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Gutters Protect Against Soil Expansion & Frost Heave
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Minnesota Community Living November/December 2010

Gutters Protect Against Soil Expansion & Frost Heave

By Mark Petersen, Access Builders/Exteriors

Many people install gutters on their house with hopes of keeping water out of the basement. Some people get tired of raking landscaping woodchips out of their yard after a good gully-washer. Others don’t like how the melting snow from their roof transforms their sidewalk into a skating rink. Some just like the way gutters look. All of these are valid reasons to install gutters on your home, but most people are unaware of the most important reason of all to install them—gutters protect your home’s foundation from winter soil expansion. Consider the following facts:

Obvious fact #1: When it rains, a whole lot of water runs off the roof and is dumped onto the ground right next to your house.

Not so obvious fact #1: In a rainstorm that produces a 1/2 inch of rain, the roof of a 30x50 foot rambler will shed over 600 gallons. That’s a lot of water!

Obvious fact #2: It gets cold here in Minnesota. Rosy cheeks and dead car batteries are a frequent reminder of this fact to many Minnesotans.

Not so obvious fact #2: Cold temperatures not only affect the air and water, but they also affect the soil. In our area, on average, the top 4 feet or so of the ground freezes. Under certain conditions ground frost can reach depths up to 7 feet!

Obvious fact #3: Water expands when it freezes. If you have ever forgotten an unopened soda in the back seat of your car in January, you are painfully aware of this obvious fact.

Not so obvious fact #3: Soil with a higher water content expands more than dry soil—it only makes sense, right? Heavy soils like clay retain more water than porous sandy soils; consequently, heavy soils are more prone to winter expansion than porous ones.

Obvious fact #4: If a whole bunch of water lands on the ground, the soil in that ground gets wet.

Not so obvious fact #4: If that wet soil next to your house doesn’t get a chance to dry out before the onset of winter, the freezing/expansion process can cause serious damage your foundation.

Final fact: Gutters help keep the soil next to your foundation relatively dry, thereby protecting it from cracks that can lead to water intrusion.

Many of our customers can’t figure out why, after living in their house for 10 or 15 years with no problems whatsoever, they suddenly have water in their basement. Sometimes the damage that occurs can go undetected for years or may never be discovered. Even if water never finds its way into your basement, installing gutters can literally add decades to the structural life of your foundation.

Even newer homes are susceptible to foundation damage. The waterproofing measures on new homes are considerably better than they have ever have been, but waterproofing doesn’t prevent foundation damage caused by soil expansion. Once a large crack occurs in the foundation, most standard waterproofing measures are rendered useless.

Your homes foundation isn’t the only item on your home that is in jeopardy due to wet frozen soil. "Frost heave” is another force caused by wet soil that can wreak havoc on your home. Frost heave is the force that pushes objects upward during the freeze thaw cycle, but just like soil expansion, the wetter the soil, the more destructive the process.

We once encountered a house where a large amount of runoff water was winding up on and around the pier footings which were holding up a four-season porch. Every year the saturated soil created a strong frost heave process, which would lift the footings so much that the porch was literally being pried off of the house. This was an extreme case, but it’s not unusual to encounter seasonal drywall cracking in porches and sunrooms caused by the effects that frost heave have on the footings.

The frost heave process is the primary contributor to the creation of those lovely potholes that trash our suspensions and rattle our teeth each and every winter. The same force that creates winter potholes on our roads is being exerted on your driveway, patios, landscaping walls and sidewalks. If you want to keep your landscaping wall straight, your pavers smooth, your sidewalk crack free, try to keep as much water away from those areas as possible. Installing gutters will help.

Gutters can be installed for as little as $6-8 per linear foot depending on the situation. There are several profiles to choose from, and color matching is usually not a problem. Also, there are multiple products available to keep leaves and other debris from clogging your gutters. These products can range from $3-10 per foot.

Gutters are relatively inexpensive compared to sidewalk replacement and foundation repairs, so if you’re looking for another easy way to protect your investment long term, consider installing gutters.

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