Installing Gutters: How the Right Drainage System Saved a Seaside Cottage
Stratton Lawrence|November 28, 2017
When it rains on our home, the roof works like a raincoat and the gutters act as an umbrella. The roof and exterior walls keep water out, but installing gutters will make them even more efficient, by actively funneling water away from the house.
Gutters are a simple yet powerful tool that a professional can quickly design and install to accommodate your home. Although most new homes are built with gutters, if previous homeowners didn’t maintain the system, it may not be functioning properly and may need to be replaced. Likewise, you may own an older home that has never had a gutter system. An investment in gutters can prevent a host of costly problems, many of which are not covered by insurance.
The Preventive Power of Gutters
Each inch of rain that falls on a 2,000-square-foot home translates to 1,247 gallons of water hitting the property. (To figure out how much water falls on your house each time it rains, use this handy calculator from the USGS.) That’s a lot of water for the ground around your home to absorb. If it’s all reaching the soil directly around your exterior walls, the result could be a damp crawlspace, moisture inside your walls and a soggy habitat that’s conducive to insects and mold. That amount of water can also wash away flowerbeds and landscaping, cause premature paint peeling and promote wood rot.
What’s more, home and flood insurance policies rarely cover foundation damage or damage from water intrusion, unless it’s accompanied by a major natural event that compromises the structure of the house. Gutters act like supplemental insurance for these issues, helping to fight soil destabilization, protect patios and prevent termite infestations, so you don’t have to worry about these repairs in the first place.
Gutters may even help to save money on home insurance, says Paul Martin, Vice President of Agency Sales at TrustedChoice.com. “It’s an indicator that whoever built the home took care to include quality features,” says Martin. “Gutters are a strong symbol of a well-built, well-maintained house with a conscientious homeowner.”
A functional gutter system is critical no matter what region you live in. In the humid Southeast and Pacific Northwest, gutters channel moisture away from a home to prevent moisture retention and mold issues. In the Northeast, they direct snowmelt away from exterior walls and out to the yard. Even in the Southwest, where rains are infrequent, the quick strike of a rainstorm can cause significant erosion around a house as water runs over the hard-packed ground, just like a flash flood in a desert canyon.
A Seaside Cottage Case Study
Every house is unique, so gutters will benefit each home in different ways based on climate, roof design, soil type and other regional factors. Let’s look at one home in Charleston, South Carolina, where water-related issues plagued the house inside and out. Here’s what a gutter system did to help solve the issues and prevent them from returning.
1. Prevent Termite Damage:
When the owners of this coastal cottage began a whole-house renovation in 2016, they discovered what many homeowners consider a nightmare scenario: extensive termite damage.
This image shows a structural header across the front of the house, destroyed by the wood-boring insects.
When drywall was removed along a section of the house, the walls behind it had been gnawed to shreds.
Worse still, existing water drainage issues were encouraging and fostering an active termite population. This image shows evidence of a Formosan termite infestation discovered in the subfloor after removing carpet from a bedroom.
Of course, the home was immediately treated by professionals to eliminate the pests. The header was replaced (at significant expense) and the walls were ripped out and rebuilt. Finally, the owners took steps to prevent further infestations, including scheduling regular check-ups with a termite professional and reducing the moisture around the house.
The latter step was accomplished in two ways. First, the homeowners added dirt to grade water away from the walls of the home. Then, they installed gutters so that the thousands of gallons of water washing off the roof wouldn’t dilute termite treatments and serve as a lifeline to colonies of house-destroying insects.
2. Reduce Moisture in Crawlspaces and Basements
Homes with crawlspaces offer the convenience of accessing electrical, HVAC and plumbing components under the home, but they are often neglected spaces. (After all, not many of us enjoy getting on our hands and knees in a cramped, dirty space with spiders and other surprise pests to greet us.) These areas are particularly vulnerable to problems associated with excessive moisture.
The best solution is to encapsulate a crawl space with plastic, preventing moisture from entering the area through the dirt below. Although this is a job best left to professionals, it’s not easy and is priced accordingly.
Gutters offer an alternative and a complementary approach to addressing moisture underneath your home. Gutters direct the water away, reducing the moisture content in the soil and resulting in a drier crawlspace (and hopefully, fewer damage-causing insects).
When this home in Charleston was purchased, the walls of the crawlspace were lined with plywood that extended several inches into the ground behind a stucco façade. “Wood to ground contact” is a poor choice when it comes to termite prevention.
To reduce moisture and discourage termites from finding the plywood in the ground and continuing upward, the owners trimmed the plywood several inches over ground level and installed concrete boards and sheets of metal to replace the plywood. They also added a gutter system to direct water away from the exterior walls of the crawlspace, effectively reducing the average moisture level.
Homeowners with basements get the same benefits from directing water away from the soil surrounding the basement walls.
3. Protect Foundations from Water Intrusion
Over time, concrete foundations can develop small cracks. If water enters them, small fissures can become large fractures that may eventually threaten the stability of the home.
When the Charleston homeowners removed the carpet in a downstairs room, they discovered a crumbling foundation near an exterior corner of the house where water was apt to puddle
The repair required extensive grinding with a diamond wheel on an angle grinder, and then filling the void with new concrete.
The newly-added gutters now funnel water away from the base of the home, helping to prevent future water infiltration into the foundation. This is good news, as water infiltration is an issue that’s not covered by their home insurance policy and requires an out-of-pocket repair.
“Foundation troubles are generally not covered in a homeowner’s policy,” says Martin. “Without gutters, rainwater runoff can erode grading and lead to a build-up of water that eventually gets between the home’s slab and the walls, and that’s rarely covered.”
4. Reduce Moisture in Exterior Walls
One of the perils of living near the coast is high humidity, but that doesn’t mean the extra moisture has to cause damage to your home. In this case, inadequate drainage around the home’s exterior—and a lack of insulation or a moisture barrier between cinder block and panel walls—caused walls to bulge and rot.
After removing the rotted walls, the homeowners added insulation, replaced the walls and repainted them. It’s not a costly renovation, but it’s time-consuming. This extensive repair project could have been avoided had the home been outfitted with gutters. Gutters direct water away from the walls and reduce the high moisture levels in the soil around a home’s exterior.
5. Control Soil Erosion and Protect Landscaping
When water runs freely off a roof, it finds the path of least resistance until settling into the soil. A constant rush of water can take the soil with it, causing erosion. That can create problems, especially for homes built on a grade, such as those on hills or mountainsides. Our South Carolina homeowners live in the relatively flat Lowcountry, but their home is built on an old sand dune that creates an 8-foot grade from the front of the home to the back.
With each rainfall, a new pile of dirt would wash onto the downstairs concrete patio, requiring sweeping and hosing to remove it. Even laying bricks or concrete pavers would only dam the soil from building up, and eventually it would again wash onto the patio.
Likewise, on the other side of the home, rain from the roof eroded a rivulet into the soil, washing away the dirt and putting the foundation at risk with each rainfall.
In this case, gutters were the only solution, redirecting water from falling directly over the roof’s short overhang (just one foot from the exterior wall of the home).
Apart from avoiding messes and grading problems, a home’s exterior aesthetics can suffer without gutters. As Martin points out, “If you don’t have gutters, it’s very hard to have a good-looking flowerbed.”
6. Protect Decks and Patios
We invest time and money into our outdoor living spaces, and some areas may even require more upkeep than the inside of our homes. However, with proper protection, we shouldn’t have to frequently replace the boards on our decks. The Charleston homeowners’ decks and walkways were subjected to a constant onslaught of water, thanks to a metal roof that gathered dew in the morning and then slowly released that water onto the wooden walkways below.
The constant supply of moisture created a semi-permanent layer of green slime atop the rotting wood.
Along the home’s ground-level walkways, the roof hangs a few inches out over the edge, causing rot and algae growth along the inside edge of the path.
Gutters provide the solution, catching dew and rainwater before it runs from the roof onto the wood and redirecting the water to the soil, away from the house.
7. Develop an Irrigation Solution
Gutters can redirect a lot of excess water, but if you live in a low-lying area with close neighbors, you’ll need to be careful about where the gutters are sending it all.
Rain barrels present a sustainable solution. When the Charleston homeowners installed their gutter system, they designed it so that water would flow from roof to roof and ultimately land in a rain barrel, discreetly tucked away between a small garden and their outdoor shower.
The rain barrel includes an attachment for a hose, which they can use for a drip irrigation system in raised garden beds. There’s also an overflow nozzle so that even when water spills out, it does so 15 feet away from the house, rather than along the exterior walls.
Installation and Maintenance
In most cases, a home without gutters is a home at risk for erosion, insect infestation and moisture damage. You can add a gutter system to help protect against numerous threats, and to indicate to insurance companies and home inspectors that the home is well-built and properly maintained. On the other hand, broken or clogged gutters can send a negative signal and cause additional problems for the home. It is important to maintain gutters to ensure they work properly.
Inspect and clean out your gutters regularly to avoid build-up of leaves and debris. Depending on your home’s location, that may be a once-a-year job or it may require regular diligence during months when leaves are falling. You should also consider clog protection guards that prevent leaves and debris from falling into your gutter in the first place. In areas that see freezing temperatures, clogged gutters can cause ice dams which can result in leaks and roof damage. Wherever you live, a clogged gutter can’t function properly and instead redirects water to somewhere it shouldn’t be, including, in some cases, into the home’s walls.
Although they add maintenance responsibilities to a homeowner’s to-do list, the benefits gutters provide are innumerable, and the issues they prevent down the road are far more significant than the effort required to maintain them.
“From an insurance perspective, gutters are a loss prevention technique,” says Martin. “Gutters help to keep homes beautiful and in good repair.”
If you have concerns about moisture or drainage issues around your home, take the first step and have a qualified gutter installer inspect your house and make appropriate recommendations. Most companies offer free in-home consultations and have background-checked experts who make house calls.
Investing in installing gutters today can help you avoid the damage that improperly routed rainwater can cause—potentially saving hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars down the road.