Often underappreciated and an afterthought for most homeowners, gutters are vitally important in your home’s makeup. Gutters are an essential system that protects your foundation and keeps away pests. Beyond their considerable functional purposes, gutters can also add a subtle flair to your home’s design. From the more common aluminum “K” style gutters to high-end copper Victorian style gutters, they can add a unique look and flair to your home.
This guide will go over how gutters work, their parts, the many different designs available, and what materials those designs come in.
Why Are Gutters Important?
Rain gutters are an essential protective device for your home. Their primary purpose is to direct the flow of rainwater away from vital and vulnerable areas of the house, preventing water damage. As rainwater falls onto your roof, it will be pulled by gravity and attempt to pool everywhere it shouldn’t. Without gutters, rainwater will first try to collect in and around your roof, leading to mold, rot, and deterioration of shingles, facia, and soffit. After the roof, rainwater can damage and weaken your siding, leading to peeling and condensation. This weakening can result in rainwater finding its way into your walls, spreading mold, mildew, and grime. Finally, rainwater will find its way to the base of your home. Here it will begin to pool around the foundation, leading to any of the following problems:
- Foundation shifting
- Foundation cracking
- Foundation erosion
- Flooded basements
- Flooded crawl spaces
- Weakening of overall structural integrity
Pooled water in and around the home also has several secondary but no less problematic effects, namely, attracting pests. Insects like mosquitoes, earwigs, drain flies, ticks, various grubs, and termites are all attracted to pooling water or overly moist soil. Even worse, pooled water can damage the lawn by creating an environment for unpleasant fungal infections like root rot. Thankfully, gutters help prevent all this by evenly dispersing rainwater into different portions of your property or receptacles and basins for collection.
Parts of a Gutter
New homeowners looking to purchase and install gutters themselves will quickly find that they are surprisingly complicated systems. Baseline gutters include many different kinds of parts, connectors, and optional features that can leave one easily overwhelmed. This complexity increases with more expensive, decorative, and elaborate gutters. Here is a quick breakdown of the components of typical gutters:
- Gutter: This is the component from which the entire system takes its name. It is a trough-shaped piece called a “section.” These sections come in varying lengths depending on the gutter’s material.
- Straight connectors: Also called “joiners,” these are the small, thin connectors that link two sections together.
- Inside/outside corner sections: These are two attached sections, usually at 45-degree angles, that direct water flow.
- Inside/outside miter box: Some gutters do not have composited corner sections. Instead, you have to place sections into miter boxes. There is a box for the inside and outside corners, which are sealed and designed for sections to fit snuggly.
- Drop outlet: This section has a hole and a small funnel that connects to the conductor head.
- Conductor head: Also known as a “rain leader” or “gutter leader,” this attaches to the top of the downspout and fits below the drop outlet. These small boxes are designed to control water flow and reduce runoff.
- Downspout: This is the vertical section that connects to the drop outlet. It funnels the water down into the splash block or receptacle.
- End cap: This caps the end of a gutter section, keeping water and debris from flowing into your yard.
- Elbow: This is a 90-degree pipe that connects to the top or bottom of the downspout. It allows you to change the direction of the downspout.
- Downspout coupler: Also called a downspout adapter, this piece will enable you to connect a downspout to a different kind of piping.
- Downpipe: This attaches to the bottom of a downspout. This is a piece of piping that directs the flow of water from a section of the downspout to the ground or a receptacle.
- Gutter brackets: Also called cleats, these are braces that connect your gutters and downspouts to your house.
- Gutter spikes: These are nails that go through the gutter and the bracket into the fascia. These may loosen over time and need to be hammered back in or “tightened.”
- Hangers: There are two types of objects that gutter hangers can reference. More commonly, they’re support pieces that brace the bottom of the gutter, helping to prevent sagging. Otherwise, they replace brackets for “half-round” style of gutters – these hangers are screwed directly into the facia, and the gutters are placed directly on top of them.
- Ferrule: A ferrule is a plastic cover that goes over a gutter spike or screw and is sometimes called a spacer. These spacers protect the gutter and surrounding hardware from damage during the loosening and tightening of the screw, keeping the spacing and width of the gutters consistent.
- Scupper boxes: Scupper boxes allow water to pass through a wall section. While not always necessary, these add-ons can be vitally important to a proper gutter system. Like a conductor head, scupper boxes attach to the top of a downspout and redirect water flow.
- Downspout extensions: These are long, corrugated, flexible sections of PVC pipe that attach to the bottom of a downspout or directly onto a downpipe. They allow you to further direct water flow away from the home’s foundation. Extensions are often buried beneath the surface of the ground.
- Downspout brackets: Brackets are “U” shaped connectors that fasten the downspout to the wall.
- Gutter guards: Gutter guards come in many different styles and designs, but all serve the same basic function. They protect your gutter system from debris. Some of the main types of gutter guards are brush guards, gutter screens, mesh screens, foam inserts, gutter covers, reserve curve guards, gutter hoods, and perforated gutter covers.
Types of Gutter Materials
Originally, gutters were made from wood, brick, or stone. Ancient civilizations created impressive and complex water drainage systems along the tops of homes, manors, and churches that, over time, have evolved into the modern gutter systems we know today. Gargoyles trace their roots to these systems, acting as a precursor to current gutters. While effective for their time, many of the materials used in original gutter systems are not the most effective by today’s standards. Wood gutters are prone to rot, mold, and attract pests. Stone gutters are still occasionally used but are not typical and are frequently fraught with issues. Instead, today’s gutters can come in various materials, most composed of metal or vinyl. Each material provides distinct benefits, styles, requirements, and costs.
Aluminum is the standard material for gutters and is the most commonly used across the United States. Aluminum gutters are low-cost, resilient, lightweight, weather-resistant, rust-proof, and paintable. Aluminum can come as a seamed or seamless gutter and is the preferred choice for contractors during installations. The only significant downside to these gutters is their structural weakness. Aluminum isn’t the densest material, and these gutters are only a quarter of an inch in thickness, meaning they’re prone to denting or bending. If you choose aluminum, you’ll have to be especially careful when cleaning or accessing your roof, as ladders are known to leave large dents when impacting aluminum gutters.
These gutters are around $4-$8 per linear foot and about $20 per linear foot for an installation. Aluminum gutters, on average, last for about 25 years if properly installed and provided general maintenance.
Copper is the luxury model of gutters. Stylish, tough, corrosion-resistant, and possessing a unique beauty, copper is one of the best materials you can choose. Copper is highly weather-resistant, shrugging off the highest temperatures from the Arizona desert to the freezing winters of the Northeast. It’s also dense and durable, not denting easily, and can last for up to 100 years. However, one of the main draws of copper gutters is its color – baseline copper is already beautiful, but as it ages, it gains a beautiful green, weathered patina. This weathered appearance adds an old world look to your house and can significantly increase its curb appeal. These gutters are most commonly seen in high-end homes and are not suitable for DIY installations and should be installed by a professional. The only main downside to these gutters is their high costs, averaging between $25-$30 per linear foot for professional installation.
More durable than aluminum gutters and even more weather-resistant, steel gutters can be an appealing choice. Steel is a formidable material that won’t dent or bend during cleaning or installation and is far more resistant to all other manners of damage. While most steel gutters are galvanized, called galvalume gutters, and will resist rust, you can still expect to see some oxidization within about 15 years. This rusting can be mitigated with good maintenance and proper cleaning, increasing the life span of the gutters. Steel gutters are an excellent choice for many homeowners because they’re comparatively low cost, sitting at around $4-$12 per linear foot, and are much harder than aluminum gutters. Stainless steel gutters are practically indestructible but will cost twice as much, if not more. In either case, these gutters are heavy and should be installed professionally.
Vinyl is the most cost-effective choice on this list and the best gutter for DIY-minded homeowners and home improvement enthusiasts. Vinyl gutters are lightweight, low cost, easy to install, cuttable, corrosion-proof, non-rusting, and paintable. These gutters have downsides, the two most significant being they’re not durable or weather-resistant. In frigid climates, vinyl gutters will crack and break. Much like aluminum, if impacted by a ladder, it can dent or, even worse, crack and shatter. If properly installed and handled well, vinyl gutters can last up to 20 years. In worst-case scenarios, homeowners can easily replace broken or damaged sections. These gutters only cost around $1 per linear foot and can cost up to $5 per linear foot to have professionally installed.
Next to steel gutters, zinc is a heavy-duty option for homeowners. Durable, rust-resistant, weather-resistant, and long-lasting, these gutters are an investment. Zinc combines the best elements of steel and aluminum. It is just as corrosion-resistant as aluminum with the hardy, near indestructibility of steel. Properly installed zinc gutters can last well over 50 years and develop a beautiful, rustic patina as they age. Homeowners should avoid zinc if they live in an area with salt-ridden air, such as along the coast – this is because zinc is easily stained by salty air or acidic runoff from cedar shingles. These gutters are also heavy, not installable DIY style, and require a professional. On average, zinc gutters cost around $25 per linear foot for a professional installation.
Styles of Gutters
Alongside your gutter’s material, you’ll need to decide on your gutter style, and like materials, there are plenty of options. There is something for every home, from the classic “K” style and the industrial box style. When choosing a type, carefully consider the unique look and feel you want your home to have, along with the conditions your gutters will face.
“K” Style Gutters
K-style gutters, also known as “ogee” gutters, are the most common type of gutter seen here in the U.S. These gutters are shaped like a trough, with one edge flat and the other possessing a unique shape that resembles crown molding. The flat edge makes them easy to install on the fascia boards of your house, making them an excellent choice for DIY installations. Further to that point, they’re the cheapest option on this list, and most store-bought aluminum or vinyl gutters come in this style. Many homeowners will adjust the color of these gutters to complement their homes, using them as potent accent pieces.
These gutters possess a historical design, resembling an old world drain, which can add a rustic flair to your home. As their name would suggest, half-round gutters look like a pipe or tube that has been sliced clean in half. These gutters have several benefits over more traditional styles, the biggest being that they’re easy to clean. Their smooth, circular shape makes clearing leaves, twigs, and other debris a breeze. Because of their smooth base, and less rigid design, they’re also much less likely to clog or jam.
These gutters are not DIY-friendly as they’re challenging to install. They need a system of brackets to keep the roof from sagging. Once the brackets are in place, whole sections are set down, requiring multiple installers to do so correctly. These gutters are also much heavier and bulkier than other styles, making them more susceptible to pulling loose. If you’re in a location with heavy rainfall, you should avoid these gutters. Due to their low sides and more shallow troughs, they cannot funnel massive downpours as well as other styles. On the other hand, in the right conditions, these gutters can look fabulous on a home and are a popular choice when paired with copper as a material.
Box Style Gutters
On the other side of the spectrum, we find box style gutters. These are more industrial, less traditional-styled gutters meant for large homes or commercial buildings. These gutters can handle massive amounts of debris and runoff. Larger houses with wide roofs will produce more water when it rains, which can overwhelm certain types of gutters, particularly older styles, resulting in them failing to contain the water. On the other hand, these gutters are designed explicitly for these situations, efficiently handling even massive downpours. They’re also the most durable style of gutters on this list. Unfortunately, what they make up for in function, these gutters sadly lack in form. Many homeowners find these gutters unappealing with a flat design. They also cannot be installed traditionally, needing to be installed into the eaves of the building during its construction.
Gutter installations are invaluable to your home. They divert water away from the critical sections of your house, preventing it from pooling and protecting the home from mold, mildew, and foundation erosion. They can also add serious curb appeal and selling power, with copper and half-round style gutters being an impressive inclusion in historic homes. With the different materials and styles of gutters available, even for more modern houses, you can create a unique look that matches your home’s aesthetic.
Frequently asked questions about gutters
How long do gutters last?
Gutters’ lifetimes can vary depending on the material, upkeep, style, and environment the gutters are present within. Generally, most metal gutters last around 20-25 years, with copper lasting up to 100 years. Proper care and maintenance will extend the life span of any gutter, regardless of material, and add-ons like leaf guards and covers can also add multiple years to them.
Can you replace a roof without replacing the gutters?
Yes, you can. You can completely replace a roof while leaving the gutters intact, or vice versa. However, this is uncommon, as most homeowners replace their gutters when they replace their roofs.
Can gutters be repaired?
Gutters are repairable in many different situations. Small holes or cracks are easily patched, and whole sections can be replaced depending on the material. Joints can be reconnected, and sagging can be reinforced to better support the gutter’s weight.
Can gutters break off?
Yes, and this is a homeowner’s nightmare. Gutters can fail when their spikes and brackets become loosened and subjected to weight or pressure. Once one section comes loose and falls, its weight and momentum can quickly bring other sections right along with it. The most common factor that leads to gutters falling is the accumulation of debris combined with poor maintenance. To avoid gutter falls, always practice good gutter cleaning and yearly maintenance.
Can gutters be painted?
You can paint gutters depending on their material. Vinyl and aluminum gutters are the most common to be painted, with many store-bought, new gutters coming pre-painted white. You should not paint materials like copper or zinc due to their natural beauty and their materials resisting paint.