Rain gutters may not be a topic that gets you out of bed in the morning, but if you live somewhere that receives average or more rainfall, it’s a topic that should grab your attention. Whether you have buildings located in heavily trafficked areas, set lower than their surrounding slope, or located near a septic field, or you’re interested in harvesting rainwater, a well-functioning gutter system is essential.
For the gutters on my small barn, my primary concern is animal health. “If you have livestock around the barn, excess water creates a muddy mixture of soil and manure in which accidents can happen and diseases can fester,” explains John Buchanan, associate professor in biosystems engineering and soil science at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. “Any water that comes into contact with manure becomes wastewater and must be treated as such in order to prevent environmental contamination.”
But animal health is only one of several gutter considerations. “In the case of sewer systems, we don’t want excess stormwater flowing over the septic tank or drain field,” Buchanan says. “This can create a hydraulic overload on the system, and reduce the ability of septic tank effluent to percolate down through [the] soil profile. This could cause a raw sewage backup into the lowest fixture in your house — an experience you’ll never forget.” In addition to sewage issues, poorly maintained gutters can also affect the health of a building’s foundation and result in flooding. According to Buchanan, failed gutters are the No. 1 reason people have issues with wet basements and sinking foundations.
Rain, Rain, Go This Way
Now that you’re prepared to keep your gutters in tiptop shape, what should you do with the runoff? Here are a few options:
Install a Rain Barrell or Cistern. Collect rainwater for use in your garden or home. Many DIY designs exist for roofs of all sizes. If your property is on a slope, you may be surprised by how well water can travel to where you need it without a pump. Search for “rain barrel” at www.Grit.com to find how-to articles on making your own rain barrel setup.
Fill a Watering Tank. A downspout that empties into a water trough is convenient for livestock barns with animals housed immediately outside. A good rain event will overflow a trough, so make sure there’s a system in place to divert excess water.
Divert to a Drain Field of French Drain. Sometimes, you just need to move water away from a structure. Sending it into an existing drain field or a French drain around a barn is a low-effort means of diversion.
Build a Rain Garden. Planted with native shrubs and perennials, rain gardens are designed to temporarily soak in and hold rainwater runoff. Think of them as riparian buffers for water coming off your roof. They can attract pollinators, provide wildlife and bird habitat, and bring more plant diversity to your farm. The Groundwater Foundation has information and resources to help you install a rain garden on your property.
To help prevent costly building repairs and keep the surrounding ground in healthy condition, conduct gutter inspection and maintenance twice a year. Brian Dougherty, field agricultural engineer with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, and Buchanan recommend following these steps to keep your gutters functioning properly.
Inspect gutters. “Gutters should be inspected with the natural cycles of the local trees,” Buchanan says. “In my case, this means I have to inspect my gutters in the spring after my maple trees have dropped their seeds and after my oak trees have dropped their catkins or tassels, and in the fall when all the trees drop their leaves.”
In addition to a semiannual inspection, you should also observe your gutters after a major wind event, as blowing leaves, limbs, and debris can cause clogging and damage. This can be as simple as watching from ground level while it’s raining to see if the gutters are working correctly.
Dougherty also suggests taking time on a clear day to look for signs that a gutter has been overflowing or leaking. “If you see signs that water has been pooling near the foundation, or there’s mildew on foundation walls, this indicates that the gutters are not functioning properly, or that drainage away from the foundation needs to be improved,” Dougherty says. “If the gutters are dripping, this indicates that they’re clogged, sagging, or rusted through. Look for signs of peeling paint, rust flecks, cracks, or loose fasteners.”
Remove debris from gutters. Clean your roof before you clean your gutters, because what’s on the roof will likely end up in the gutters. Most single-story gutters can be reached using a sturdy ladder placed on level ground. A narrow scoop is effective for cleaning gutters by hand; flush out any remaining debris with a garden hose. A spring-loaded grabber attached to a long pole can be used to clean gutters that are too high to reach with a ladder. For a more hands-off approach, leaf-blower-type systems exist that will allow you to blow out gutters from the ground. They don’t work well with moisture, though, and are better suited to gutters filled with dry, lightweight debris.
Clean gutter screens. If clogging is a regular issue with your gutters, consider installing gutter guards. These are typically perforated covers, though other types exist. Gutter guards work well for blocking most debris, but they still require semiannual maintenance. “Mother Nature is a tenacious force,” Buchanan says. “She’ll find ways for leaves to get stuck in the screen material, and for sticks to get into the gutters. An additional issue is the sand from asphalt shingles. As asphalt shingles age, the layer of sand starts to dislodge, resulting in sand buildup in the gutters.”
Check that downspouts are free-flowing. It’s easiest to check this on a rainy day, but you can also use a water hose. If you find a clog, try flushing it out with a hose. If that doesn’t work, remove the downspout from the gutter and push the clog through with a long stick, such as a broom handle.
Patch holes and remove rust. If a gutter has sprung a small leak, you can likely repair it with a gutter-patch kit, which is available at most hardware stores. To repair rust, clean the area thoroughly, and then coat it with a high-quality primer and rust-inhibiting paint. Make sure the gutter is completely dry before you patch a hole or repair rust.
Sure-up joints. Caulk or another sealant will do the trick. If you’ll be catching rainwater for use on food crops or for livestock, use a food-grade sealant.
Replace brackets and check the slope. “Secure or replace loose or broken brackets, and check the gutter slope with a level to make sure it will drain toward the nearest downspout,” Dougherty says. In regions where ice accumulation is a regular occurrence, watch for ice dams, which can damage gutters and brackets.
Like most building components, gutters will eventually need to be replaced. Their life span is dependent on how well they’re maintained, as well as the quality of materials used. Buchanan suggests replacing a building’s gutters every time you replace the roof. Sometimes, the relatively soft aluminum sheet metal gutters — the most common type of gutter — can get crushed or damaged, rendering sooner replacement necessary. “If the gutter is pulling away from the edge of the roof, it might be time to replace the gutters, rather than trying to repair them,” Dougherty says. “Broken fasteners can be replaced, but if the gutter itself is warped or sagging, it will not drain properly.”
Other indicators that it’s time to invest in new gutters include multiple cracks or rust holes, and water damage on the sidewall or fascia board under the gutters. Buchanan says many handy people are capable of installing new gutters, but offers this advice: “The primary disadvantage of DIY installation is that gutter sections come in 10-foot pieces. This means there are many ‘joints’ that have to be sealed, and this is difficult. The professional installer can create continuous gutter sections that will be watertight along the length. For this reason, I generally recommend that gutter installation be contracted to persons who have the equipment to produce continuous guttering.”
Like gutter maintenance, gutter replacement may not be exciting, but it’s essential to the health of your soil, buildings, and animals. Keep up with your gutters, and they’ll keep your water-related issues to a minimum.
Follow these safety precautions from Dougherty and Buchanan when cleaning gutter systems.
- Wear sturdy, watertight gloves and a long-sleeved shirt to protect your hands and arms from sharp metal edges, screws, and nails.
- Prevent slips with sturdy, closed-toe footwear with nonslip soles.
- Avoid baggy or loose clothing.
- Wear a dust mask, especially if gutter buildup is dusty or moldy.
- Choose a ladder with the proper load and extension. Place it firmly on an even surface. Have a helper hold the ladder.
- Only get on a roof when necessary, and only do so on shallow-pitched roofs with firm, nonslip surfaces. Use a roofing harness.
- Know where the electric service entrance is for the building, and use caution around it.
- Know when to hire a professional. If you think you aren’t able to do the job, or you don’t have the right equipment, hire a professional. It’s often best to leave multistory buildings to the pros.
According to Dougherty and Buchanan, gutters may not be necessary on every farm structure. To determine if a building needs gutters, evaluate the area around the foundation to look for gullying underneath the roof drip line and water pooling along the building. Also, check the building after a rain to see if water pools in the interior. If any of these things occur, add gutters. If the building isn’t in a high-traffic area for livestock, vehicles, or people, and the vegetative cover around the building maintains the soil, you might be able to pass on gutters. Also, if it’s an out-of-use building or you don’t think you’ll have time to do regular gutter maintenance, consider skipping gutter installation — unkept gutters can lead to more damage than letting a building go gutterless.
Lisa Munniksma is a farmer, editor, and freelance writer who lives in Kentucky.