This spring, get your head into the gutter and think about your home's drainage system. April's showers can bring May's foundation problems if your home's gutters and downspouts aren't working properly to redirect water away from your house.
"Gutters and downspouts serve as a home's rainwater management system," says architect Craig Newick, owner of Newick Architects in New Haven, Conn. "The goal is to get the rain off the roof and onto the ground without splashing onto the building's walls or into the basement."
Gutters are the channels that run horizontally along the eaves of a house, collecting and funneling rainwater into downspouts. Also called leaders, downspouts are the vertical conduits that carry water from the gutters and direct it away from a house's foundation.
While gutters and downspouts serve important functions, these elements can also become architectural details on a house, according to Newick. Today's homeowners have more options when plotting a rainwater course off the roofline. Upgrades to your house's drainage system can include:
Higher-end materials. Gutters and downspouts fabricated from copper and zinc add an air of distinction when compared to today's most commonly used aluminum.
Gutter guards. Products including hoods and filters claim to cut down on the maintenance of decluttering gutters.
Rain chains. An alternative to traditional downspouts, these links or cups visibly guide rainwater from the roof to the ground.
Regardless of the material used, all installed gutters must be slightly pitched toward downspout holes, and water should be directed at least 2 feet away from the building's foundation.
"To prevent erosion, you can put a splash block underneath the downspout, or an extension on the end of it," says Mike Milliman, owner of Rain Trade Corp. in Lake Bluff, Ill.
Periodic maintenance is required to prevent drain holes from clogging, which may cause gutters to spill over.
"Spring is a good time to clean out debris from gutters," Milliman says. "An easy home test is to put a hose on the roof and run water into the gutter to make sure it doesn't back up."
Gutter guards may seem like a quick fix to manually cleaning them out, but Milliman warns that not all products are created equally.
"Screens, filters and hoods fit over or into gutters," he says. "Before purchasing any gutter guards, do your homework and know that nothing is ever completely maintenance-free."
Expect to pay between 50 cents and $5 per linear foot for a gutter-guard product during the installation of an entire gutter/downspout system. Retrofitting a gutter-guard product on an installed gutter starts at about $2 per linear foot, Milliman says.
Some contractors offer limited warranties on higher-end gutter-guard systems.
"Different companies have their own solutions to try and keep gutters clear and downspouts running smoothly," he says.
But some homeowners are swapping out their downspouts altogether. Garm Beall, owner of RainChains.com (with three warehouses in Southern California), has replaced the downspouts on his two-story, Asian-inspired home in Woodland Hills, Calif., with nine rain chains.
"A rain chain's design allows you to both see and hear the water coming off the roof of your house," Beall says.
Rain chains (or "kusari doi") are a centuries-old functional design element popularized in Japan, according to Beall.
"We use different metals to fashion our products, which have cup designs, link designs or a combination of the two," he says. "These chains can guide the water visibly downward to the ground into a basin in a garden or even a rain barrel for storage."
Installation requires attaching a rain chain to a hole in the gutter where the downspout would be placed.
"Rain chains look like jewelry for the house," Beall says. "They are beautiful, even when it's not raining."
Material: Aluminum gutter and downspouts
Characteristics: Most popular metal of choice for gutters and downspouts. Aluminum has rust-proof qualities, ease of fabrication and ability to be factory color-coated with enamel paint.
Installed cost: Standard $4 to $15 per linear foot
Longevity: Average 20 to 30 years
Material: Copper gutter and downspouts
Characteristics: Changes color and develops a patina transitioning from a shiny penny color to dark brown to verdigris (green).
Installed cost: Standard $20 to $30 per linear foot
Longevity: Average 40 to 50 years
Material: Zinc gutter and downspouts
Characteristics: Changes color and develops a patina transitioning from a shiny stainless-steel look to a variegated bluish-gray.
Installed cost: Standard $16 to $20 per linear foot
Longevity: Average 30 to 40 years
Material: Rain chains
Characteristics: Standard 8-foot-6-inch links hang from gutter in place of a downspout and can be fabricated from copper, brass, stainless steel, iron or aluminum.
Installed cost: Starts at $70 for iron, $100 for copper
Longevity: Depends on material. Can last an average of two years (iron) to 50-plus years (copper)