Gutters are an important part of your home, and they need to be regularly cleaned in order to function properly. Simple in theory, but if you’ve ever spent an afternoon up a ladder digging leaves out of the gutters, you know it’s no simple task.

Gutter guards can make maintenance easier, but which type is best for your home? With the sheer number of gutter protection systems on the market and every manufacturer claiming a miracle product, shopping for a solution can be overwhelming.

In this article, you’ll learn the pros and cons of the three most popular gutter guard systems: polyurethane inserts, micro mesh screens, and metal gutter covers. Despite manufacturer promises, no system is completely maintenance free or without fault, but the best systems will mean less time up the ladder—and more time on the couch.

Why Do You Need Gutters?

gutter clogged with fall leaves

When it rains, gutters and downspouts collect water and direct it away from your home, protecting your roof, walls, foundation, and lawn. Without gutters, or if your gutters are clogged with debris, rainfall can cause the following issues over time:

  • Water damage to siding and exterior doors
  • Mold and mildew accumulation
  • Flooding in the basement or crawlspaces
  • Foundation problems
  • Roof leaks
  • Soil erosion
  • Insect infestations
  • Cracking sidewalks, patios, and driveways

Properly installed and maintained gutters will save you from expensive structural damage down the road. If you live in a heavily wooded area and have trouble keeping your gutters clean, gutter guards offer an extra line of defense.

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Comparing Gutter Protection Systems

Polyurethane inserts

Polyurethane inserts, or foam gutter guards, come in wedge-shaped pieces that fit snugly inside gutters. The sponge-like material allows water to pass through while debris collects on top of the foam.

When shopping for foam guards, double check that the guards are made with polyurethane, not polyethylene. Polyethylene is less dense, and its wider air bubbles allow small seeds and other organic material to collect in the foam more easily.

Pros:

  • Low-profile and virtually invisible from the ground
  • Inexpensive and easy to install on your own
  • Most manufacturers offer warranties

Cons:

  • Without regular cleaning, dirt and seeds collect on top of the foam
  • The sponge-like material holds water, which assists in the growth of vegetation
  • Water retention can also promote mold growth
  • To clean them properly, foam inserts must be removed and reinstalled
  • Foam inserts are considered a fire hazard in extremely dry climates

Micro mesh screens

The latest development in gutter protection, micro mesh gutter screens are composed of two parts: a supporting frame and a fine, medical-grade stainless steel mesh that allows water through while filtering out debris. Frame material varies between brands, but aluminum is the most structurally sound.

Some micro mesh products are designed with a pitched screen that requires installation under the first row of shingles. Improper installation can lift and disturb shingles, which has the potential to void many roof warranties. Additionally, pitched screens attached to steep sections of roof create a hard angle, causing water to run over the screen rather than pass through it.

When comparing micro mesh gutter screens, look for products with a flat screen that sits on top of your gutters and doesn’t impact your roof line.

Pros:

  • Flat screens are low-profile and virtually invisible from the ground
  • Most manufacturers offer warranties
  • Micro mesh screens collect less debris than foam inserts

Cons:

  • More expensive than DIY solutions
  • Some micro mesh guards can cause damage to roof shingles and/or water runoff
  • Some debris does accumulate on top of the screens and must be removed periodically
  • Can promote icicle formation in colder climates

Metal gutter covers

ice dam buildup on gutters in movie

Also referred to as reverse curve gutter guards, metal gutter covers operate on the principle of surface tension. When it rains, water clings to the cover, flowing over the rounded nose and into the gutter below. Leaves and other debris collect on top of the cover and fall to the ground once they dry out.

That’s the idea, anyway—and most surface tension covers do a fine job of preventing large debris from entering gutters. But smaller materials, like seed pods and evergreen needles, can follow the flow of the water and get trapped inside the gutters, causing clogs. Additionally, during heavy rains, the tension will break and water will shoot over the cover.

Reverse curve covers are especially prone to forming ice dams and are therefore not recommended for colder climates.

Pros:

  • Metal covers collect less debris than foam inserts
  • Most manufacturers offer warranties

Cons:

  • More expensive than DIY solutions
  • Visible from the ground
  • Can cause ice dams in cold climates, which can damage the roof and gutters
  • Water overshoots metal covers during heavy rains
  • Allows some small debris inside gutters
  • Difficult to remove after installation, making cleaning problematic

Which Gutter Guard is Best?

The answer is: it depends.

On budget. For the DIY-er, foam inserts may present the most attractive option, though they tend to require more upkeep than micro mesh screens or metal covers. Professionally installed systems are more expensive but entail fewer man-hours.

On environment. If your home is surrounded by large-leafed deciduous trees, a simple screen or reverse curve guard may provide adequate protection, whereas micro mesh offers the best line of defense against pine and fir needles.

On climate. During winter, metal covers promote the formation of icicles and ice dams, which can cause damage to the roof, soffit, and gutters. There are various products that help prevent ice dams, a combination of which may present the best protection against ice buildup.

Remember: Contrary to manufacturer claims, no system is completely maintenance free. But a good-quality, properly installed gutter protection system does mean you’ll spend less time with your head in the gutter and more time with your feet on the ottoman.