Gutter Opportunities: Screening the competition

The original gutter protection is making a comeback. So say the makers of gutter screens, which have been sold for more than a generation but in recent years given way to solid-metal gutter covers as the dominant product.
“Mesh screens were the first gutter protection more than 20 years ago,” affirms Jim Ealer Jr., sales manager for Midwest Enterprises of St. Clair, Mo., makers of E Z Lock gutter screens. “But back then, because of the large holes in the screens, people were unhappy with the amount of debris that still got into their gutters. That provided an opportunity for sold gutter covers to enter the market.”
Now, however, manufacturers of gutter screens believe the tables may have turned. They contend solid gutter covers have performance problems of their own, can be expensive to buy and labor-intensive to install, and that contractors must often commit to franchise deals in order to sell the covers. For those reasons, gutter screen makers see an opening in the market and say their products are gaining in sales.
“And as a gutter screen manufacturer, we haven’t been standing still,” continues Ealer. “We’ve continued to make improvements and to solve the problems associated with older screens, so that our products keep out the small debris like pine needles and maple seeds.”
At Pittsburgh-based Alcoa Home Exteriors, business development and metal marketing manager Daniel Hawk cautions, “The word ‘screen’ may have negative connotations because of the poor performance of traditional wire-mesh gutter screens. They might keep out 90 percent of the leaves, but the holes are large enough for pine needles and maple seeds to get through.”
Though large leaves might seem to be the major culprit in clogged gutters, Hawk notes that “pine needles and maple seeds, once they get into your gutter, react with water and form a sludge that takes a lot of effort to clean.” He says that Alcoa’s Leaf Relief has solved the problem by developing an “AlumaPerf” screen with holes small enough to keep out needles and seeds, and yet designed not to impede rain flow into the gutter.
To put the issue in perspective, owner Dan Feldhaus of Gutter Covers of Indiana, reports that large-hole screens are about 50 percent effective. “That means every other house will have a problem,” he points out.
His company, which is based in Lafayette, looked at what would be needed to boost the effectiveness of gutter screens. Other manufacturers also have examined the problem in order to devise a solution. In the case of Gutter Covers of Indiana, research led to the development of its powder-coated Diamond Back Gutter Screen which combines large- and fine-mesh metal screens in a single product. “Now you can get a gutter screen that’s 98 percent effective against leaves and small debris,” Feldhaus says. Recently the company added a “Z bend” option that helps shed leaves because the screen is domed rather than flat.

Screens vs. Solid Covers
How do the gutter screens being sold today compare to solid-metal gutter covers? “One comparison is cost,” contends Ealer. “Metal gutter screens can cost 10 to 15 times less than solid gutter covers. You can get them wholesale for $1 a foot and sell them for $2, which makes gutter screens an affordable alternative to gutter covers. That means you also can reach younger homeowners who might not otherwise be able to afford any gutter protection.”
In fact, Ealer suggests gutter installers can simply keep some gutter screens on their trucks at all times “and when you sell a new gutter system, then you can offer the screens as an add-on for $2 per foot,” he says. “Eventually you’ll sell whatever’s in your truck.”
Ealer characterizes gutter covers as expensive products and predicts, “Companies that sell the covers will eventually max out their potential market, due to the high price. But screens are affordable for nearly all homeowners.” Adding to the cost of the solid covers, he says, “is the fact that they’re almost always a franchise product and so the installer has to pass along his franchise fees. But gutter screens are available to installers through most wholesale outlets.”
Hawk likewise notes that “with many of the solid gutter hoods, you’re required to buy a franchise.” By contrast, Alcoa’s Leaf Relief is available to installers from wholesale distributors. The company does not market Leaf Relief as a cheap alternative to solid covers but, rather, as a cost-effective solution. Thus contractors might buy the product at $2 to $3.50 per foot, he says, and sell it to homeowners at $7.50 to $12. “With a house that has 150 linear feet of gutters,” Hawk believes, “you could install gutter protection and charge up to $1,800 for just two hours of work.”
Speed of installation is a benefit cited by all manufacturers of gutter screens. Many have developed screen products that simply slip into existing gutters, snap in place with spring tension, or are otherwise attached or screwed to the gutters themselves. Prying up and breaking the seal of the first row of shingles, so the screen can be attached to the roof, is not required. And the metal screens, which come in sections, are easily cut to length and mitered for corners.
Feldhaus, whose company does both manufacturing and installation, reports that a single employee can install up to 500 feet per day of gutter screen. In contrast, he says two employees working together can install only 200 to 250 feet per day of solid-metal gutter covers. Since Feldhaus retails his Diamond Back Gutter Screen at about two-thirds the cost of high-end covers, the company generates more sales as well as more productivity.
For his part, Hawk adds that screens, unlike covers, are not visible from the street so gutter installers need not worry about stocking different colors to match existing gutter systems. Yet the key difference between gutter screens and solid covers is in their performance, states Darren Sager, owner of MasterShield Gutter Protection, a manufacturer headquartered in Ridgewood, N.J.
“The solid covers have been prevalent in the gutter protection market for the last 20 years,” he explains, “but every time it rains, the covers have the capability of allowing leaves and debris into the slot where the water enters the gutter.”
Manufacturers claim that leaves, which fall onto their gutter covers in a rainstorm, will blow away when they dry out on a clear day. “But when debris gets wet, it either sticks to the surface or goes in through the water slot,” Sager asserts. “Anybody knows that if you have a wet leaf, you can put it on the ceiling of your living room and it will stick there.”
Though makers of solid gutter covers portray their products as advanced, Sager notes that the original patents date back to the 1880s and 90s. “The technology,” he suggests, “is more than a hundred years old, and now the patents have expired so anybody can use the technology. But if gutter hoods have been around for such a long time and are supposed to work so well, then why aren’t they standard on all new homes?”
The prevalence of gutter covers in the market, Sager suggests, has caused the products to become commodity items . Manufacturers and dealers of solid-metal covers “now talk about their product features as compared to other covers,” he adds, “but they’re not talking about basic leaf protection. That’s why I think a product like ours has an opening, because we can actually sell to homeowners based on protection and performance.”
That philosophy of going head-to-head on product performance has prompted Sager to price his system —made with a solid body and stainless steel filter — comparably to gutter covers. And he has established a network of dealers who receive training and marketing support to sell MasterShield based on its features.
Feldhaus concurs that solid gutter covers are prone to clogging in the slot where rainwater enters the system. He estimates that in the gutter protection field, 85 percent of clogging problems “are due to the shortcomings of the protection product rather than the debris itself,” and that 90 percent of solid-metal covers experience clogging.
For that reason, he contends, though many covers come with lifetime or long-term guarantees against clogging “that doesn’t do much good because the fine print voids the warranty if the homeowner hasn’t performed maintenance” such as periodically washing off the covers. No-clog guarantees would be fine if gutters protected by solid covers never clogged, continues Sager, “but since they do clog, the covers don’t solve the debris problem but only shift the responsibility.”
In comparison, Sager says MasterShield has been engineered to avoid the problem of fast-moving rainwater shooting across the screen without entering the gutter. After researching how particles attach to other substances, the company developed a product that works not by gravity alone but by pulling water into the gutter. The advance of gutter screen technology is also evident at Midwest Enterprises, where Jim Ealer says in the last two years his company has been able to make the holes in its screens 30 percent smaller, to keep out even more debris but without compromising flow rates.
Similarly, research and development is ongoing at Alcoa. Daniel Hawk reports his company’s Leaf Relief screens have been engineered so dry leaves and needles blow off in only a 6 mph wind, and wet debris at 20 mph. Moreover, the screens can handle 32.9 inches of rain per hour when no debris is present on top of the screen. And even when completely covered the flow rate is 16.9 inches per hour, about three inches more than the highest rate ever recorded in the United States.

Screens vs. Foam Filters
Porous foam filters, which are inserted into the gutter trough, are another less expensive and more easily installed alternative to solid-metal gutter covers. But those who favor gutter screens counsel some caution regarding the filters. “Basically,” believes Ealer, “the filters ‘pre-clog’ and greatly restrict your gutters.”
Hawk of Alcoa notes that with screens, unlike foam filters, “you have air space underneath which helps air flow, so that any leaves or debris on top of the screen can dry out faster and blow away.” His chief concern about foam filters, however, “is the infiltration of small debris. Once enough material collects, and since the sun still penetrates down into the filters, then you can get algae and mold and even tree growth.”
Screens also are inherently easier to install than foam filters, Hawk suggests, “because with screens you’re only dealing with a two-dimensional product, whereas in cutting and sizing filters you have to fit the foam in three dimensions.” The three-dimensional nature of filters also means, adds Feldhaus, “that a lot of times you have to cut the filters between the gutter hangers” and create gaps in which debris can collect.
Not only do foam filters “stuff your gutters and impede water flow,” believes Sager, “but every day you have a battle going on between the plastic filter and the sun. Even if the filters are treated with UV inhibitors, they’ll still eventually get brittle and degrade.”
If gutter screen manufacturers agree their products are a better choice than solid-metal covers and foam filters, how would they advise gutter installers to choose one brand of screen and another? “When we introduced our gutter protection product,” says Hawk, “we researched most every system in the market, including screens and found that nothing available actually works.”
For his part, Sager believes that “all other screens are basically the same as five, 10, or 20 years ago; they still admit debris and, when they make the holes smaller, you get a greater tendency for rainwater to shoot across the screen.” But he counsels contractors to research the alternatives for themselves “and find out what each manufacturer is claiming. If they say their design is patented or patent-pending, then ask them to show you the proof.”
Though installers are well advised to do their homework, Ealer offers some general guidelines. “There are gutter screens made from plastic and from aluminum roll,” he explains, “but those are primarily for the do-it-yourself market.” Professionals might need to be wary of these products “because the materials can sag over time with the weight of the leaves,” he warns.
Among contractor-grade products, gutter screens come in two types, he says. “You have drop-in screens that come as a unit and drop or insert into the gutter,” he continues, “though personally I think they can be a problem to put in because the back side is usually raw and unfinished.” The other type, such as Midwest Enterprises’ E Z Lock, can snap into place.
Ealer believes that “gutter screens can work in any part of the country.” Yet that assertion draws a caution from Michael Pietrzak, marketing manager for Berger Building Products Inc. in Feasterville, Pa. The company makes a full line of gutter products, including both gutter screens and solid-metal gutter covers. “I think the choice of screens-versus-hoods depends on the foliage in your area,” he advises. “If you’re in an area where you’ve got lots of pine needles, then it might be best to use solid hoods.”
Pietrzak agrees, however, that gutter screens “tend to cost less than solid hoods, simply because there’s less material,” though he believes that installation time for screens and solid covers “is about the same.” And he favors gutter screens and covers over foam filter inserts, which he suggests “don’t last as long because the filter sits right down in the gutter, unlike screens and hoods.”
An altogether different view is offered by Ted Buckenmaier, chairman of Rainhandler in Bridgeport, Conn. The challenge in gutter protection is not the choice between screens, foam filters and solid cover, he believes. Instead, he suggests the problem lies in the basic design of the gutter itself, which is formed as a trough and acts as debris collector. His Rainhandler product eliminates traditional gutters altogether; rainwater cascades off the roof and strikes a set of seven louvers “that disperses water evenly in a gentle shower of rain-sized drops away from the home, rather than directing all the flow into a downspout.”
In Buckenmaier’s view, the real issue is leaf protection versus leaf prevention. Gutter troughs inherently work as collectors, so that screens — or covers and filters — can offer only a stopgap. “Screens still admit at least some small amounts of debris,” he says, “so that eventually you have to remove and clean them. And screens also can increase the likelihood of ice dams since they let in water, but also cover the gutter so that less sunlight gets in to melt the ice.”
Nevertheless, with billions of installed linear feet of unprotected gutters, manufacturers of gutter screens are optimistic. “I predict that gutter screens,” concludes Feldhaus, “are really going to come on strong in the gutter protection market.”

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