Winter Gutter Maintenance Checklist

by Michael Franco

Winter Gutter Maintenance at a Glance

  • Clear debris
  • Inspect for leaks
  • Check downspouts
  • Prevent ice dams
  • Prevent attic heat loss
  • Install heat cables

For homeowners, winter can be one of the most unpredictable times of the year, especially in areas where subzero temperatures regularly occur. That's why it's a smart idea to perform some routine maintenance on your home before winter arrives.

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If you’re not already doing so, preparing your gutters for the upcoming snowy season should be at the top of your maintenance list. Wondering where to begin? Read on to find out.

1. Clear Your Gutters of Debris

Throughout the summer and fall, leaves, sticks and other debris can and will accumulate in your gutters. The concept is simple: Too much debris in the gutter causes a clog, and clogged gutters equal big problems. Clogged gutters can lead to a host of issues that might cause water damage to your home. And they’re even more of a threat in the winter months. Slow water flow and freezing temperatures can quickly lead to the nightmare scenario of an ice buildup. Do yourself a favor and get into the habit of thoroughly cleaning your gutters after the last of the leaves have fallen and before winter finally sets in.

2. Inspect Your Gutters for Leaks

As you might imagine, a leaking gutter is not doing its job correctly. As you gear up for winter, make sure that you carefully check your entire gutter system for leaks. A leaking gutter can cause siding, soffit and fascia to rot. A non-functioning gutter can even cause water to pool near your foundation, leading to flooding and even structural damage. It’s important to give your gutters a thorough leak check before winter arrives in all its snowy, icy glory.

Inspecting for leaks is best handled by two people. One person will need to carry a garden hose up a ladder to the roof. From there, spray the hose into the gutter, starting from the opposite end of the downspout. Then, the other person who's still on the ground can see where the water is leaking out. Once the leaks have been identified, you can repair or replace your gutters as needed. In some instances, you may be able to patch a leak using a gutter seal, or simply patch the leak using a comparable material. However, if the leak is large or there are several, your best bet is to replace your gutter entirely.

And while you’re up there cleaning and checking for leaks, take a moment to also consider the overall condition of the gutters. Are they rusted, dented or otherwise rough-looking? If so, you may want to consider replacing them. Pay extra attention to the corners and junctions here. Look and see if any sealant has corroded between the joints. If so, they may need reinforcement.

3. Don’t Neglect the Downspouts

While ensuring that your gutters are clear of debris and leak-free, make sure that you take the time to inspect the downspouts and diverters as well. Downspouts are important aspects of your gutter system, as they cause water to flow away from your home. Ideally, downspouts should redirect water at least 10 feet away from your foundation. If they're not, you can buy simple, flexible extenders that will help you get the water away from your home.

If your downspout is connected to a rain barrel, disconnect it until the spring. Rain barrels can freeze in the wintertime and cause a backup of ice which could permanently damage your downspout.

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4. Protect Against Ice Dams

Ice. It’s the bane of your gutters’ existence. When the cold weather hits, you want to do everything in your power to prevent so-called ice dams from forming in your gutters. Ice dams are long pieces of ice that form along your gutters, causing severe blockages. The problem, then, arises when the snow and ice melt off of your roof and into the gutters. The ice in your gutters creates a blockage, and the water will pool behind the ice and then travel up and under your shingles. It’s not a good situation; you’ll start to notice water dripping into the soffit, walls, and even ceilings.

If you’re familiar with the damage water can cause, you know that this can spell serious trouble. That’s why it’s crucial that you take steps to stop ice dams from occurring in the first place. Keeping your gutters and downspouts clear of debris can go a long way toward preventing ice dams.

5. Prevent Heat Loss From the Attic

In many cases, snow and ice will melt off your roof due to air leaks present in your attic space. This can be due to unblocked walls, spaces between sheets of drywall and even lack of proper insulation.

While they can be difficult to monitor, it’s worth taking a trip up to your attic to inspect the area carefully. Look for any possible air leaks and patch them using spray foam, caulk or insulation. And — speaking of insulation — if you have less than 8 inches of it in your attic, you may need to add more to prevent widespread heat loss.

6. Install Heat Cables

During extra cold winters, you might get an ice dam despite your best efforts to keep your roof cold and clear. In this case, you might consider installing heat cables. These electric heating cables can be placed anywhere an ice dam might occur, including gutters, downspouts and at the eaves of the roof. These cables melt ice that forms in places where ice buildup regularly occurs, preventing water from seeping under your shingles.

Keep in mind that heat cables are best used for problem areas only. If you have widespread ice dam issues, you probably have attic heat loss issues like poor insulation. Heat cables can be very helpful in easing the burden of ice dams, but they won’t prevent them altogether. To keep ice dams at bay, you’ll need to take a multi-faceted approach and ensure proper gutter maintenance throughout the year.

Take Care of Your Gutters — and the Rest of Your Home

Cold weather can cause headaches for homeowners, but with proper gutter maintenance and care, you can rest easy knowing that you’ve done all you can do to protect yourself against the damaging effects of winter.