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How to Ensure Deck Safety

Oct 13, 2007
The issue of deck safety is generally thought about in terms of structural practices and good workmanship. Something as simple as an improperly installed ledger board could pull away from the house wall and be a recipe for disaster. A poorly fastened deck railing could create a situation for a lethal accident especially on a raised or upper level deck.

The very first step to ensuring deck safety is obtaining a building permit issued by the local municipality's building department. This is generally a requirement for any structure such as a deck that necessitates the installation of footings. Building department staff review the deck plan submitted by a homeowner with regards to relevant building codes. These codes govern every aspect of deck construction and have a huge impact upon the types of deck designs that will be approved.

Building codes define everything from how far the deck must be from the property lines and the street as well as such details as lumber sizes, span distances, fastener types, deck placement and fence and screen heights.

A local building inspector will visit a deck construction site several times at designated points during the construction of the deck to see that the building codes are being followed. Once the process has been completed the inspector will certify that the structure has been built properly. In instances where a permit has not been obtained, a homeowner may be forced by the municipality to correct any deck faults or dismantle the entire structre because of the dangers present.

However, it is important for the homeowner to remember that design decisions are capable of making huge differences also. In situations where deck levels change it is wise to alter the decking pattern or stain or paint the risers to alert the deck user that the step is at hand. Otherwise a guest might take a nasty fall under poor lighting conditions.

In a situation where a dark color has been selected for the decking, lay light colored outdoor carpeting in high use areas to prevent foot burn during extreme heat days. New products made of propylene look very similar to sisal or jute carpets but are ideal for use outdoors. They also have the advantage of being quite easy to clean.

Specialty deck features such as garden beds, firepits and water features should be positioned where they will not pose potential tripping hazards. The best locations include placing them next to privacy screens, alongside deck planters and next to deck level changes. However, do keep them away from steps. Any opening near deck traffic would require the installation of a railing.

Deck landings of any sort are a safety issue. Ample space should be allowed near doors. It should not be necessary to step backward in order to open any type of door. Smaller landings only work with sliding or in-swinging doors. Where a door swings out on a platform, the area should be a minimum of 2 feet deeper that the width of the door.

The use of firepits is another area of safety concern on a deck. Some municipalities ban them outright because of the fire hazard they pose. However in regions where they are permitted, homeowners are required to have a screen to protect deck users as well as the deck from sparks. A fire extinguisher is another recommended safety precaution to have close by this specialty deck feature.

Barbecue grills are pretty much a standard prerequisite for any deck. They also must be used with caution. It is extremely important to find a place for the grill that is convenient for outdoor cooking but is still out of the way of any high deck traffic. There are also recommended clearances from railings and house siding that should be observed.

Any use of a deck during the evening should involved the installation of safety lighting at steps and along deck perimeters that do not have railing systems. General types of lighting around the deck perimeter, on posts or mounted in some way on the home will go a long way to preventing any accidents due to trips or falls.

Most outdoor lighting manufacturers produce safety lighting products that are especially designed for use with decks. Some go under railings or fasten on top of railing posts. Others install directly in stair risers or stair stringers.

In order to illuminate a large deck as well as the yard beyond, house, pole or tree mounted floodlights are useful items. Good choices include fixtures that offer motion detection and energy efficient lamps. Certain models will wirelessly activate other home lights or sound a chime when anyone approaches. The one thing to keep in mind is not to position floodlights so that neighbors will suffer from their glare.

Stairs are a huge safety issue. Local building codes define the requirements of stair construction and style including handrail regulations, riser height, stringer width and baluster spacing. Generally a stair with more than 3 risers will require handrails. They would have to be between 34 to 38 inches high measured from the tread nosing. The minimum tread width is usually 9 inches while the maximum riser height is 8 inches.

Wider treads are a better choice for safety. Comfortwise, the rule of thumb is that twice the riser height plus the tread width should equal 26 inches. Baluster spacing generally should not exceed 4 inches. Some building codes limit the number of steps in a single run before a second landing is required. This prevents serious falls down a long flight of stairs.

A yearly deck inspection is a very practical idea to uncover any hazards that might have developed. Splinters need to be sanded. Where extensive splinters occur the use of an outdoor carpet might be a practical answer. A loose baluster would require the fastener to be driven deeper or be replaced with a slightly larger diameter screw. Protruding nails or screws need to be sunk below the surface of decking.

Rotted stair treads or decking boards would need to be removed and replaced. The application of a deck sealer every year will help keep the deck splinter free and protect a homeowner's outdoor structure investment.

A well designed and constructed deck can add much to the overall landscape design of a home. The issue of deck safety is an important consideration in this process and will go far in making sure that the homeowner, family members and guests are able to enjoy their time outdoors worry free.
About the Author
Richard Vande Sompel is a professional deck builder of 35 years and over 850
decks built and is the author of "How to Plan, Design and Build a Deck from
Start to Finish". To Discover More About
Deck Design and Claim your 2
FREE Deck Plans, Insider Report, MP3 Audio and discover everything to know about
building a deck visit:
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