Download PDF version (209.7k) Log In or Register to view the full article as a PDF document.
Q.The jury still seems to be out as to whether to install gutters in a northern climate. Could you please shed some light on this, especially as to how omitting gutters would contribute to leaky basements?

A.Henri de Marne responds: Gutters are helpful and are required in many jurisdictions, but they can cause serious problems in very cold climates. They can fill with ice and cause water to back up under the roof sheathing even if a membrane like Grace Ice & Water Shield has been installed under the shingles. They can be knocked down by ice and require yearly repairs. The downspouts are often cracked open and discharge water onto the siding, which can lead to rot. I typically recommend gutters only for houses that are very well insulated, have effective attic ventilation, and have gone through one or more winters without ice damming.

Removal or omission of gutters does not have to create basement water problems. Even if you have gutters, you can have a damp or leaky basement if the grading, walks, driveways, decks, or planters allow water to stand against or run toward the foundation.

There are three main criteria for safely eliminating gutters. First, make sure the grade slopes away from the building at a rate of 2 inches per horizontal foot for as far as is practical. When building new, set houses higher to start with, so you can grade to them.

Second, plant a healthy stand of grass or ground cover on the sloping grade for a few feet, starting at the foundation. This is preferable to planting bushes and flowers in flat mulched beds, which allow water to stand and percolate deep. Instead, plant flowers and shrubs a few feet away from the foundation; that way, the homeowners will be able to see and enjoy them from inside, as well.

Third, set flagstones or other paving material in the sloping grade at the drip line of the roof to catch the brunt of the roof water and deflect it.

These measures should ensure that basements remain dry, unless there is an underground spring or high seasonal water table.

Henri de Marne is a contributing editor to the Journal of Light Construction.