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Gutter Cleaning Made Safe: Step-by-Step Guide

When it comes to home maintenance, gutter cleaning may not be first on your checklist, but that doesn’t diminish its importance.

Cleaning your home’s gutters and downspouts is easy to overlook – quite literally, since it’s difficult to see any buildup from the ground. However, neglecting this task can lead to costly water damage inside your home and exterior damage to your home’s siding. Here are the steps you can take to stay safe and properly maintain your gutters.

Why should you clean your gutters?

The main function of your gutters is to keep water away from your home. In order to do this, they need to be kept clean. Improper or lack of maintenance can lead to clogged gutters, which can result in the following problems:

  • Roof damage: If your gutters are clogged, water will sit in your gutters as there is nowhere for it to go. If the outside temperature is cold, this is when ice dams can form. When water freezes into ice at the edge of the roof line, an ice dam is created. Ice dams prevent water from draining off of the roof. The water trapped on the roof is likely to cause the shingles to lift, which allows water to seep underneath the shingles, causing ensuing water to enter the interior of the home.
  • Water damage: Water will find the path of least resistance. If your gutters are not properly maintained, the water that enters can lead to interior leaks that can appear in the attic, around windows and on ceilings.
  • Foundation problems: It may not be readily apparent, but clogged gutters can cause damage to the foundation of your home. If the gutters are clogged, the water is not draining properly. This runoff can cause water to pool around the foundation and make its way into the home through basement windows or doors. Water that pools on or under the ground and enters through the foundation is generally not covered under a standard Homeowners policy.
  • Pests: The dirt and debris in your gutters is an inviting nest for several different kinds of insects and animals. Eventually, it may be possible for these pests to make their way into your home. 
  • Slips and falls from freeze: The water from overflowing gutters can end up on your driveway or walkway. If it freezes and becomes ice, it can become a hazard. Either you or visitors to your home could slip and fall. 
  • Energy efficiency: Surprisingly, your gutters can affect your home’s energy efficiency. Clogged gutters can lead to water infiltration in either the attic or behind the walls. The insulation in these areas can be damaged by water, which can reduce its effectiveness. 

When to clean your gutters

Gutter cleaning should be done semiannually in mid-fall (because winter weather can cause clogs if the gutters are already filled with leaves) and in the spring. You may want to clean out your gutters if a storm has blown leaves and twigs onto your roof. Additional cleanings might be needed if your home is surrounded by trees.

If you’re unsure if your gutters need attention, look out for the following:

  • Sagging gutters can indicate that they’re full of leaves and need to be cleaned.
  • Signs of water damage beneath or around the gutters.
  • Standing water around the foundation. 

Pre-cleaning preparation

When deciding on a date to clean your gutters, choose a day with no rain and moderate temperatures. Try to avoid inclement weather and extreme temperatures.

Wear gloves (thick suede ones are the most durable) and protective goggles while cleaning as a precaution against insects or tiny animals that live in debris.

Make sure you have the following:

  • Ladder
  • Bucket
  • Plastic scoop or trowel
  • Tarp
  • Garden hose

Gutter cleaning guide

  • Step 1: Inspection:

    While gutters can last up to 20 years, make it a habit to take a good look at your gutters to pinpoint problem areas before you clean them. It’s best to address any issues you’ve found after you’ve finished cleaning your gutters. 

  • Step 2: Setup:

    Place a tarp beneath your workspace to catch fallen debris and protect your landscaping.

    Choose a sturdy ladder designed for outdoor use, and check the maximum load.1 There’s safety in numbers, so if able, have someone with you while you’re using the ladder. Follow the “three-points-of-contact rule” (both legs and one arm, or both arms and one leg, touching the ladder at all times).1 Consider contacting a professional if there are any safety concerns or if you’re not comfortable using a ladder. 

  • Step 3: Clearing debris:

    Remove gutter covers, and take care to stay away from power cables or loose electrical wires. Remove twigs and leaves by hand. Use a scoop or trowel made from plastic – metal tools can damage the gutter – to dump leaves and debris into a bucket. 

  • Step 4: Flushing the gutters:

    Attaching a spray nozzle to a garden hose will help clear out the gutters and downspouts. Make sure that the downspouts are draining properly. If they are clogged, remove the spray nozzle to clean them from the bottom up and flush out debris. For stubborn debris, try using a pressure washer.

  • Step 5: Checking for blockages:

    If you still see blockages after you’ve cleaned your gutters, there are options. You can use a gutter snake to loosen any clogs, then rinse with a hose. If you’re still unable to clear the gutters, consider hiring a professional.

  • Step 6: Repair and maintenance:

    Once your gutters are clear, it’s time to address any issues you found at inspection. Two common issues associated with gutters are:

    • Loose gutters: If your gutters are loose, they may not need to be replaced, just repaired. Installing brackets can fix this issue quickly and for a low cost.
    • Leaky gutters: Leaks usually happen at seams or rust spots on metal gutters. For problem areas, use gutter repair tape, which can be found at your local home improvement store.
  • Step 7: Disposal:

    If you’ve used a tarp, cleanup should be as simple as folding it up and throwing it away or emptying it if you plan on keeping it. For any debris that escaped the tarp or if no tarp was used, break out your broom or rake. The debris can be placed into a leaf or trash bag for disposal.

Upkeep and maintenance

Sticking to a schedule for cleaning your gutters will ensure that the debris doesn’t build up enough to cause damage to your home. Remember, semiannual gutter cleaning works for most, but houses surrounded by trees may require more care.

If you’re looking for an easier maintenance solution, consider gutter guards. Your gutters will be protected by a mesh or solid screen that will prevent larger debris from getting into your gutters. However, they are not foolproof. Smaller debris can still build up over time and cause problems, so regular maintenance may still be necessary.

Cleaning your gutters can be a simple weekend project if your gutters are accessible and if you have the correct tools. However, if you're unsure how to clean gutters or lack the necessary tools, maintaining your gutters on your own can be a daunting task. This can be one of many reasons why you hire a professional to take on the task. You may also want to consider a professional if any of the following are true:

  • You’re uncomfortable on ladders or with heights.
  • Your roof is steep or has complex structures.
  • Your landscape is difficult to navigate or has rough terrain.
  • The home has two or more stories.
  • If you find your gutters have more damage than you can repair.

Protecting your home

Clean gutters will protect your home inside and out and may save you from costly home insurance claims. When cleaning your gutters, safety is first and foremost. Understanding how to clean your gutters with a step-by-step guide will ensure that you can clean your gutters with confidence.

Taking care of what you can control, like your gutters, is key to protecting your home. But if the unexpected should happen, you want to be sure you have proper insurance in place. Explore our homeowners checkup for coverages that may be right for you.

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Basic Ladder Safety, American Ladder Institute

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