Question: When is the best time to buy a new gutter machine? Answer: When your business has grown enough to justify the purchase, and not because you’ve wrecked your old machine.
Gutter machines can last 20, 25, even 30 years. Some manufacturers report they still have occasional customers who are using machines originally purchased in the 1960s. But that kind of longevity doesn’t just happen without good maintenance. Requirements for upkeep will vary according to each manufacturer’s machine, but the key is regular maintenance and common-sense operation.
The gutter machine business is extremely price-sensitive, say manufacturers, so adding bells and whistles that increase machine prices would scare installers away. Machines are therefore made from basic technology and designed for durability. At Pacific Rollformer of Eugene, Ore., vice president Mitch Nelson concurs his company’s products are built for “virtually no maintenance” but a few simple practices can extend the life of machines.
“You need to oil the chain and clean out the box twice a year, and lubricate the guillotine every day,” Nelson advises, “and if you’re not planning to use your gutter machine for 30 days or more, then you should at least run it for 10 or 15 minutes once a week to prevent the bearings and contacts from rusting.”
Nelson recommends gutter installers go to a bearing supplier and purchase chain lube oil. By contrast, he warns, “WD40 has a tendency to wash your lubricants away. It’s such a light oil that, after you’ve cleaned things up, it just goes away. Also, since WD40 is applied in a spray, it can get on your rollers and create slippage when you run some gutter coil.” However, WD40 is a good oil to spray each day on the guillotine that cuts the coil.
As for adjusting the machine, Nelson says Pacific Rollformer does not recommend a set schedule for recalibration “but you can give us a call and 95 percent of the time when nothing is broken, we can just talk you through it over the phone.” He counsels gutter installers to “learn how your machine normally sounds and listen for anything that doesn’t sound right,” in the same way that car owners listen for “noises” in the vehicles.
Pacific Rollformer makes a flatbed trailer designed for its gutter machines, which are between 16 and 20 feet in length. Nelson recommends machines be transported with gutter coil loaded into the unit. Then at the jobsite, he urges installers “to keep the lid of the machine closed, so you don’t let stuff like strips of metal, screws, and roofing material down into your machine.” And because gutter coils are very heavy, crews should be trained in how to properly handle the material and then feed it into the machine.
“Gutter machines can last for 25 years,” Nelson reports, “but we’ve also seen machines that haven’t been properly maintained and have to be replaced after 10 years. It’s just like your car. How long it lasts depends on how you take care of it.”
Clean and Dry
When asked to list the most important maintenance requirements for a gutter machine, service manager Fritz Batz of Knudson Manufacturing in Broomfield, Colo., replies, “Keep your machines clean and dry and out of the weather. And keep them adjusted because, if the machine is adjusted correctly and locked down, then the only variable is the coil you run through it.”
Batz strongly advises gutter installers to “keep your hands out of the machine and avoid the temptation of always trying to make fine adjustments every time you run some coil.” Instead of relying on the do-it-yourself approach, Knudson offers local distributors who are trained to adjust the company’s gutter machines. They know, for example, “coil has changed over the years so aluminum now has a lot of recycled content, and how that affects the adjustment of the gutter machine,” he explains.
In preparing to visit a jobsite, Batz recommends Knudson machines first be loaded and transported with coil already in the unit. “That helps keep your machine adjusted properly,” he states, “because when you’re driving down the road and everything is being bumped and vibrated, having coil loaded in the machine will keep the rollers from slapping against each other.”
Knudson has been in business since 1965, a time when the seamless gutter business was new and machines were designed for installers who wanted equipment that could fit in the back of a pickup truck. “But today,” Batz relates, “the most successful gutter companies transport their gutter machines in an enclosed trailer, truck, or van. Even though the rollers are made of stainless steel and other parts are powder-coated, you still want to keep the weather out of your machines as much as possible.”
Though a trucker needs to go through an inspection checklist every time he prepares for a long haul, Batz says gutter installers have no comparable need to check their machines when they arrive each day at a jobsite. “You can run 300 feet of coil in eight-and-a-half minutes,” he points out. “So the machine isn’t going all day long, like the installers themselves do.” Because gutter machines may run for only a few minutes a day, he believes the most important inspection regimen is to “just keep checking if the chain is clean and if the gearbox is leaking or not.”
According to Batz, the most important jobsite precaution for keeping gutter machines in good repair “is to keep the lid on, so you keep out debris which can end up damaging your coil when you run it through the rollers.” He also recommends against operating machines in inclement weather, since the units have electric motors and exposure to water is a safety hazard.
“There’s nothing in our gutter machines that’s designed to wear,” Batz notes. “Of course, chains can break and electric motors can burn out. You can replace them and keep going, and you can still get parts even for our older machines. But from a mechanical standpoint, your gutter machine can last you 30 years.”
Don’t Blow It on Buildup
The best way to clean a gutter machine, suggests general manager Rick McVey of St. Louis-based Grover Machine Company, is to “blow it out with an air hose and an air tank, while making sure you don’t get any dust on the moving parts and the motor.”
The cleaning process only takes an hour and should be done at least twice a year, though McVey believes that a monthly cleaning is optimal. “If you don’t clean your machine,” he adds, “then you’ll get a buildup that will cause extra wear on your moving parts.”
A monthly, quarterly, or semiannual cleaning is also a good time to lightly lubricate the chain. McVey agrees that WD40 is the wrong choice for the job and instead recommends motorcycle chain oil. The same oil, or “anything that’s silicone-based,” also suffices for the light lubrication needed each day for the guillotine, he says. Rollers can be cleaned with a soft cloth or steel wool, using a lacquer thinner that will evaporate and prevent build-up. Finally, he cautions, “Be sure the machine is turned off when you clean it.”
McVey concurs the use of recycled aluminum has an impact on keeping gutter machines properly adjusted, “but at the same, the manufacturers know this and are making machines that do a better job of staying in adjustment.” Though machine distributors can perform adjustments, he suggests gutter company owners learn how to correctly do adjustments “so that you’re not feeling like you have to try and tweak the machine every day.”
But if daily adjustments are not needed, other maintenance items do require daily attention. McVey recommends installers check their machines’ electric parts every day to ensure good connections and eliminate any safety hazard, and to make sure the machine lid stays closed to prevent pop rivets or bits of metal from entering the equipment. “Keeping the weather off your machine also prolongs its life,” he says, “though most installers don’t work in the rain because it’s hard to hang gutters when there’s rain coming off the house.”
Grover products, continues McVey, need not be transported with coil loaded into the unit since the machines’ rollers are spring-loaded and do not slap against each other. Yet McVey is very concerned about a common mistake many installers make when transporting their gutter machines.
“At the end of the job, installers often throw the homeowner’s old gutters into the back of the truck,” he explains, “and that means old leaves, debris, and roof granules are also being thrown in. When that stuff gets into the air, it can migrate into the open ends of your gutter machine.”
Preventing such occurrences, and performing regular cleaning and maintenance, leads to a long life for a gutter machine. “We’ve got models from the 1960s,” McVey notes, “which are still in service!”
Ron Schell, sales and service manager for Denver-based New Tech Machinery, explains the notion that different manufacturers’ machines may have different maintenance requirements. “There are some huge differences,” he points out. “For example, other manufacturers recommend that you transport their equipment with coil already loaded in the machine. The top and bottom rollers are made of hard steel and they’re positioned against each other so that the rollers can both drive and form the gutter coil.”
As such, rollers can hit against each if the machine is transported empty. By contrast, New Tech machines are designed with separate rollers for driving and then forming gutter coil. Since the machine can be transported empty, Schell notes, that means no coil is wasted.
Nevertheless, other maintenance concerns are common to all machines. “The biggest killer of gutter machines,” relates Schell, “is when something gets inside the machine. I’ve actually seen a tin-snip, as well as a calculator, dropped into a machine.” In his experience, the most common — and most costly — mistake installers can make. Crews leave the lid open and then “somebody’s not paying attention so something gets dropped into the unit while it’s running,” he observes. “Yet even a little zip-screw can do heavy damage to the rollers.”
Schell also has seen crews throw torn-off gutters into the back of the truck, where old debris can then enter the front of the gutter machine where coil is fed in. “And remember,” he warns, “the guy running the machine isn’t the owner and so he doesn’t care.” But such carelessness can cost the machine owner $1,000 to $1,500 in replacement parts and eight hours of labor from a service technician at $60 to $70 per hour. “Depending on the age of your equipment,” he points out, “the repairs might cost more than the value of your machine.”
A more careful approach to gutter machine maintenance requires not only proper transportation and operation, but “keeping the chains properly oiled and tensioned, as well as lubing the shear every day,” advises Schell. Like other manufacturers, he concurs that “WD40 is one of the worst things you can use on your chain and shear, because it actually takes the grease off your chain and it sticks to your shear blade.”
Cleaning the gutter machine yearly is a minimum requirement, though quarterly cleaning is best. Compressed air can be used to pressure-wash the unit, and perhaps a rag to remove heavy buildup that cannot be blown away. Care should be taken, however, not to spray the pressure-wash directly onto any electrical boxes. During the cleaning, the machine should always be unplugged.
Schell recommends installers transport their machines in enclosed trucks or, if open-bed trailers must be used, to at least purchase a cover designed to protect gutter machines. “Keeping moisture out helps extend the life of your equipment,” he says. And if the unit is operated during rain or snow, a ground fault interrupter should be used as a safety precaution.
Another helpful daily habit, Schell continues, is “when you get to the jobsite, let the machine run for about five minutes to warm up the motor.” Since New Tech machines can arrive at the jobsite empty and without any coil already loaded into the unit, letting the motor warm up can be done without processing — and wasting — any gutter coil.
Finally, Schell suggests, “It’s good to have one person in your company who really knows your machines and knows what it takes to operate and maintain them properly. Because if you do that, you can easily get 15, 20, or more years from your gutter machine.”