How to clean gutters

gutter fulls of leaves how to clean gutters

Cleaning your gutters is one of the un-sexiest home maintenance chores you can do. It’s usually dirty, you’re moving the ladder a lot, you’ll likely get wet from flushing the gutters, and it’s not exactly something you can show off once you’re done (like you can with a clean and organized garage). Not doing it regularly, though, can spell trouble for your home. If the gutters are too full, water can actually damage the roofing and the fascia (the boards behind the gutters, rather than the tough tissue in the human body). Overfull gutters can spell trouble below deck as well, as water pouring over the gutters versus going cleanly down the spouts can mean water getting to your foundation, and possibly into your basement and crawlspace. The torrents can also do a number on your garden beds if they’re right under the gutters.

While it’s a simple task, below I offer a few reminders and perhaps a couple new ideas on how to keep your gutters clean as a whistle, and thus protect your home for years to come.

When to Clean Your Gutters

Twice a year — once each in the spring and fall — is the recommended amount and timing for cleaning your gutters. In my neighborhood though, we have plenty of trees, meaning I’m doing it much more than that. After a big storm, or even just a couple months of wind and rain, I’m up there cleaning them out, even if it’s just to remove a downspout clog. And in the fall alone I do it a couple times as well with the bevy of leaves we get.

It’s far more pleasant to wait until your gutters are dry to clean them out. Otherwise they’re quite mucky, which makes them harder to de-gunk. It’s also not a bad idea to check your gutters before you’re forecasted to get a big storm. I’ve sat in my dining room and watched the rainwater pour over the gutters and into the garden and foundation, which I probably could have prevented by doing a quick 10-minute sweep of even just the spots near the downspouts. Better to do this chore too much and keep your foundation safe than not enough.

Safety First

Don’t attempt to clean your gutters from the roof. You’d be turning this chore into a needlessly dangerous proposition. A ladder is going to be your best bet. Make sure you’re following best practices for ladder safety; cleaning out gutters is a simple task but it can quickly go awry if you aren’t paying attention. Perhaps most pertinent for this particular chore: don’t reach out further than is safe to do. It’s easy to think you can lean out as far as your body will take you, since it means moving the ladder less, but remember, keep your waist between the rails. Don’t contort yourself trying to get an extra few inches; the risk isn’t worth it. Since you’re moving the ladder a lot, on potentially unsteady lawns and gardens, also be sure you have stable and even footing; get a spotter if needed.

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ladder standoff stabilizers for cleaning gutters

Standoff stabilizers — so you can clean your gutters without wrecking them.

If you’re using an extension ladder, it’s a good idea to get what’s called standoff stabilizers. These will prevent the ladder from lying on the gutters themselves, which can cause damage.

For collecting the debris (rather than leaving it scattered about your property), you can lay out a tarp underneath your gutters, and just move it along with you when you move the ladder. If using an a-frame ladder, it’s also easy to use a bucket with a handle, which can be attached to one of the built-in hooks on the top of most ladders.

Get That Gunk Out!

cleaning gutters by hand how to clean gutters

Using a small garden trowel, or just your hands with a pair good gloves, scoop out the leaves and sediment, starting at the downspout. In my experience, your hands are a better tool for this job. They’re just all around more maneuverable; getting downspout clogs loosened is far easier with hands than a trowel.

When you’ve cleaned as much as you safely can in one spot, move the ladder on down and repeat the process with all your gutters. Once you’ve got all that you can with your hands, use a hose to flush the finer debris, starting at the end opposite the downspout. Let it run for a minute, and ensure that water is coming cleanly through the spout. If it’s just trickling, you know you still have a clog. In that case, run the hose at high pressure right into the downspout to clear it.

If you’re not the home handyman kind of guy, there are several options for alleviating this chore altogether. Gutter whiskers and other insert-type products simply lie in the gutters themselves and prevent leaves and other gunk from building up; they’re rather expensive though. Mesh guards are far cheaper, and act as just a netting over the gutters. Yet another DIY option are snap-in plastic covers, but you have to ensure that your gutters are compatible before committing to buying them for your entire home. Exploring these options is on my own home maintenance list for this fall; if you have recommendations, please let me know!

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How to Clean Rain Gutters

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.

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! 

Work from a sturdy ladder extended above the eaves, and wear gloves to protect your hands from sharp metal and sheet metal screws.

A better option is to use a gutter cleaning kit that connects to a leaf blower. Again, you’ll want to protect yourself from the leaves and debris that rains down on you by wearing goggles, dust mask, and the like.

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.

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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 or use a leaf blower to blow 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.

Plastic scoop makes cleaning gutters an easier job.

Plastic scoop makes cleaning gutters an easier job.

Gutter guards and leaf-catchers 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 or a gutter scoop 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 hose 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.

Featured Resource: Get a Pre-Screened Local Gutter Cleaning Pro

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