By Mitch Kuffa
One of the most neglected and non-maintained systems in the house are the gutters and downspouts.
Many houses do not have a system at all and many of the houses that do, show minimal to no maintenance whatsoever. It is very common, while inspecting a house, to find the gutters falling off, ill pitched, so dirty in fact that plants are growing out of them and the downspouts are often discharging water right next to the foundation.
After looking at thousands of houses, it is my opinion that 90% of all houses should preferably have a gutter and downspout system. This will control the water runoff so that it does not have a negative impact on other areas of the building.
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Here are some of the ways homes can be impacted or damaged by a gutter system that does not work properly or is completely absent:
1. The majority of basement leaks can be controlled, lessened, or completely removed by properly discharging the water distant from the house. All downspouts should have at least 3’ extensions and preferably a concrete splash block. The reason I suggest a concrete splash block is because they are basically “immovable” and it keeps people and the like away from them (lawnmowers, bikes, etc.). It is very common to find damp corners in basements and this is typically where downspouts are located. If they are dumping water right next to the building, it is only a matter of time before it infiltrates. And please do not allow downspouts to empty into flowerbeds that are raised up or restrict water flow with decorative perimeter bricks, blocks, or landscape ties.
2. If the gutters are dirty or ill pitched, then it is easier for water runoff to overflow the gutters and impact the materials beneath. House overhangs are most commonly damaged or deteriorated by water backing up and getting into the structure itself. If the water overflows, it also runs down the wall and saturates brick. For all intents and purposes, brick is like a dense hard sponge. It absorbs the water and is especially impacted by freezing temperatures. The freezing water (and it’s expansion/contraction) will eventually crack and deteriorate masonry. Water should not be allowed to run on concrete porches, brick retainer walls, brick sills, etc. It’s only a matter of time (especially with the Michigan freeze/thaw seasons) before the material cracks, shales, and/or fails. I’ll never forget the time when we had this new brick house that had a basement leak no one could locate. We finally discovered that by simply running a hose directly onto the brick, water started running into the basement within a matter of minutes (similar to water overflowing your gutters or an ill-directed sprinkler head saturating the house).
3. Depending on the type of soil you have around your house, non-controlled and heavy water runoff from the roof can have a structural impact on the foundation. This is especially the case with clay type soils. Clay soils hold water. If you were to build a clay castle and a sandcastle on the beach, a wave would wash away the sand, but not the clay. Water running off your roof goes into the clay soil and stays there. Do you know how heavy water is? A pints a pound, the world around. A gallon of water weighs approximately eight pounds. Well, you guessed it. All that water which is held in the clay soil obviously makes it very heavy and therefore pushes against your foundation walls. This is even more of a concern with masonry block walls (which are not as strong as poured concrete) and houses that sit on an incline (the foundation wall on the high side acts as a dam). Then “hydrostatic” pressure type cracks show up in the form of long horizontal cracks approximately at the location of the ground level outside. Now, if you had a functional gutter and downspout system, it would direct the water away and around your foundation and thus minimize much of the weight and resultant pressure on the foundation.
4. Another common occurrence of un-maintained gutters is the infamous ice damming. This occurs because ice is built up in the gutters (instead of running out) and encourages the build-up of additional ice to back up under your roof shingles. It is especially important to clean your gutters after all the leaves have fallen. If you allow all the leaves to stay through the winter, you are inviting an ice problem that is most prevalent on shallow pitch roofs.
5. Finally, random water runoff creates a damp environment which is typically suitable for many types of insects, most of which we do not like to have around. If we can control the areas of moisture and localize them, we can also minimize insect concerns.
So you see, it is important for many reasons to properly control the rainwater runoff from your building. Just remember, the gutters have to be clean, pitched, and secure. If there are large trees in the area, the gutters should also have some type of gutter screen. These are very helpful but often expensive. There should be one downspout for approx. every 35’ of a gutter run. All downspouts should be extended away from the building and empty onto an area that allows the water to flow away.