Is Your Deck Really Safe? (Or Do You Just Think It Is?)

By Tim Shuford, NPI Franchise Owner, Jamestown, North Carolina

Deck4I have been told that more than 70 percent of decks have some type of structural issue. A structural issue typically equates to a safety concern. Based on my observations of as a property inspector, the 70 percent estimate is pretty accurate. In addition to the structural deficiencies, I commonly find many other safety hazards.

I believe there are a couple of fundamental reasons that so many decks have structural weaknesses:

  1. Many home owners tend to take a DIY approach to outdoor projects, such as adding or expanding a deck, even though they have limited construction knowledge and experience. If they’re not brave enough to tackle it themselves, then they probably have a neighbor, friend or relative who constructed their own deck — and that must be a testament to their qualifications, right?
  2. Many decks are unpermitted, so they haven’t undergone inspection by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), even though they were supposed to.

Does Your Deck Have One or More of These Problems?
Here is a sampling of structural and safety concerns that home inspectors frequently find on decks:

  • The deck is nailed to the house with no other visible means of attachment. Nails can corrode and fail behind the deck band, causing the deck to collapse. Concealed damage to framing behind the deck can also result in deck collapse.
  • The deck is only supported by the brick veneer on the home, and not bolted to the home’s framing. Brick veneer is not a structural element, and the deck may pull the veneer away from the home. In addition, it is also common to find other unapproved fasteners and deck bolts without nuts.
  • The deck is nailed to the support posts with no other visible means of attachment. Nails by themselves just don’t have the structural strength to provide the vertical support needed for a deck, and they may pull out over time. (This was the cause of a widely publicized deck collapse during a family reunion a couple of years ago.)
  • Joists are nailed to the beams without joist hangers or ledger strips to provide vertical support. Again, nails alone may not provide the structural strength needed.
  • Support posts are not resting on proper concrete footings. This can allow for settlement and movement of the deck, which can also result in structural failure.
  • No flashing applied where the deck connects to the home. This can allow water intrusion and damage to the structure of the home.
  • Undersized deck framing that does not provide adequate structural integrity. Also, decks are sometimes constructed using unconventional framing techniques, and further evaluation by a specialist may be required to determine if the deck is structurally adequate.
  • Stair risers are not adequately fastened to the deck structure. This problem can allow the stairs to fail, causing a fall and/or injury.
  • Loose decking boards. These can present tripping hazards, as can nails that have backed out of the deck surface (called “nail pops”).
  • Deck railings are often inadequate to provide proper fall protection, especially for children. Openings in railings may not provide adequate guarding. This includes pickets or balusters that are spaced too far apart. Railings are often not tall enough and contain horizontal or diagonal components that would allow children (or pets) to climb the railing. Railings may not have adequate strength to support the weight of an adult who falls against them, or they may have loosened over time.
  • Weathered wood. Because decking materials are exposed to the elements, wooden components are subject to cracking and splintering, which is certainly a hazard to bare feet.

This list is not intended to be inclusive of every concern that a home inspector may find. Please note that the specifics concerning the requirements for many of these concerns were omitted, since specific requirements vary depending on location, etc.

As warmer weather approaches, folks will be migrating back to their outdoor living spaces — so take a look at your deck with an eye toward safety.

Shuford PhotoTim Shuford is a professional National Property Inspections home inspector in Jamestown, North Carolina. If you live in the area, call 336.823.6605 to schedule your home inspection with Tim.

 

NPI and GPI home inspectors have the tools and knowledge to assess your home. Consult with your local NPI or GPI inspector for an assessment of your home.

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Check Your Deck

By Scott Ward, NPI Franchise Owner, Southern Johnson County, Kansas

IMG_8631On a recent home inspection I was appalled to see that both decks on a duplex were badly rotted where they attached to the house. Both decks sagged 2 to 3 inches and were pulling away from the wall. The result could have been deck collapse with serious injuries involved. The attempted repair was a cobbled-together mess that would likely have caused the deck to pole-vault out into the yard. Although decks here in the Midwest and northern regions are not used frequently in the winter, now is a good time to perform a quick inspection of your deck, which could avert a disaster in the future.

Until fairly recently, a deck was attached to the house using just nails or deck-type screws. Deck flashing was rarely used, nor was any type of spacing used between the house and the deck ledger board (the board attached to the house). This was the case at the duplex I inspected. Moisture became trapped between the deck and the house, which resulted in wood rot and corrosion of the nails.

A basic visual inspection of your deck often will identify any issues that may be present. Look for excessive gaps at the joints of the deck’s framing members. From the underside of the deck, use a small screwdriver to probe for soft or rotted siding or decking materials. Also, look for old paint lines that have suddenly appeared along the ledger board where it attaches to the house. If an old paint line is present, this could indicate that the deck has slipped.

Many jurisdictions now require that decks be bolted to the house with at least a half inch of spacing between the house and the ledger board. This configuration allows a much stronger and more permanent attachment to the house, as well as prevents water from becoming trapped between the house and the ledger board, thereby preventing rot in this area.

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Handy Tips for Handrails

By Lawrence Englehart, GPI Franchise Owner, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Deck4I was brought up to identify the railing around a deck as a “handrail,” but I’ve since discovered that the difference between a handrail and a guardrail is simply a set of stairs. As they relate to municipal building regulations, handrails are placed along the sides of steps to assist people in going up or down a flight of stairs. Guardrails, on the other hand, are a safety requirement to keep people from falling off a deck and injuring themselves. Guardrails are located around the sides of a deck and next to the edge of a stair, but we know they can also serve as a handrail.

The construction requirement for a guardrail is clearly defined: For a deck that is less than 24 inches above finished grade, a guardrail is not required. For a deck that is between 24 inches and 70 inches, a guardrail is required and should not be less than 36 inches. Once a deck exceeds 70 inches above finished grade, the guardrail must be at least 42 inches in height. Any installed handrail or guardrail must not have any opening that exceeds 4 inches. This is a necessary safety precaution to prevent young children from getting their heads stuck in the guard.

The structural design of a guardrail should include 4×4-inch posts securely fastened at every corner (or opening), but not more than 8 feet apart. The guardrail must be able to withstand a force (i.e., human body) applied horizontally to any section of the guard with a concentrated load of at least 225 lbs.

Another necessary safety requirement is that the design of the guardrail must not facilitate climbing. In other words, only vertical rails, balusters or spindles can be used, and, other than the very top of the guardrail, no horizontal components is allowed above 4 inches, as it could be used as a means to climb over the guardrail.

Every deck degrades over time, so regular deck maintenance is important; if neglected, it can also become a matter of safety. If any portion of your deck is loose or wobbly, you may need to tighten up existing screws or bolts, or maybe add more fasteners to ensure affected areas are securely attached to the deck framing. For your own safety, do not attempt repairs that are beyond your DIY skillset. If in doubt, hire a qualified contractor to address your concerns.

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Proper Construction and Maintenance of Your Deck

By Jon McCreath, NPI Franchise Owner, Emerson, Georgia

McCreath BlogDepending on your geographic location, your deck may be one of the most popular areas of your home. Just like the rest of your home, decks require ongoing maintenance and inspection to make sure that all components are functioning as intended. A well-maintained deck adds both form and function to your home. Over time, however, several factors contribute to wear and tear, giving home owners a choice between replacing the deck or attempting deck repair.

Deck Maintenance
Cleaning and treatment of the deck boards is often overlooked. Decking is exposed to the elements and over time may show signs of water damage, fading color, and deterioration or rotting.

Decks require cleaning and treatment every couple of years, and this may include applying paint or sealant. Cleaners can restore some of the original color. Power washing the deck is an option for cleaning, but care is required in not using too much force or too narrow of a spray pattern. This is also a good way of removing algae, that unsightly green coating that you may see.

Once the deck is cleaned, and prior to treatment with paint or stain, examine the condition of the deck boards and replace any that may be deteriorated or rotting. If you are experiencing wood rot, it is important to determine why. There may be an issue with the gutters or flashing that is directing water onto a particular area of the deck. There are a number of restoring deck paints that are thick and able to fill in some cracks, but if the wood is too deteriorated, then rotting may continue under the paint.

The most common material used for decking is pressure-treated wood. Cedar and redwood are also used, but may require more frequent maintenance. Composite decking is now becoming more popular, as it requires less maintenance. Certain types of wood will shrink over time and may create gaps, and you may also find that the deck boards are cracking or splitting. It is best to replace any deck boards that show evidence of these issues.

Proper Deck Construction
Too often, decks are installed by inexperienced home owners and the structural integrity may be compromised. Ledger boards, fasteners, posts, footings and railings are all critical components of the deck. If any structural compromise is suspected, it is best to have the deck examined by a qualified contractor.

Decks should be attached to the house using ledger boards and lag bolts, and this is one of the most critical aspects of deck construction. Deck joists should be attached to the ledger board, either by joist hangers or setting atop a ledger strip. If using joist hangers, attention must be given to the manufacturer’s instructions, and you must use approved nails. If using a ledger strip, it should be a minimum 2 in. x 2 in. that is fastened to the bottom of the ledger board with three nails under each joist. The joists are then toe-nailed into the ledger board. Toe-nailing of the joists alone, without hangers or ledger strip, is not recommended.

Beams should be secured to the top of the posts, not to the side of the posts. Beam attachment to the posts should be done with either a bracket or by notching the post and securing the beam with bolts. The exception to this would be only for a low-level deck that has short-spanning joists and beams and a number of support posts.

Deck footings should generally be set below the frost line. In regions where the frost line is not an issue, it is common to see precast foundation blocks on top of the exposed grade. At a minimum, regardless of frost line, the footings should be set 12 inches into the soil. In colder climates, the minimum depth may be much higher, up to 36 inches in some cases.

Finally, your deck’s guardrails should be 36 inches minimum height, with balusters not exceeding 4 inches separation, and there should be a graspable handrail with four or more risers.

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It’s Time to Check Your Deck

DeckWith the generally nice weather, now is the time to check your wood deck for deterioration and make any repairs necessary. It’s also time to reseal the deck, if necessary.

First, you should use a pressure washer to wash the deck and remove any dirt and debris. Make sure to keep the pressure stream moving to prevent it from gouging the wood. Let the deck dry overnight.

The next thing you’ll want to do is fix nails that have worked loos and repair split wood. For nail pops, remove the nail, then reattach the board with a screw that is longer than the nail. Repairing split wood is more complicated. Click here for instructions on how to repair deck boards that have split.

Sealant protects wood decks from the sun’s damaging rays. If you’re happy with the color of your deck’s wood, just apply a clear sealant with a UV protectant. If you want to change the color of your deck, stain it before applying the sealant. For a step-by-step guide to sealing your deck, which requires three sunny days, click here.

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What Standards Should My New Deck Meet to Be Safe and Properly Installed?

Submitted by Lawrence Englehart, GPI Franchise Owner, Nova Scotia, Canada

DeckFirst, if we were to assume a building permit had been issued for the construction of your new deck, and it was followed up with inspections from your local building official, then there should be no reason to doubt if it is safe or if it has been properly installed.

However, even a safely built deck still needs to be regularly maintained. Our weather in Canada can be rather harsh on our decks, so it is important that the wood is properly sealed, any loose boards are securely attached, and any protruding nail is repaired or replaced.

Unfortunately, not all decks have been professionally built or even properly maintained, and with the shocking news of a deck collapse last year, it had many of us seriously thinking about the safety of our own decks. Inadequate deck construction is a topic of concern that I and my fellow home inspectors come across way too frequently. I’ve personally come across too many decks that are a serious safety hazard and should not be used.

Ironically, deck construction that was acceptable 10 years ago may not be compliant today. The good news is there have been building code revisions that have significantly improved residential deck construction. As a home owner, if you are still concerned about the safety of your deck, I would recommend contacting your local municipal planning office. A resource that I use is the Halifax municipal government deck construction guidelines found at www.halifax.ca/building-renovating/documents/Decks2013_ScrRes.pdf or try the Nova Scotia Building Officials Association at www.nsboa.ca/PDF/membernotices/BasicDeck.pdf.

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