P.O. Box 11537 Shorewood, Wisconsin 53211

5 Reasons to Love Your Built-in Gutters and Treat Them Right

  1. Built-in gutters are wide enough to handle the high volumes of water that a large roof will produce.
  2. Built-in gutters are far less likely to clog with leaves and need cleaning. They are more open than external gutters without those leaf-trapping brackets. Wind alone will often clean out fallen leaves.
  3. *A built-in gutter lined with copper will last for 75 to 100 years with no maintenance. But should a problem arise, a bad seam or hole can be easily resoldered.
  4. Cheaper approaches to lining gutters just plain don’t work. Rubber wears out far more quickly than the shingles it is run under; aluminum can’t be soldered and inevitably leaks; steel is more difficult to solder and will rust.
  5. Covering the built-in gutter and mounting an exterior gutter is costly, often creates roofing problems, and leaves the house with a gutter of inadequate volume that is likely to fill up with leaves. The Aluminum gutters that most people mount don’t rust, but they nevertheless need replacing far more frequently, due to the damage caused by ice, leaves, tree-branches, and ladders.

I was standing 2 ½ stories up in an East Side gutter the other day. This was not one of those flimsy aluminum gutters that can be found screwed into the fascia board of most houses these days. You can’t stand in those. This was one of those large metal-lined troughs built into the roof structure. As I surveyed the neighboring aluminum gutters, I noticed that they were all filled with water and a sludgy green and brown goop that had in its non decomposed form been leaves. Every gutter I could see, except the one I was standing in, was clogged and heavy with water.

That’s one of the beautiful things about built-in gutters; they are wide and open. Leaves will fall into them, but then just as easily blow out. Their width and depth not only does not trap leaves the same way, it also can handle the volume of water that will cascade off these large roofs during a heavy storm.

Despite their superiority in managing a roof’s water and the leaves of the surrounding trees, many home-owner see built-in gutters as a curse; many houses in Milwaukee have also had the built-in gutter covered and roofed over (with varying degrees of success) with a flimsy external gutter now mounted to the fascia.

There are legitimate reasons why many built-in gutters are seen as a problem, but almost all of these are a product of timing, lack of maintenance, and often a poor choice of materials used in their repair.

One of the reasons why people come to despair at their built-in gutter system is that they have inherited them at the end of their life span of about 100 years, if they were originally lined with copper. At this point, they are likely to start leaking, necessitating a substantial roof and gutter restoration. At between $50 and $100 per foot for replacement, it is easy to see why they can be the source of consternation. Had the owner purchased the house at the middle of the gutter’s life span, they would have enjoyed years of trouble-free (and expense-free) service. The problem therefore isn’t the gutters themselves.

But just as likely to find themselves the owner of a 100 year old gutter that finally needs replacement, East Side homeowners often are the proud owner of a recently, and poorly, replaced built-in gutter. With the high cost of doing this work properly, many people look for cheaper solutions. Much of the “bad name” that built-in gutters have is in fact the prevalence of these poorly done repairs. I too would curse my built in gutters if I learned that the $5000 repair I had done 15 years ago now needed to be redone, or if the false promise of a 10 year old roof on my new house was now revealing the truths hidden in its rubber-lined gutter.

The common alternatives to relining the gutter with soldered copper are to line them with EPDM rubber or with aluminum, or attempt to squeeze out additional years with paint-on coatings. While the rubber can provide an initially water-tight system, the problem with the rubber is that it just doesn’t last that long. While I have seen ones that have made it close to 20 years, it is far more common to see ones failing after 10 to 15 years, often caused by the scratching of rodents, but also the results of the rubber degrading after 10 years of U.V. radiation. This is especially irksome since gutters are best relined at the time of roofing. If your rubber gutter line fails a quarter or half-way into the 30 or 40 year span of your shingles, you then have to rip up the bottom several courses of shingles and attempt to work new ones, often that won’t match, under the remainder of the roof. Or you end up replacing a roof long before it needs replacing. The situation is even worse with a tile or slate roof. There you have a 15 year-old worn-out rubber liner running under slates that may last another 100 years. While it is possible to remove the bottom several courses of slate, this is delicate and tedious work. It is something that should only be attempted every 75 to 100 years, not every several decades.

The other common solution, using an aluminum liner, is even worse. People assume that aluminum is a good choice, as it won’t rust. True enough. But aluminum gutter liners (like aluminum gutters) can’t be soldered. Therefore the 10′ sections of gutter liner are screwed together and covered with a wide smear of caulk. While the caulks used today are impressive, they just won’t last. The main problem is that aluminum, of all metals, is one of the most subject to expansion and contraction in the heat and cold. Regardless of the quality of the caulk, it can stand up to the seasonal tearing at the joint as the gutter sections push and pull on the seam. I have seen aluminum built-in gutters fail within a year. Because installing aluminum gutter liners is still a substantial investment, few are willing to admit defeat when they start leaking, and will often put up a losing fight for years, recaulking, coating the gutter with water-sealing paint, even gluing a rubber liner over the metal when all else has failed.

The liquid coatings should be seen as an act of desperation. They don’t work, but are in fact likely to trap moisture under them, increasing the life span of the underlying metal.

All this, it turns out, is not a very fun way to try to save some money on a gutter restoration. While it, it can be hard to stomach, let alone finance, the high cost of doing things right, with built-in gutters the other “solutions” just aren’t worth it. An investment in your built-in gutters is good for you house, good for the future owners, and probably even good for you: with all the other work your old house is likely to require, you don’t want to make your gutters a yearly concern.

At Community Building and Restoration, we specialize in replacing built-in gutter liners with the highest quality copper, fully soldered and integrated into the roof system. Unlike many other roofing companies, we are also master-carpenters, and are therefore equipped to perform the carpentry necessary to repair or replace the surrounding trim, and sometimes the deteriorating built-in gutter structure. This deterioration is of course the inevitable result previous repair attempts in rubber or aluminum or coatings of liquid sealers. An old copper gutter replaced in a timely manner with a new one rarely needs any of this carpentry.