The markets for K-style and half-round gutters have traditionally been separate. Where K-style gutters have dominated the retrofit and production-home market, half-round gutters are an increasingly popular choice for upscale custom homes.
For that reason, installers have typically specialized in one market or the other. Those who sell seamless aluminum K-style gutters will target homeowners who are looking for value and then build their businesses on maximizing the number of linear feet they install per week. By contrast, those who sell copper and zinc half-round gutters will service upscale homeowners and architects who are looking for aesthetics. Despite higher material and labor costs for working with exotic metals — and thus a fewer number of projects — these installers enjoy high profit margins and less competition.
However, with the advent of half-round gutter machines that can run both seamless aluminum and copper, it has become possible for K-style installers to purchase a new machine and cross over into the half-round market. Where copper half-round sectional gutters were once affordable only for upscale homeowners, seamless gutters made of copper or copper-colored aluminum have brought the half-round look to average homeowners.
In the accompanying article, that starts on the front cover, Mel Mabon of Mabon’s Tailored Rain Gutters in Vista, Calif., shares how a veteran installer successfully straddles the K-style and half-round gutter markets. And in the Q&A below Gutter Opportunities contributing editor Mark Ward summarizes the advice he’s heard in interviewing scores of installers.
Q: Does one style handle more rain than the other?
Due to their box shape, K-style gutters handle more rain than half-round gutters. And gauging the performance of half-round gutters is complicated by two other factors. First, because the half-round style is traditionally used on upscale homes, the gutter system is often expected to drain a larger-than-normal roof area or deal with steeper pitches. Second, copper is a relatively soft metal that can sag under the weight of too much water. One veteran installer told me he therefore installs 7-inch copper half-rounds on roofs that would otherwise take 5- or 6-inch aluminum K-style gutters.
Q: On what kind of homes does each style look better?
Gutter supply companies point out that copper half-rounds are used to accent a wide variety of architectural genres: historical restorations and renovations, the traditional home styles popular in the Northeast and Southeast, the Mediterranean and Spanish styles favored from the West and Southwest to the Gulf states and the rustic and log-home styles often built from the Appalachians across the American heartland and into the Great Northwest. Zinc half-rounds are an option for many of these styles while also finding a niche with contemporary homes.
The appearance of copper half-round gutters depends on the local environment in which they patina — green in most cases, but dull brown in coastal zones where salt air is present. On the other hand, zinc does not patina or stain like copper and instead retains its original warm dark grey color. Copper half-rounds can also suffer if hung improperly so the soft metal sags and distorts.
K-style gutters are so ubiquitous it is difficult to name an architectural style with which they have not been used. One manufacturer, Englert, introduced its RainPro gutter profile five years ago in an effort to stand out from the crowd with “the first new design in residential rainware in more than 50 years.” Nevertheless, how aluminum K-style gutters actually look on a home is affected by many variables: the color chosen, the coating used to achieve that color, the closeness of the color match between the trough and other gutter system components, the presence of any tiger striping and the raised profile of any gutter protection product.
Q: What materials work best with each style?
Installers of half-round gutters should be aware that copper and zinc have different properties that may require the metals to be handled differently — and both require different handling than aluminum. Zinc is trickier to solder, while copper is more forgiving. Where copper is also easier to bend and join, zinc may tear if cut with serrated snips and may become brittle in colder temperatures.
Not surprisingly, manufacturers of copper half-round gutters have told me their products experience significantly less thermal expansion and contraction than zinc — while zinc gutter manufacturers have told me the two metals expand and contract at similar rates. But there is broad agreement galvanized steel has the lowest rate, while aluminum has the highest — perhaps twice the rate of copper.
All agree that aluminum and copper must not touch. Aluminum is prone to galvanic reactions that cause it to erode when it comes in contact with other metals. Thus aluminum K-style seamless gutters should not be used in tandem with hangers, screws, rivets or downspouts made of anything but aluminum or stainless steel. And copper gutters should be installed with stainless steel hangers, since copper is too weak and aluminum will react and erode. Finally, zinc users should be aware that the metal tends to corrode from the underside up.
Galvanized steel gutters remain an option because of the metal’s strength, a particular asset in areas prone to high winds and snow loads. The difficulty in working with steel gutters is due to their weight and shape. Because steel gutters are generally sold in sections and weigh so much more than aluminum, more crew members are required to hoist and install them.
Q: Which style brings higher profit margin?
Without a doubt, installers and manufacturers have told me that half-round gutter jobs earn higher profit margins. On the other hand, those who sell K-style seamless gutters can generate and install far more volume.
Q: In what applications would you try to talk a customer who wants K-style into half-round?
Most upscale homeowners and architects don’t need to be told that half-round gutters are an option. They want a certain “look” and, with all the money being spent already to build their dream home, won’t scrimp on the gutters. Though a copper half-round gutter system is expensive when compared to a seamless aluminum K-style system, the copper half-rounds are a relatively small portion of the total construction cost for a custom home.
In fact, one gutter supply company recently told me it’s usually the K-style installer who must be talked into quoting half-round projects. Many legitimate installers with good reputations and sufficient crews are receiving more inquiries for half-round gutters. But lacking experience, these installers may try and talk such customers into K-style gutters. Now, the availability of half-round gutter machines provides an opportunity to serve those homeowners and to quote some commercial jobs.
Q: In what applications would you try to talk a customer who wants half-round into K-style?
Once again, upscale homeowners who ask for copper or zinc half-rounds have already done their homework and are prepared to spend what’s needed. But if copper prices spike sharply upward, as they have in the past, the installer can acquaint the customer with options in other metals or styles. And because half-rounds handle less water than box styles, residential and commercial installers should share any concerns about whether the desired gutter profile and material can handle the expected volume.
Mark Ward has been talking to gutter manufacturers and installers to write articles for Gutter Opportunities for more than five years.