a very dry area, you may not need gutters.

  5. If you have a flat roof, gutters are not necessary, but certainly you’ll have to make sure the drains from the roof stay clean and well-maintained.

  6. Some historical societies are very strict about gutters, as they weren't commonly installed on residential homes until the mid-1900s.  In this case “built-in” or box gutters conceal the device, and “Yankee gutters” also blend in with the roof so that architectural features like rafter tails are not concealed (check out this article for more information and photos about historic gutters).

Wait, are there alternatives to gutters?  Yes, there are!  Without a gutter up high, some options allow you to bring the maintenance down to ground level. (6 Best Gutter Alternatives for Your Home (2024)):  

  1. Drip paths: Without a gutter, the water runs straight off your roof over the edge.  Without attention to the landscaping, the water hitting the ground will eventually erode the ground, also splashing on the home’s siding.  Drip paths are shallow trenches that run along the base of the home, filled with rocks, bricks, or other materials to help divert excess water away from the foundation, preventing dirt splashback, reducing erosion, and limiting soil saturation.  They are labor-intensive to install (you’ll have to dig down for the trench and bring in the stone or materials to line it) and don’t protect the siding, but they do help to prevent erosion and limit soil saturation.

  2. French drains are similar to drip paths but look better, recycle water, and can expand to the entire yard. They resemble a trench filled with gravel. Underneath the trench is a perforated pipe that funnels water into a designated area.  They often require the assistance of a landscaping company to install because of the labor, getting the slope and destination of the pipe correct, and materials required.  

  3. Yard grading: Many times the turf around Contracting a reputable landscaper will be needed to adjust the slope of your yard to drain water away from the home and its foundation. Yard grading helps with other landscaping problems, such as soggy lawns, puddles, root rot, and uneven turf.  You may have to replant grass and other plants where it’s graded (unless the landscaper can save them), but if you have a large area to grade, their equipment (and expertise) is invaluable.   For a small grading project, check out this video.  

  4. “Underground roof”: An underground roof is a deflecting surface just below grade that slopes away from the building and directs all that roof water away from the foundation. Any impervious sheet material (heavy-duty polyethylene, rubber membrane, rigid insulation) at least 3 feet wide is placed along the foundation about 8 to 12 inches below grade and sloped away from the foundation. (In a cold climate, using rigid foam insulation has the additional benefit of warming the soil, even if just a bit, beneath the insulation and next to the foundation.) Well-draining soil is placed over the sheet material up to grade and covered with a large-diameter topping material, such as pea stone or wood mulch, to break up the falling water and reduce splashback to the building.  A combination French drain/underground roof system is shown here

  5. Rainhandlers: This system is like a louvre that directs water away from your home.  It doesn’t require downspouts, which are unattractive to many homeowners.  They are not supposed to clog with debris.  In gentle rains, the water droplets will fall straight down.  In harder rains, the water is “kicked” out from the rainhandler about 3 feet.  With very intense rains, however, water could pool around your foundation if you don’t have a drain in the ground.  This renovation company prefers gutters over Rainhandlers for this reason. 

  6. Some sources state that a drip edge is an alternative to gutters.  A drip edge is part of a roof, and only keeps the water from going back up under the shingles and rotting wood or forming ice dams.  It’s not really an alternative to gutters, because it doesn’t do anything to keep water away from the foundation. 

  7. Rain chains: These decorative chains are really meant to replace downspouts, as they work with gutters to focus the runoff to one vertical place.  In downpours, they can be overwhelmed and allow erosion of the ground below, if it’s not protected by stone or a large water container.   They also make noise (from the water splashing on the metal), and can become airborne in high winds if they are not of heavy construction. 

If you are installing or replacing gutters, here are some considerations :

  • Just like buying a new heating or cooling system, gutters come in various sizes that relate to your home’s size and roof.  It’s worth doing your own gutter sizing calculations to double-check what the gutter company is offering.  After all, if your new gutters turn out to be under-sized, the foundation, siding and landscaping are all at risk for damage.

  • One reason that gutters are best installed by a professional, is that they need to be adequately sloped.  The slope should be one-half inch for every 10 feet of gutter.

  • Investigate what fasteners will be used.  Fasteners are what supports the gutters on the side of the fascia, and they are very important.  Many experts prefer gutter hangers (they clip inside the gutter and have a long screw that is angled down that is screwed into the end of the rafters) over spikes, which are basically long nails that are driven through the gutters into the fascia.  These screws will not come loose on their own, as spikes tend to do.  (Hangers vs. Spikes: How to Choose the Best Gutter Fastener)  Also, gutter hangers should be installed at least every three feet apart, or closer if you live in an area that receives a lot of snow, because snow and ice, even though snow is less dense, can pile up for feet above your gutter and roof.

  • According to the Building America Solutions Center, downspouts should be placed every 20 feet but not more than 50 feet apart.   After the downspout, you should continue the water channel in lateral pipe, ending at least 5 feet from the house. 

  • Gutter guards, or leaf guards, are perforated pieces of metal, plastic or foam that fit over your gutters to minimize clogging with leaves and debris.  They come in all designs and costs, from a roll of plastic netting (too flimsy in my experience) to plastic coated metal strips that snap into place (much better) to custom-made and installed guards.  LeafFilter and LeafGuard are among the most popular brands.  If you live in a wooded area, these can really extend gutter-cleaning intervals by keeping leaves or needles out of the gutters.  

  • From personal experience:  If you can, get the fascia boards wrapped in metal before installing gutters:  When I supervised the buildout of my parents’ “barndominium” in 2020, I balked at this one.  The porch had already taken longer to construct than I anticipated, and this step seemed unnecessary.  “Just let me prime and paint it”, I argued with the carpenter.  But I relented when he said it would only take 1 day longer and lead to much longer life of the roof.  Four years later, I have to agree.  I’ve been up there cleaning out the gutters several times a year, and despite debris that piles up sometimes, there is no sign of rot on the fascia.  It’s a good decision. 

  • Finally, aesthetics matter!  The style and color of the gutters are important to the looks of your home.  You should definitely read this article before choosing a gutter style and color, it’s packed with photos of good and bad choices.

Investing in gutters or their upkeep is not top-priority to many homeowners, but it should be just as important as making sure you get the right vitamins, because they really are preventing damage to your home and your family’s health!

Photo by Rūta Celma on Unsplash

Start Thinking Like a Home Inspector

Start Thinking Like a Home Inspector

If you own a home, you need to learn to think like a home inspector.  A home is a great investment, but if the outside elements start to penetrate the building envelope, your great investment can start to deteriorate and become toxic!

Sometimes, after an especially hard rain, there is a different smell in my house.  This tells me that rain is probably going where it shouldn't. According to commonsensehome.com, a natural home website, the first spots to check are the roof and attic, especially around any roof penetrations like chimneys and vent lines.  

Recently one morning after such a rain, I went in earnest search of leaks inside to find the source of the musty smell.  Not finding anything in the attic, I went to the room where the smell was the strongest, the laundry room.  I checked areas around the windows because there were shelves in front of them, hiding any potential damp spots.  Uh-oh– a couple of the windowsills were wet, indicating that more of the not-so-old (10 years) windows were leaking.  I checked the corner above which there was a valley in the roof (roof valleys can be a source of leaks in a hard rain if they are improperly installed/sealed).  Thankfully all the walls were dry.

There was a gutter outside this room, and I knew from past experience (rain during the daytime), that the volume of water flowing off the roof seemed to be too fast or too much for this particular gutter, because it would shoot right over the side and pour down next to the wall.  Thinking about it, I went up onto the flat portion of the roof over the laundry room.  There were no big branches or breaks in the flat roof, but a lot of leaves and acorns were up there!  Time to get to work with the broom or leafblower, and I removed a section of the leaf guard over the gutter to clean out the gutter.  I checked to see that the downspouts were clean.

Next, I looked up to see if there were any wet spots behind or below the gutters (this only works after the sun has been out for a bit).  Thankfully, that was not the case.  Looking down the walls, I saw that there were a lot of wet leaves piled up around the foundation.  Wet leaves around the foundation do not just cause a musty smell in the house.  They can allow insects like carpenter ants and termites to come in, using the leaves as a shield to keep their tunnels moist.  I got to work with the leafblower.  

Rain can seep into basements and crawlspaces, so if I had a  basement, I would check the walls for seepage.  Bring a bright light, gloves, and if necessary a respirator (basements can be dusty!) to make sure that you don’t leave any corners/spots hidden from view; try to move any stored boxes to get a peek at every square foot of wall.  It was only after moving some storage shelves in front of the laundry room windows that I discovered the leaking windows. (Crazy, I know, my goal is to build some cabinets so that the windows will not be covered up!)

If you can't find the source of the problem, reach out to a well-reviewed professional home inspector in your area.  Remember, professional home inspection is a service dedicated to helping you find and live in healthy homes--not selling you other products or services.  You can find accredited home inspectors in your state at The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (nachi.org).

There are a lot of good sites to help you get thinking like a home inspector.  Here are some that we’ve discovered and reference frequently.  Don't be shy about contacting them with questions!  

  • Inspectapedia.com: This website must have THOUSANDS of pages, but the “search” function is great, the website hosts answer questions very promptly (within 48 hours), and there is feedback from many homeowners and experts alike.  Highly recommended!
  • Homeinspectorsecrets.com: Created by a home inspector, this site has a lot of guides about a variety of subjects.
  • Familyhandyman.com: This website contains step by step instructions to correct any problems you may find around your home, and reviews products as well.   
  • Thespruce.com: Although not technically about home inspection, this website contains a wealth of information on a variety of home improvement topics and often contains non-toxic, safer alternatives. Their Home Improvement Review Board is made up of licensed general and specialty contractors, journeyman electricians, and journeyman plumbers, so you know that you’re getting good advice.
  • Energyvanguard.com: This website is written by a building scientist and has an extensive blog, so you can understand the “why’s” of the best building practices.  He also frequently incorporates how he investigates and solves problems at his own home. 

How do older homes compare to newer homes?

How do older homes compare to newer homes?

According to Realtor.com, older homes are those that are not built with modern building materials like high-performance concrete; typically they were constructed before the 1970's.  

Many older homes can be purchased at a discount because they have not been “updated”.  These updates of course include aesthetics like granite or marble counter tops, as well as necessary systems like modern electrical wiring, HVAC and plumbing.  Aside from the normal aspects that buyers of older homes will want to renovate, what are the hidden pros and cons that come with older homes?

Arguably, construction and maintenance of the roof and foundation of older homes may have the most to do with the condition it is in today.  

Older roofs can be much more durable, as well–here are the lifespans of typical roofs according to their materials (“composite” means the fiberglass-and-asphalt shingles which are on 80% of US homes today):

Not included is the asbestos shingle, which is estimated to last 30-50 years. (nowenvironmental.com)  Although this is a reasonably durable material, due to its health problems (fibers exposed to the air can be breathed in, causing disease), asbestos tiles are no longer sold for repairs, so an asbestos roof would likely need replacement. (rooforia.com)

In addition to the longer lifespan of older roofing materials, there is the underlayment–what the roof is attached to.  Before plywood and oriented strand board (OSB) were available, sturdy “two-by” boards such as 2x6 or 2x8’s were used over rafters to provide the base for applying a roof.  These were much more durable during severe weather, and more durable in terms of rot and deterioration. Of course, they are not used in most modern homes because of cost; homeowners would rather invest more money in something they can see!

Older homes also typically had the benefit of larger roof overhangs.  Prominent overhangs do several things that increase the longevity of the house: they deflect sunlight and UV damage from the windows and walls, and protect the same areas from rain and water intrusion.  Skimpy overhangs in modern construction do not do either!

Foundations of older homes (before concrete slabs were widely used) could be good or bad, depending on the method of construction and materials.  Here are some foundation materials commonly used (inspectapedia.com):

  • Wood, beams set on grade or on flat stone set on or close to ground level (older, very susceptible to rot and damage)

  • Stone, natural found on site or brought to the building site (older, susceptible to movement and settling)

  • Brick, less commonly used below grade, more often used from grade-level up, set on stone below grade. (older, susceptible to movement and settling)

  • "Cinder blocks" or concrete blocks (from early 1900’s, persistent through today for smaller homes)

  • Poured concrete (poured concrete footings as early as 1912; wisconsinhistory.org)

  • Pre-fabricated concrete foundation sections assembled onsite (since early 1900’s)

  • Wood, treated lumber, treated plywood on treated wood or on concrete studs (also used today for smaller homes)

Obviously, the quality and maintenance of the foundation determines the condition of the home.  It didn’t take an earthquake to start a home into deterioration; one groundhog can make a burrow that will damage a pier and cause the house to lean and crack, allowing water intrusion.

Subfloors: A floor with particle board or even higher-quality plywood as subflooring under carpeting won't feel as sturdy as one that's made from multiple layers of solid boards laid diagonally, an old technique that's now prohibitively expensive. (washingtonpost.com)

Insulation has certainly evolved over the last 50 years.  This includes the addition of air and vapor barriers, and types of insulation.  If you don’t have the opportunity (or burden) of getting down to the studs to re-insulate an older home, it could be quite uncomfortable in extreme weather like deep winter or summer.  However, some features of older homes actually had fairly “air-tight” construction.  Examples include multiple layers of lath and plaster, brick wall “insulation” or “nogging” where brick was installed between wood framing to block the wind, or a small 1" air gap is also found in older structural brick walls; the air gap in brick walls was intended to avoid transmission of moisture from outside the building to its interior. (inspectapedia.com)  Modern insulation makes all the difference in comfort, however, when it is properly installed.

Construction materials:  Even the wood of “stick built” homes has changed.   The change has to do with the loss of “old-growth” forests in the US, where trees were between 100 and 500 years old.  By 1940, old growth lumber was not available for construction anymore, and lumber came from younger trees.  Today's building lumber is made from trees that are between 12 and 20 years old. These trees have fewer growth rings per inch than old-growth trees. Older trees have more dense wood, which is also more rot-resistant.  (WisconsinHistory.org

Old-growth lumber may not be available anymore but naturally insect-resistant trees, provided they are sustainably harvested, are significantly more ecological and healthy than pressure-treated lumber.  Western Red Cedar and Redwood have unique compounds within the cells of the heartwood that protect against insect and water damage. They usually only require topical treatments for coloring or sealing. (thinkwood.com)

Before the 1920’s, “2x4” wood studs were actually 2” by 4” in dimension.  After that time, dimensions varied and ended up at 1-½” x 3-½” as the standard since 1964.  Even though you may think wood is old-fashioned, flammable, inferior to steel or concrete, or too pricey to use it for interior design such as timber-style construction, architects are using it in new ways for safety, strength and design.  “Mass Timber” is a new style of design in which wood is used for large commercial and residential buildings.  It’s appropriate since wood has many biophilic benefits that can contribute to the health and well-being of building occupants. (thinkwood.com)  New methods of laminating wood such as cross-lamination, nail-lamination, dowel-lamination and glue lamination, makes it strong and able to span long distances, as steel girders and concrete do.  The laminating adhesives and fire-retardant treatments of such products are the main concerns for use of these products, however if they follow industry-standard manufacturing practices such as ANSI A190.1 (Product Standard for Structural Glued Laminated Timber) then it should be naturally low in VOC emissions such as formaldehyde. (anthonyforest.com)

Construction methods:  Kit vs. Pre-fab vs. on-site 

Although “kit” homes were originated in the UK in the late 1800’s and became popular in the US in the early 1900’s, they were very different from the pre-fab homes of today.  Kit homes, like pre-fab homes today, were offered to make housing more accessible.  One Sears catalog assured that “anyone with rudimentary skills could have their home built in 90 days.” (thecraftsmanblog.com)  Many kit homes from the early 1900’s are still standing today and demand a premium in the housing market, a testament to the quality of materials and design in these homes.

However, the quality of pre-fab homes today do not resemble that of kit homes because they are built off-site and transported in large pieces to the building site, then assembled.  "They don't build them like they used to--and a lot of that comes in economics, labor versus material costs. Historians have documented, beginning in the 19th century, labor costs going up and up, and material costs going down and down. Now, we're in a time when bringing someone on site to do the work is the expensive part, not the material." –Bill Dupont, an architect who works for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington (washingtonpost.com)

Another victim to rising labor costs has been plaster and lath.  Although mold can grow on painted or dirty plaster under the right conditions, plaster does not support microbial growth because it is non-porous and lime-based or clay.  The wood (lath) behind it, however, most certainly can harbor mold.  (lookmold.com)  In contrast, the drywall core of gypsum does not support microbial growth, but the outer paper facings do.  Which is better?  According to eSub, a construction software company, plaster is by nature a more durable finish than drywall, even high-level drywall finishes. In addition, plaster outperforms drywall in a number of key areas, including insulation, soundproofing, and fireproofing (instead of lath, modern plaster is set over a type of wallboard called blue board, which is similar to sheetrock at first glance, but it is specially formulated to handle high amounts of moisture in wet plaster, so it bonds tightly with the plaster.)  Blue board is highly water and mold resistant. Therefore, in an older home with plaster and lath walls, it may be a good choice to repair the plaster and replace it in kind with new blue board and plaster (if you can find and afford the skilled craftsman to do so!). 

Many older homes were “custom” homes, because they were hand-built by the owners.  This can be good, or not so good, depending on the design experience of the builder.  Today, “custom” homes demand a premium price, because unique plans, changes from pre-made plans and changes on site cost more money.  

Whether your style is traditional or modern, the marriage of durable materials, good design and good construction is timeless!  Make sure that any home you purchase or build has these characteristics and it can last for generations to come.