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Monday, February 25, 2013

Harvesting Rain: Gutters, Downspouts and Rain Chains

One of the largest impermeable surfaces in most home gardens is the roof.   The roof of a 1500 square foot home has approximately 1500 sq. ft.  of rain collecting surface.   A good rainstorm – which drops ¾ of an inch of rain – provides almost 94 cubic feet of water falling on a 1500 sq. ft.  roof.  That’s about 700 gallons of free water running off your roof in a single storm.  

The easiest way to collect and direct water from your roof is by installing rain gutters.  A rain gutter is a narrow channel or trough which collects and diverts rainwater shed by the roof.  Rain gutters are connected to downspouts or rain chains which direct the water down to ground level.   The water can then be collected or diverted to desired places in the garden. 

Rain gutters provide a number of benefits.  They help reduce soil erosion and plant damage beneath the drip line and prevent leaks in basements and crawlspaces. They prevent water from running down the side of the house or splashing onto the house, causing damage to the walls and foundation.  They also prevent soggy ground next to the house, which can be annoying and affect plant health.   

Gutters also allow you to use rainwater by directing it to a rain garden, vegetated swale, french drain or other place where it can infiltrate into the ground.  In other words, gutters play a key role in harvesting rain and using it to water your garden. In Mother Nature’s Backyard, we divert our water into two places: our rain garden and french drain.   All the water that falls on the garden stays in the garden.

Gutters are part of a system for collecting water.  In addition to the gutter and downspouts, the system includes a method of hanging the gutter,  end caps and other components.  For a good discussion of the rain gutter components see: http://www.hometips.com/buying-guides/rain-gutters.html   Once you understand the components and choices you’ll be better able to choose a system that’s right for your house and garden.

You can install rain gutters yourself or have them installed professionally.    Installing them yourself saves money and the components are readily available (see below).  On the other hand, professional installers will get the job done quickly and may have more materials & colors to choose from.  Installing gutters is not difficult if you have basic handy-person skills, but it is a little persnickety.  If you have a two-story house, seriously consider having a professional install your gutters. 

Here are some common questions gardeners have about rain gutters.

Do I have to install gutters all around my house?   No.  The choice is up to you.   Some home owners just install gutters in areas where dripping rainwater is a particular problem – for example, over entry ways or places where the ground stays muddy.   Others install gutters all around their house.   You need to weigh the costs and benefits when deciding how much of your home to gutter.

What types of rain gutters are available?   Rain gutters are available in a range of styles and materials.  Some of the most common materials used in S. California are PVC plastic, aluminum, stainless/galvanized steel and copper.  Each choice has its benefits and drawbacks.

Plastic gutters are light-weight, inexpensive, readily available and are the easiest material for the homeowner to install.  They are more likely to break and/or leak in colder climates or sunny exposures, so they need replacement more often than metal gutters.  Higher quality plastic gutters have UV inhibitors that extend their life, but plastic gutters just don’t last as long as aluminum.   They may be the best choice, however,  for homes within a mile or so of the ocean because they stand up to salt exposure.

Aluminum gutters have many of the same benefits as plastic, and they are only a little more expensive. They will not break down like plastic or corrode like steel. Their main drawback is that they are easily bent.   They can be painted, come in a variety of colors and last up to 30-40 years with proper maintenance. Aluminum gutters with a baked enamel coating will likely last even longer.  Aluminum gutters  can be installed by the homeowner or by a professional installer.  They are available in sections or as seamless gutters (see below). With any metal gutter, choose the thickest grade you can afford.  To estimate the approximate costs of aluminum gutters, including installation costs, see the following estimator: http://www.homewyse.com/costs/cost_of_aluminum_gutters.html

Steel gutters have the advantage of being stronger than either plastic or aluminum.  That’s important in areas with snow and ice buildup, but less important in most areas of S. California.  Galvanized steel gutters with an enamel coating are relatively inexpensive and are resistant to corrosion; but they will eventually rust through and need to be replaced.   They come in a variety of colors, but must be ordered from the manufacturer or gutter installation companies.  They also require soldering joints and are therefore usually professionally installed.   Stainless steel gutters are more expensive and mostly used for commercial buildings in our area.

Copper gutters are the most expensive – up to $20 a linear foot.  They last a lifetime and add a beautiful touch to the home. They don’t require painting – once they’re up they will look good for a long time.  They are usually installed as ‘seamless gutters’ and installed professionally. 

What are seamless gutters?  Gutters available in home improvement stores are known as sectional gutters.  The gutters come in 10 to 22 foot lengths and are connected with snap-on connectors to form longer lengths.  They can be cut to form shorter lengths.   Sectional gutters are easier to handle and don’t require special equipment.   Seamless gutters are metal gutters that are formed custom-size from sheets of aluminum, steel or copper.  The gutter-forming machines are portable, so the gutters are made on site.   Seamless gutters are made and installed by professional gutter or roofing companies.

Cold forming technology allows continuous gutters to be created in longer lengths, thereby reducing joints along the length of the gutter. These mostly joint free gutters are available in various shapes, sizes, and finishes.   Seamless gutters do have seams at the ends and where down-spouts are attached.   For more on seamless gutters and a cost estimator for your area (by U.S. Zip Code) see:

Can I install gutters myself?   Yes, if you have basic handy-person skills and are willing to spend the time.  You can install either sectional plastic or sectional aluminum gutters yourself.   All the materials you need are available at building supply stores, many lumberyards and roofing supply companies.   For some good advice on how to install your own gutters and downspouts see:

What options are there in terms of gutter size and shape?   Gutters come in several shapes and sizes.    The most common shapes are shown below.  If you choose seamless gutters, you may have fewer choices, since most portable gutter forming machines make only one design – usually the K-style (also called Ogee style).    The K-style gutter is available in plastic or metal, sectional or seamless, and is probably the most common style for area homes.

Diagram from: http://www.calebsmanagement.com/custom_metal_gutters.php

Rain gutters also come in several channel sizes, ranging from 4 inch to 6 inch for residential models.  The most common is the 5 inch, which is what you’ll likely find at home improvement stores.  If you have a very large roof, a tile roof – or live in an area with torrential downpours – you might want to consider a 6 inch channel width.

What is a drip edge?  Why is it important?  A drip edge is a metal strip that extends beyond the bottom row of shingles on a shingle roof (a tile roof extends out farther, so a drip edge isn’t needed).  The drip edge ensures that water from the roof drips into the gutter rather than running down the fascia board.    See the picture below for proper placement of the drip edge.  We also recommend the following: http://www.roofingcontractorreview.com/Roofing-How-To/Drip-Edge/Drip-Edge-Installation.html

What are rain chains?  Why use them instead of downspouts?  Rain chains are a traditional Japanese way to direct water from the gutter to the ground in a decorative way.    Rain chains are typically either a series of metal cups, chained together with a hole in the bottom of each, or chain links that span vertically.  They often are made of copper but can be made of other materials.   Our rain chain in Mother Nature’s Backyard is a simple copper cup design (see below).
There are many attractive rain chain designs, with prices that range from less that $100 (U.S.) to more than $500 per chain.   Rain chains are available from local roofing/gutter suppliers or can be ordered on-line.  Choose a rain chain instead of a downspout if it works well with your home design.   Rain chains are easy to install.  They usually come with an adapter/hanger that fits inside the drop outlet (or you can just cut a hole in the gutter – see below).

How do I maintain my rain gutters?   Rain gutters do need routine maintenance.   Equipping your rain gutters with gutter screens or louvers allows water to flow through, while keeping out some of the leaves and other roof debris. You may want to consider these accessories.  Other gutter protection devices include strainers, snap-in metal and plastic gutter guards, filtered gutter guards, stainless steel gutter guards, hinged gutter guards and even gutter brushes that look like hairy caterpillars.
Regardless of the gutter guard protection, all gutter systems should be examined for cleaning and repair twice a year.  Leaves blow in and birds leave materials – or even build nests – in gutters over the summer.   We suggest cleaning your gutters once just before the rainy season begins (October in our area) and once again mid-way through the rainy period (January in most areas of Southern California). There are a few tricks to cleaning your gutters (  see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_9WJSzV6fw).  

When should I replace old gutters?   A good clue that you have a problem is when you see water dripping from your gutters or streaming down the side of your house.  First check to be sure that the gutters don’t need to be cleaned.  Then find the source of the leak – often a leaking seam or small hole.     Simple leaks can usually be fixed without much effort.   For more on fixing leaks, we recommend:
If there is significant damage or corrosion of your gutters, you’ll need to either replace the damaged sections (if you have sectional gutters) or replace your gutters altogether.

How do I select a gutter contractor?   Use only a licensed contractor with either a D-24 (Metal Products Contractor) or C-43 (Sheet metal Contractor) license.   Be sure to ask the contractor for references; you may want to check with the Better Business Bureau and Angie’s List as well.   The contractor should be able to provide  samples for you to see the sizes, colors, materials and styles.   S/he should be able to answer your questions in a professional manner, without pressuring you to buy.   Get a firm price quote before work begins.  We suggest comparing the quote to the costs provided by the following cost estimator: http://www.homewyse.com/costs/index.html#gutters   If the quoted price seems out of line, try another contractor. 
A few more good resources


  1. Thanks for the great post. I have been to see your site often and I discover it really interesting and useful.

    Cleaning Gutter

  2. Great article! The ideas are absolutely so incredible and factual. I love this!


  3. Good article, the images realy helped! gutters can become a pain if they become blocked!

  4. I would read far more on this subject if the info provided were as fascinating as what you've written in this post. Don’t stop caring about the content material you write.
    seamless gutters queens ny

  5. Hi there! great stuff. Thanks for sharing a very interesting and informative content, it helps me a lot, keep it up!

    gutters portland or

  6. The appeal of rain chains for me is that they’re easier to clean whenever they get clogged, unlike the normal downspout. I can just poke it with a stick or a brush and get some water flowing into them to remove leaves and other stuff that may have dropped into it over time. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it doubles up as a decorative for the garden.

    Maricela Milum

  7. Inspecting and cleaning gutters should be done in the turn of the seasons, particularly if you get both rain and snow in your area. Clogging during those times could be a problem during that time, what with the constant flow of water or having snow piled up in them. And it’ll be more inconvenient to clean them during those times, especially winter.


  8. I have never seen this kind of gutter design in my life. For the first time i have seen it and also like it very much. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Thanks for sharing this effective article. I like the Idea. Great thinking! There is wonderful about "Harvesting Rain: Gutters, Downspouts and Rain Chains". I am impressed by the quality of information on this website. There are a lot of good quality resources here.
    I think, There are lots of things that homeowners can add to their homes to simplify their lives.
    I am sure I will visit this place again soon. You can find some information about install gutters.

  10. This is an awesome blog post packed with useful information and facts about the importance and many benefits of rain gutters. Proper installation and enough knowledge about rain gutters will earn you these benefits to their full extent. So it's truly good what you did here. Thank you!
    Joann Winton @ AJCRoofing

  11. Nice Post...i have never seen this kind of information about cleaning........

  12. Thanks for the information. I have a rain gutter that needs to be repaired soon before the next big rain storm. I'm looking for a contractor to fix it for me. I'm thinking of possible removing that rain gutter and installing a new one. I really like the idea of installing a rain chain instead of a downspout. That seems like a great alternative. Thanks for posting this!
    Bill Li | http://centuryraingutters.com/Repairing-your-raingutters.html

  13. I never considered using rain gutters to help harvest rain water. I really need to get new rain gutters for my home. My old ones were damaged in a storm the other day. I'm going to have to find high quality rain gutters so they will be able to survive another big storm. I'm sure that I can get the gutters I need. http://nebraskalandsiding.com/siding/2027711

  14. To clean your gutters and you want to protect them from damage from debris, talk to local gutter companies about having covers or guards installed to keep maintenance to a minimum and protect you from hazards such as a fall from a ladder, accidental contact with electrical wires or damage to your gutters when you clean them.

  15. very informative blog. i have spent value time reading this blog. thank you for sharing

  16. Harvesting rain water is good idea for drainage or using this water for plants and vegetables. I like your blog post.

    Installing Rain Gutter

  17. This is awesome blog.I Like your all Services and than gain the more information for rain gutter installation services.Thanks for sharing

    Regards - rain gutter installation

  18. I am looking at installing rain chains on the home, but have a couple of issues about using them and now I'm thinking to use the gutter downspout instead of the chain.


  19. I’m late to find this post but wow, this should be great. May not get any better…

    Half round gutters los angeles

  20. Well said. Rain gutters prevents the splashing of rain water to the walls, doors and windows of the house. It's necessary to attach rain gutters to avoid this problem.
    Gutter Accessories

  21. informative post, thanks for sharing!

  22. Most people end up letting rain gutter maintenance issues go until the gutters are completely ruined or just not working properly at all. If people really knew how much damage all that water pouring off the roof and accumulating at the foundation does, they would take better care of their gutters.

  23. I wish I had a porch! I think I might add a rain chain to my front entrance though, I think they make such nice additions to homes.