10 Questions for . . . Robert Lenney, Gutter Expert

Consumer Reports News: September 30, 2008 09:21 AM

In this installment of 10 Questions for . . . , Associate Editor Gian Trotta talks with Robert Lenney, a cofounder of California-based Gutterglove and a former certified arborist. In December 2007,  Lenney and partner John Lewis received a patent for their Gutterglove gutter-guard system, which uses a fine stainless-steel mesh stretched across anodized aluminum panels.

You've cleaned many gutters in your time. How should a homeowner start planning the task?
Always think about safety first; don't just go jump on the roof and start tossing out handfuls of gunk. Pick a day when it hasn't rained for a few days; if that's not possible, wait until midmorning, after the sun has dried out the roof.

Do you recommend any special clothing?
I recommend wearing durable pants like jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. Tuck your shirt into your pants—when you're up on a ladder or on a roof, balance is everything, and if a loose end of clothing catches on something, it can cause a fall. Tucking the bottom of your pants into your socks also protects against wasps crawling up your pants leg.

I certainly agree about the wasp hazard; I got stung on my last gutter-cleaning foray. What about gloves?
Leather rather than cotton or rubber gloves give better protection—there are a lot of sharp edges in a gutter. Also, you might encounter some very distasteful substances—pigeon droppings are a prime example—that can cause bacterial infections or leave a lingering smell on your hands. I also recommend some kind of eye protection, either goggles or safety glasses.

When it comes to ladder safety, what precautions do you observe?
There are some precautions to observe with all ladders. Try to set an extension ladder so about 3 feet of it extends above the roofline. While the ladder might feel secure when you step on it, there might be a gopher hole or loose soil under the leg and it could cave in as you climb up. So very lightly jump up and down a few times on the first rung to seat the ladder well before climbing up. If the ladder has a shelf, you can keep a five-gallon bucket on it, securing the bucket with a lanyard.

Inspect the ladder carefully to make sure it's working properly. Be sure the hinge arms on a stepladder and spring hooks on an extension ladder are fully locked. Check that the ladder's rungs and sides aren't  split or bent or loose and that screws and bolts are secure—ladders held together with rivets are usually better in this regard.

(Here are some additional guidelines from the experts at Consumer Reports: Ladders are categorized by weight ratings; we recommend that you get a heavy-duty type 1A. For gutters above 17 feet you should use a conventional extension ladder. Choose a fiberglass or wooden ladder where electricity is a factor, and remember that any ladder can conduct electricity when it’s wet. Extension ladders should be set up with the base 1 foot away from the wall for every 4 feet the ladder reaches up—that's 3 feet at the base for a 12-foot ladder, or roughly a 75-degree angle. For lower gutters, you can use a stepladder or multiuse ladder. No matter which ladder you have, always follow manufacturers directions for setup. For more ladder-safety advice, read our safety tips.) 

What other specialized tools should be used?
Don't use that heavy metal planter scoop from your garden kit or an old spatula. They can scratch steel gutters and give rust and opportunity to form. They can also damage the caulking used on seams of other types of metal gutters.

Those plastic orange gutter scoops sold in stores have one nice quality: Their tips are thin and flexible, so they conform to the contours of your particular gutter style. The downside is they're not as strong as a metal tool, so we go through a lot of them in a season. But the average homeowner should get a few years out of a scoop.

I've seen people use leaf blowers to clean gutters. Are these devices effective?
We do use backpack leaf blowers to remove debris from gutters, but that's best left to very fit and experienced professionals. (For more about cleaning gutters with a leaf blower, read "A Leaf Blower Attachment.'" )

A better option is a garden hose; it's really important to use a nozzle with a squeeze-type handle.The pressurized stream lets you clear out a long length of gutter out, cutting down the number of times you have to move the ladder. Plus, you can adjust the stream with just one hand, unlike some other nozzles. And lastly, that style of handle lets you hang the hose on the gutter itself. A small rake also comes in handy to clear debris from the roof near the gutter.

After you're done with the horizontal section of gutter and come to the opening for the vertical leader/downspout, what's the next step?
You try the easiest, softest, nondamaging unclogging methods for the leader pipe first. If water has been backing up, probe downwards with a short stick, and if that doesn't dislodge the clog, then gently feed the garden house down into the downspout to clear it out. If your leader downspout goes into a dry well, detach it from the downspout so you won't force debris into it.

Can the lightbulb-shaped mesh inserts that go in the cup connecting the gutter and leader like the one pictured at right help?
Those are helpful if you don't want a gutter guard, but the downside is they clog frequently. You will have to go up and unclog it every few weeks—and that's one reason we're in the gutter-cleaning and gutter-guard business. For every homeowner we can keep off a roof, that's one less person whose going to take a chance at falling.

Going back to your background as an arborist, how can landscaping help reduce the amount of stress on gutters?
There are a few things you can do, like planting smaller trees near your house. But if it boils down to a choice of having a beautiful landscape and having to clean your gutters or having a less attractive landscape and not having to clean you gutters, I'd vote for the beautiful landscape—you want to design your property as you truly want it. If you can't clean your gutters yourself, then you can use a service or a product like ours.

Gutter cleaning is one of the least appealing seasonal home-maintenance tasks. Why is it so important to keep your gutters clean?
Aside from protecting your home's structure, keeping your gutters clean will cut the risk of fires, a real concern if you live in a place where windswept fires occur, like Southern California. Debris sitting in your gutters and adjoining roof sections can dry out and catch airborne sparks from wildfires.

Essential Information: Find out more tips and tricks for safe and effective maintenance in our fall lawn-and-yard checklist and a special read-only Q&A with our yard guru Peter Sawchuk.

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