Gutter Opportunities December 2008

From energy policy to building codes, California is often the pacesetter for which regulatory initiatives serve as models for other states to copy. And now the Golden State has turned its attention to gutters.

“In a wildfire, burning embers can blow up to one-and-a-half miles away,” explains Frank Lemmo, executive vice president of L.I. Metal Systems in Pico Rivera, Calif., “and if embers land in a gutter trough filled with debris, it could be a fire hazard. Even if the roof itself is fireproof, the embers can still ignite a fire around the roof edge. A home must have a weakness to burn and the gutters can be that weakness if they’re filled with combustible debris.”

Before this year, the state’s building code did not reference its fire code. Three years ago the state began to address that lack and incorporated fire prevention regulations in what became the 2007 California Building Code, whose regulations took effect January 1, 2008. Chapter 7A of the revised code covers “Materials and Construction Methods for Exterior Wildfire Exposure.”

In section 704A, which addresses roofs, paragraph 704A.1.5 declares, “Roof gutters shall be provided with the means to prevent the accumulation of leaves and debris in the gutter.”

As Lemmo points out, “That one sentence is all the code says. The regulation doesn’t specify what type of gutter protection is required, whether hoods or screens or filters. There’s no restriction on what materials are acceptable, whether metal or vinyl. And there’s no specific procedure to evaluate the performance of the gutter protection. So we’ve got a lot of gray areas with no specific wording on how to achieve compliance.”

The new regulations apply only to new residential and commercial construction. Further, Chapter 7A applies only to buildings located in a “Fire Hazard Severity Zone within State Responsibility Areas,” or a “Local Agency Very-High Fire Hazard Severity Zone,” or a “Wildland-Urban Interface Fire Area designated by the enforcing agency for which an application for a building permits is submitted . . .”

The last category is the one that, according to Lemmo, will extend the requirement for gutter protection to the greatest number of homes and buildings. “Because California cities and towns spread outward, we build on the outskirts of urban areas,” he relates, “and that means most new construction is in a Wildland-Urban Interface zone.”

Lemmo is well positioned to comment on the extent of the code’s application. Since 1970 L.I. Metal Systems, a customer of Custom-Bilt Metals, has provided 40 million feet of seamless aluminum gutters to builders of more than half a million new and custom homes. Promoted to chief executive officer in 1991, Lemmo has served more than 30 years with L.I. Metal Systems and today oversees some 90 employees and five branch offices across California. The company also installs metal roofing, soffits and fascia and has earned designation as a National Housing Quality Certified Trade Contractor (Metal Roofing, June/July 2006).

In addition to gutters, the code’s section on roofs also specifies standards for roof coverings and roof valleys, attic ventilation, cornice vents and eave protection. Other sections address exterior walls (coverings, openings, vents, glazing, doors), decking and underfloors.

 At least in the short-term, however, Lemmo does not predict the new California requirement will have much impact on installers. “Like with any building code provision, some localities will be strict. Since the state code is a minimum, some localities could conceivably even upgrade the rules. But other localities will be lax when it comes to enforcement. And remember, the regulation only applies to new construction.”

Will the requirement for gutter protection on new homes create new opportunities for installers? Lemmo does not think so, at least not immediately. “If your company focuses on retrofit projects,” he says, “I don’t believe the new code will generate enough new demand for you to enter the new construction side of the installation business.”

But will installers who are already active in new construction have a chance to up-sell home builders on gutter protection products? “No, I don’t think that will happen,” responds Lemmo. “The specs for the gutter protection will be in the specs for the house and its scope of work. So you’ll just install what’s in the specs.”

Then, too, many gutter installers report builders of tract homes have an incentive to minimize their labor and material costs. If that holds true, even when home builders are required to install gutter protection, chances are they may look for products that achieve compliance at the least cost.

Nevertheless, Lemmo sees a possibility that the new California rule on gutter protection may have a long-term impact. “From a fire prevention standpoint, I think it’s a good idea that makes sense,” he contends. Compared to the money builders and homeowners can spend on a Class A fire-retardant roof, adding gutter protection is not that much more. Yet by keeping out leaves and debris that could be ignited by burning embers, homeowners can protect their investment — and get all the usual benefits of keeping their gutters unclogged.

Sales representatives for installers nationwide can now cite the fire-prevention benefits of gutter protection — and tell potential customers the State of California agrees. “And I think the new requirement is an idea that could migrate into the building codes of other states,” Lemmo adds.

If nothing else, Lemmo suggests the California mandate could someday prove a turning point in “how we look at gutter protection.” Building inspectors, insurance companies — and eventually, consumers — may in the future come to believe the standard for a well-built house is one that includes gutter protection. “And if that’s the case,” he allows, “then it could have a big impact on installers.”

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