Ever have to get on a ladder in winter and clean a clogged gutter? I have, and it’s not fun. But some time spent now, while it is yet warm, can circumvent such frigid unpleasantness.

What if your roof is high and you feel unsteady working at such heights? Then by all means, do not take a chance. Instead, find someone else to do this task. But one way or the other, your gutters must be maintained. This means checking for soundness and also, making sure they are clear of obstructions.

Interestingly, the type of trees in your neighborhood have considerable bearing on how quickly your gutters become hopelessly filled with debris. For instance, leaves of deciduous trees such as maple, poplar and oak, tend to take a while to accumulate. That’s because when they land on a roof, they often just bounce right off and don’t land in the gutter. And even if they do, they don’t always remain there, because their large surface area acts as a sail. The first strong wind propels then out of the gutter and away from the house.

Of course that only holds true when the leaves are dry. Wet leaves stick to anything they land on and usually, they stay there. Some houses have many seasons worth of leaves, wet, sodden and tightly packed, in the gutters. In the days of wooden gutters, accumulated wet leaves quickly rotted the gutters. But now, with aluminum and plastic gutters, that doesn’t present so much of a problem, with the exception of historically-accurate homes, some of which still employ wooden gutters.

Pine trees have leaves too, but we mostly refer to them as, “needles.” And believe it or not, although we may rate pines as “evergreens,” they do shed their leaves. The difference between pines and maples, for instance, is that pines do not shed their leaves all at once. In fact, the leaf fall for pines is so fragmented that most people don’t even know it has occurred.

All the same, that’s where the dry pine needles come from, the ones we rake up and use for mulch in our gardens. These same dried pine needles land on our roofs and eventually wash into our gutters. And while maple and oak leaves allow water to pass through, at least to some degree, a thick buildup of pine needles can hopelessly clog a gutter, making for great difficulty when it rains.

The problem

So what happens when gutters get plugged up with leaves and other airborne debris? Well, a number of things, really, depending upon the density of the clog. For a while, water can quite easily pass through a partially-clogged gutter, especially if the gutter is at an angle that facilitates quick passage through it. When gutters become clogged to the top, as in when you see little maple saplings sprouting from the gutters, the real problems begin.

Let’s consider a length of gutter that has become thickly packed with wet leaves. At this point, water begins to flow over, rather than through, the gutter. This isn’t a big problem in summer, but it sure wreaks havoc in winter.

Also, water lingers in clogged gutters and when it freezes, the functional part of the gutter becomes shallower, only effective from the top of the frozen debris to the top of the gutter. When gutters freeze to the top, then the really big troubles start.

North-facing roofs are quite prone to ice buildup in gutters, which, in turn, leads to ice dams. This was discussed in this column in the Feb. 7, 2013 issue. Even those who take preventative steps concerning ice dams can experience problems when ice builds up in gutters. In my own case, the addition of a metal roof solved my ice dam problem. Well, ice still builds up, but it can’t work its way in under the metal roof.

However, my gutters got clogged last year and then froze. This allowed snow to make a bridge from gutter to roof. When the snow melted, it became slush and when the slush froze, it resulted in a big buildup of ice. The ice was so heavy that in one place, it partially tore the gutter from its mountings.

Of course by then, it was too late for me to get up and clean the gutters. I was obliged to get a ladder and a small hammer and chip away at the offending ice. This was a terribly unpleasant task, one that I don’t wish to repeat any time soon.

Possible solution

One solution, and the most obvious one, is to be diligent in maintaining my gutters. Another possible solution, and one that I just adopted, was to replace my traditional gutters with something called, “Rainhandlers.” These are not gutters in the traditional sense, but rather are long, slotted devices that mount the same as gutters, but deflect the flow of water from the roof so that it disperses in a spray and lands several feet from the house.

The advertisement says that these prevent ice dams and also, keep leaf buildup from happening. “Leaves simply blow away and can’t clog Rainhandler,” the advertisement reads. So I ordered three sections, enough to do the north end of my roof on one section of my house.

The product arrived in a timely fashion and it was hard to believe that it contained three lengths of gutter, since it was so light. But these are made of aluminum, which accounts for their lightness. Rainhandlers come with mounting brackets and screws and I found them quite easy to install. With that, it was time to wait for a rain and see how the things performed.

I didn’t have long to wait. A driving rain arrived within days of installation and I was pleased to see that the Rainhandlers performed as advertised. But before I recommend these to readers, my new gutters will need to go through the winter. By this time next year, I’ll feel confident in giving them the green light. As an aside, I’m sure they will work fine and it does appear that they will take care of the ice dam problem once and for all.

Even if you don’t choose Rainhandlers, do make it a point to either get on a ladder and clean your gutters yourself, or hire someone else to do the job. But either way, don’t go into winter with clogged gutters. This may sound like a nuisance now, but you’ll thank me later.

By the way, for those interested in learning more about Rainhandlers, here is their contact information: Rainhandler, 2710 Bridgeport, CT 06604, 1-800-942-3004, rainhandler.com.