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EarthTalk: Environmentally Friendly House Gutters

When new gutters are needed, consider green choices

Originally published in the Christian Science Monitor


By The Editors of E Magazine

Q:We will need to replace our house gutters soon. What are our best options from an environmental perspective?
– Jodie Green, Dallas

A: Use a material that is the most durable for your climate. Ultimately, the longer your gutters last, the less environmental cost there will be – from manufacturing to recycling. A cheaper product that degrades twice as fast as another would not be the best choice, even if it has a greener production process. Also, the extra cost of having to fix your water- damaged home could make a “cheaper” gutter in reality much more costly.

“Galvanized steel, copper, and aluminum are preferred gutter materials,” reports Austin Energy, the Texas capital’s community-owned electric utility. Copper is a more expensive, high-end gutter material, as are stainless steel and wood, although wood is used mostly in historical restoration.

According to home improvement expert Don Vandervort, who writes for ThisOldHouse.com, galvanized steel and aluminum each have big pluses. Steel is sturdy, while aluminum will not rust. Copper and stainless steel are sturdy and lasting, too, says Mr. Vandervort, but they can cost three to four times as much as steel or aluminum.

“Steel gutters can stand up to ladders and fallen branches better than aluminum,” he says. “But even thick galvanized steel eventually rusts.” He advises buying “the thickest you can afford.” Austin Energy says that gutters should be a minimum of 26 gauge galvanized steel or 0.025 inch aluminum.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is also used for gutters, but “can get brittle with age or in extreme cold,” says Vandervort, and they cannot carry as much snow load as metal gutters. PVC is also not a very green-friendly choice. When produced or burned, says the Center for Health, Environment and Justice , PVC releases dioxins.

Replacing your gutters can provide an environmental opportunity, because the way you handle your roof’s water is important. Consider linking your gutters to a “rooftop catchment system” that captures rainwater in a cistern or rain barrels and can then be used to water nonedible plantings.

Efficient water use is a guideline in the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for homes standard for certifying green-built homes.

Finally, if you have a problem with debris in your gutters, consider a RainTube. This recycled-plastic gutter insert (which won the 2008 Sustainable Product Award from Green Building Pages) keeps gutters clear of debris, preventing overflow into your house. Of course, cleaning your gutters now and then is probably the best environmental option because it may head off any need for replacement or modification.


Rain chains are dumb and destructive to your home-use rain cups instead!

Here’s why…

The roof, flashings, gutters and downspouts on your home all play different but important roles in shedding and controlling rain water off of and away from your home.

Your home has a “rain shield” system

The roof and flashing systems are the first lines of defense. They serve to shed the water and to keep it from penetrating into the structure by moving it downhill via gravity to the roof edges.

The gutters are the next defensive line. They capture the water as it sheds off of the lower edges of the roof. Once the water is collected, it is moved (again by gravity) through the slightly-sloped gutter to a downspout opening.

Once the water leaves the gutter it is the downspout’s job to deliver it downward in a controlled manner safely either to the ground or into a drain system.

The weak link

“Rain chains” are used frequently on homes as a substitute for downspouts. This usually takes place in locations where a normal downspout would be ugly or just doesn’t work mechanically. This can happen at a roof edge that extends past the exterior wall leaving no place to attach a downspout.

The issue I have with rain chains is they cannot and do not control the runoff water.

In theory rain chains provide the water a pathway to trickle out of the gutter and then run down the length of the chain to the ground.  Unfortunately, rain very seldom happens in trickles as it would during a nice, calm, wind-free day.  Usually rain happens during storms with wind blowing and water flowing.

Rain chains cause damage
Heavy duty rain chain installation at valley

In storm conditions rain chains are worse than useless…as if they were not there at all. Wind blows the water off the chain and all over the structure in a wide arc of destruction.  If it lands on the ground, it may end up in places you do not want it, like at the base of your foundation. I have seen a lot of damage to siding, windows doors and foundations caused by relying on rain chains instead of downspouts.

Rain cups, the better option

An alternative, and much better solution is to utilize “Rain Cups” instead of rain chain. Rain cups are a vast upgrade in both looks and in how the water is controlled during its decent to the ground. You can search for Rain cups on the internet by looking for custom or decorative rain chains.

Rain chain alternative
Rain cups

Rain cups come in a vast array of decorative materials and shapes. Get large cups 3-4” in diameter or larger if your area is subject to heavy rains. Don’t get cheap versions with tiny cups. These are as worthless as chains and not worth the time to install.

Rain chains
Use appropriate sized rain cups for the application

Rain cups fit under the downspout opening in the bottom of your gutters. They normally come pre-assembled, with instructions and are fairly easy to install, but you will need a tall ladder so be careful. Anchor rain cups at the bottom so they cannot be blown around in strong winds and cause damage. Anchoring can be done simply enough with a stake or even a heavy rock placed in the bottom cup.


If you already have rain chains or are considering them for your home, I highly recommend you abandon the idea and go with a rain cup version instead. Rain cups control the water well and can be a very attractive addition to your home. They will even create a pleasant water feature during an otherwise gloomy storm if placed in a good location. Check out the video below to see some 3″ copper rain cups in action.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaCBMhAd230[/embedyt].

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