Gutter-cleaning pro offers advice and promotes safety that just might save your life when cleaning out your gutters
Fall is the time of year to get your house in order before winter sets in. For most of us, that means it's once again time for a good, old-fashioned gutter cleaning.
It's the semi-annual project that strikes fear into the heart of all urban and suburban warriors who face a "Honey, it's time to clean out the gutters!" At its best, gutter cleaning is a tedious and disgusting task. At worst, it can be scary and downright dangerous. One slight misstep and you are heading to the hospital with a broken bone and bruised ego.
Each year about 180,000 homeowner accidents (including fatalities) occur that are ladder related, according to Consumer Reports¹. That's why it's best to be prepared to do the job right. Here are a few tips and tricks for safe and effective gutter cleaning:
Ladder Safety: Use a safe and sturdy ladder, preferably with a small shelf strong enough to hold a five-gallon bucket to put the leafy, gunky gutter debris in. Make sure to secure the bucket with a lanyard to your ladder. I generally prefer a four legged step ladder for a single story and an extension ladder for a two story home. I don't recommend an orchard ladder because they have only three legs for support and can get unbalanced and placement is difficult.
I wouldn't use a wooden ladder because they are often wobbly and difficult to balance effectively. Fiberglass ladders seem to be the most sturdy but are also the most heavy. If you are cleaning gutters for hours and hours, muscle fatigue can set in from moving the heavy ladder numerous times. If this is the case, you should try using an aluminum ladder, which is my second choice for strength and support.
Inspect the ladder for defects, dents or loose parts before climbing. If your ladder is fastened together with screws and bolts, make sure all are tightened. When opening up a step ladder, make sure the extension-hinge arms are fully extended and locked in place.
Before ascending the ladder, lightly jump on the first rung a few times to make sure the ground is secure. Sometimes the soil is soft, or maybe there is a gopher hole underneath one of the ladder legs, which could collapse the soil when the weight of a ladder and yourself is placed on it, tipping the ladder over. You can also place a piece of half inch plywood under the ladder legs to keep it level and steady.
When climbing the ladder, always remember the "3 Point Rule". As much as possible, try to have both your legs and one hand secured on the ladder at all times to give you stability and balance on the ladder while cleaning. Conversely, don't lean out from the ladder and balance yourself on one leg while trying to reach for one more scoop of debris from the gutter with both hands. It could be the last scoop of debris you reach for, if you survive it.
Garden hose: Using a garden hose with normal water pressure (30-40psi - which is standard for city supplied water), simply attach a pistol-grip trigger operated spray nozzle. This type of spray nozzle allows you to adjust the water pressure with the use of just one hand. Because of this style of spray nozzle with the handy pistol grip trigger, you can easily hang the spray nozzle over the front edge of the gutter when you move the ladder or if you need to use your hand for another gutter cleaning operation. This type of spray nozzle can be purchased at any hardware store.
Spraying out the gutter is generally best when most of the larger debris has already been removed. It's difficult to spray out leaves and pine needles that have piled up over the summer and fall. Spray towards the downspout (leader pipe) so the small murky debris flows down the downspout. If your downspout is connected to an underground drain, you should disconnect the base of the downspout from the underground drain so the debris doesn't flow into it causing a potential clog.
Gutter scoop: Scooping out the leafy dirty debris seems to be the best overall method for cleaning out the gutter. I recommend the bright orange plastic "Gutter Getter" scoop which can be purchased at most any hardware store. This tool is unique because the front scooping edge is very thin and it 'forms' itself to the bottom of the gutter trough making it easy to scoop out even the toughest of debris in any size gutter system.
Stay away from using a 'metal' scooping tool because you can damage the bottom of the gutter and seams. By scraping the bottom of a steel gutter can introduce areas to rust. If the bottom of the gutter is already rusting, then the rusting process could speed up, making your gutter system fail prematurely. Also, using a metal scooping tool can damage seams in the gutter. Through the motion of scraping out the bottom of a gutter with a metal tool can damage the caulking that seals two ends of a gutter together (called a seam).
You can also attach an extension pole to the gutter scoop for reaching farther out into the gutter. This would reduce ladder moves because now you are reaching farther out with the scoop on the extension pole for cleaning.
Wear gloves: Gloves can help protect your hands against pigeon dropping bacteria. Or, if your gutters are old and ragged, you hands will be less likely to get cut on torn metal gutter shards. I prefer the thick suede glove material rather than cotton, smooth leather or rubber. Cotton gloves can soak up dirty water and then it's exposed to your skin; leather gloves are not as maneuverable with your hands and tend to shrivel up when you dry them out after cleaning; rubber gloves can be poked through by metal shards in the gutter.
Protective eye wear: Wear eye protection because you never know what might fly into your eyes when cleaning gutters. I've experienced rats, birds, frogs, wasps and bees leaving the downspout at high speeds once you start removing the clog. You don't want them landing in your eyes.
Rake Off Roof: Rake all debris off the roof first. If you don't, the next rain will wash all the debris down into your clean gutter, clogging it up again. Also, debris left on the roof can lead to water damming in valleys or around the chimney, which can lead to erosion and roof leaks over time.
Rubber shoes: If you decide to walk on the roof to perform your gutter cleaning, it's good to use rubber soled shoes because they tend to adhere best when walking. This reduces slipping and falls when walking on the roof. Roof tops tend to be moist in the morning, so it's best to walk on the roof after the sun is well up in the sky, and has dried up all the moisture that is present on the roof. Late morning or early afternoon should be the best times to walk on a roof.
For wood shake roofs, you can wear a special spiked roofing shoe called a Korker, which have small metal spikes similar to golf shoes and help attain good grip when walking on the roof. However, if Korkers are actually needed, I would recommend that you use a professional gutter cleaning company to clean out your gutters, because even wearing Korkers can be tricky and slips can still occur.
Downspouts unclogged: Make sure the downspouts (leader pipe) are clear. After all the gutters are cleaned out, run the water hose down the downspout at full pressure. If the water backs up out of the top, you have a clog. Normally, you can unclog it by tapping on the side of the downspout. But if that doesn't work, you need to remove the downspout and back-flush it from the bottom. If you do have a clog, and your downspout is connected to an underground drain, you may want to disconnect the bottom of the downspout from the underground drain, or the clog may move to the underground drain.
CAUTION: When unclogging the downspout, make sure your protective eyewear is on, because the most horrendous creatures have escaped from the downspout once you start fussing with it. We've experienced rats, birds, frogs, wasps and bees leaving the downspout at high speeds once you start removing the clog.
Downspout chain: If your downspout makes an annoying dripping sound during or after a rain storm, you can install a special decorative chain to hang down in place of a traditional downspout. The rainwater runs down the chain gracefully and looks rather beautiful like a decorative fountain.
There are also some magnetic sponges available that stick to the side of the downspout and absorb water and helps reduce the dripping sound. I've found men's underwear and socks in downspouts for just this purpose, but I don't recommend it.
Clean gutters two times a year: Make sure you clean out your gutters at least twice a year - once in the fall and again in the spring. Two main reasons for cleaning out gutters are to eliminate the possibility of water damage from rainwater runoff due to a clogged gutter, and to reduce the possibility of rust corrosion. Even though it may not rain in the summer time, if there is debris in your steel gutters, the rusting process can speed up. It's difficult for rust to speed up with clean gutters. The faster the rusting process, the sooner you will have to buy new gutters again.
Gutter guards: Using a quality gutter guard can eliminate the need for cleaning out your gutters. Consider carefully the manufactures claims before purchasing a gutter protection system that keeps out leaves and pine needles, because many make promises they can't deliver.
I've found the most amazing collection of items in gutters including: Mens underwear, diapers, socks, gutters filled with pigeon poop, golf balls, tennis balls, syringes with needle, dead animals, aluminum cans, children's toys, garbage of all sorts, live adult rats, live baby rats, small frogs, large frogs, wasp nests, bees nests, books, newspapers, nails, tile pieces - oh, and of course leaves, pine needles, seed pods and sand.
Happy gutter cleaning!
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TOP 10 TIPS FOR GUTTER CLEANING
Use a sturdy, safe ladder with shelf.
Use a hose with adjustable spray.
Use a gutter scoop.
Wear eye protection.
Clean off roof first.
Wear rubber-soled shoes for stability when walking on roof.
Always let someone know you are on the roof.
Clean out downspouts with a garden hose.
Clean gutters twice a year.
ABOUT ROBERT LENNEY