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Failure to care for gutters can cause host of problems

| Saturday, June 30, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

Beth Dutton and Bill Hudspath say the simplicity of what gutters do belies the wide range of trouble they can be part of.

Failure to care for gutters can be a "killer" or a problem because of the variety of trouble it causes, says Hudspath, a Latrobe roofer and contractor.

Dutton, the municipal support coordinator for 3 Rivers Wet Weather in Lawrenceville, says gutters can lead to overflowing sewer systems that can damage low-lying communities and even the banks of streams used by wildlife.

They and people such as Luke Stamper from the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association in Edgewood agree the secret to avoiding all sorts of trouble is simple: Don't ignore taking care of gutters.

"Pay close attention to the gutter, and stay alert to what's overhead," Stamper says.

Gutters are great collectors of leaves, the maple tree seeds known as "helicopters" and other tree droppings, which leads to lots of stress and work in the fall and spring, roof experts say. But the relative calm of summer months creates a good time for cleaning, maintenance or even replacement.

Hudspath says "90 percent" of the roofs he climbs for various jobs have gutters jammed with leaves, helicopters, dirt or all of them.

"(Homeowners) don't want to go up on the roof, and they don't want to pay anyone for cleaning," he says.

But he says inaction can cause nasty troubles. Jammed gutters can create an easy spot for the creation of winter ice dams, when water creeps under shingles in a freeze-and-thaw cycle and then drips down, damaging interior walls.

This time of year, he says, jammed gutters cause overflows that lead to water washing down to walkways and driveways, finally finding cracks to do damage to basement walls.

Another simple problem, he says, are downspouts getting jammed because they are not covered, and then having to be replaced.

Stamper says one of the best ways to handle all gutter problems is with some form of guard that keeps material from collecting. Most of those are metal shields or screens that allow water in but keep leaves and the like out.

David Nader from Murrysville has been using such a system for 10 years and is such a believer he thinks "they should be standard on all homes."

Stamper says he has heard a lot of positive comments about a sponge-like system that fills the gutter, keeping material out but allowing water to flow through.

But even flowing water can create some issues.

Dutton and Jen Novak from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council say heavy drainage from downspouts can create problems for sewer systems that become problems even for streams, creeks and rivers. Water that flows into storm systems eventually goes into streams and creeks and can make banks prone to flash flooding during periods of heavy rain, Dutton says.

Some downspouts are not connected to storm lines, running out into the streets and washing gasoline, oil and other material into storm drains and eventually into waterways.

A bigger threat, Novak says, is that some older sewerage systems combine sanitary and storm lines. Overflows in them can cause storm lines to be fouled by the sanitary systems and that water then is taken to streams and rivers.

Some communities have dye-testing programs meant to make sure downspout water is flowing into storm lines and not sanitary lines.

The environmental council is promoting what are called "downspout disconnect" programs in which the water is rerouted from storm lines and rechanneled into yards or rain-gardens.

But, Dutton says, those changes have to be directed to at least 10 feet away from a building to make sure they do not threaten foundations. The water also cannot be sent onto anyone else's property.

She admits those elements can make disconnects difficult, but says they are "one of the best and least expensive ways to deal with excess water treatment."

In promoting those programs, the environmental council, a statewide nonprofit group, had an Earth Day-related workshop on disconnect programs that 26 municipalities attended, Novak says,

Only Etna has established a program so far, she says.

"Etna is at the bottom of a watershed, and the impact is great," she says. Etna is at the end of the Pine Creek that flows with its tributaries through 14 communities before emptying into the Allegheny River.

Borough manager Mary Ellen Ramage says a disconnect program has been established in one section of the business district. Not only are the downspouts being disconnected, but water-permeable sidewalks will be installed to route water away from the storm system.

She says a residential program is being assembled, but probably will not be presented for consideration until later in July. It will be more oriented to the use of rain barrels because of the closeness of the homes. Just as it is giving businesses the new sidewalks in the program, the borough is considering offering a sewerage-fee rebate as an incentive to get residents to become involved, she says.

Erin Copeland, a senior restoration ecologist with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, says his group is involved in a disconnect-related program to change flow in the Panther Hollow Watershed. It disconnected downspouts in the visitor's center and is studying ways of using a variety of methods to deal with flow into that 40-acre area.

Part of that could look to homes in Squirrel Hill, which produce "half of all the water there."

Gutters and downspouts have become more than just the end of roofs.

The variety of ways to deal with them offer "an opportunity to change the way we think," Ramage says.

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