How safe is your outdoor deck space?
Outdoor living is all about relaxing and having fun, especially on your deck. May is Deck Safety Month®, so before you break out the barbecue sauce or plan this summer’s Fourth of July bash, take some time to ensure your deck is safe and structurally sound.
In the United States alone, there are 40 million decks in use that were built 20+ years ago, according to the North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA). Building codes, construction methods, and decking materials have changed considerably since then. Add in the fact that decks are outdoor structures constantly at the mercy of rain, sun, snow, and extreme temperature fluctuations, and it’s easy to see why an annual deck inspection is a smart idea.
Even the best-built decks need an annual inspection
But wait, you’re thinking, my deck isn’t that old, and it’s a composite deck. Even so, in all likelihood the substructure is wood, and wood is highly susceptible to rotting, splintering and warping. So no matter how beautiful and strong your deck may appear, take the time to inspect it. After all, wood rot is one of the main culprits responsible for deck failures (a term used to describe any deck or railing failure that leads to injury or total deck collapse). Ledger board issues are another concern – and the main reason decks collapse.
Proper ledger board installation is essential
Approximately 90% of deck collapses occur as a result of the separation of the house and the deck ledger board, reports the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI).
The ledger board is the piece of lumber that runs parallel to the edge of the house, attaching the deck to the house. Usually the first board installed, the ledger board supports one end of the deck joists and bears about one-half of the deck’s weight. The board must be the same material and size as the rest of the joists, and it is must be attached firmly – and with the correct fasteners – to avoid deck collapse. (Image credit: decks.com)
And speaking of fasteners, never attach a ledger board with nails. The weight of people and objects on a deck, coupled with movement, create vertical and horizontal forces. As the weight shifts during normal activity (imagine people on a deck during a party, or your children running across the space), the nails are pried away from the ledger bit by bit. Add in the fact that wood will contract and expand as temperatures and humidity levels change, and it’s easy to understand why the nails might pop out of the ledger board. For these reasons, deck tension hardware (structural screws, bolts, or tension ties) should always be used – and in accordance with local building codes and construction best practices.
Water: the number one enemy of wood
Another cause of deck failure is wood rot. This is usually the result of wood’s being exposed to water due to improperly installed (or missing) flashing. When the moisture content in wood reaches 19%, wood rot (which is actually a fungus) goes to work. The damage, however, isn’t always visible at first – yet another reason to do an annual deck inspection!
Deck inspection resources at your fingertips
Fortunately, there are many resources available to help you assess the safety of your deck, as well as assist you in locating a qualified deck inspector. Among them:
- NADRA provides a listing of qualified members who must comply with state licensing and insurance requirements as well as adhere to a code of ethics (visit www.nadra.org for more information).
- InterNACHI can help you locate an inspection professional certified by the organization. These individuals must complete over 25 requirements, fulfill annual continuing education requirements and pass an inspection exam every year (details at www.inspectorseek.com).
Another great resource from NADRA: their Check Your Deck® Consumer Checklist. This informative 10-point guide covers everything from locating wood rot to trimming tree limbs. We’ve summarized some key information below.
Five Things You Can Do to Keep Your Deck Safe
Inspect the wood
- Inspect several areas of your deck to ensure the wood is still sound, among them:
- The ledger board
- Support posts and joists beneath the deck
- Deck boards, railing, and stairs – unless you have decay-resistant composite decking
- Look for small holes in the wood or evidence of sawdust/wood dust. If any are present, it may be an indication of insect infestation.
- Examine any areas that are regularly exposed to water, tend to remain damp, or are in regular contact with fasteners. If you can easily penetrate the wood or if the wood is soft and spongy, you might have wood decay.
Don’t forget the flashing
- Proper installation of ledger board flashing is critical, say decking experts.
- Flashing works to prevent moisture and debris from collecting between the house and the ledger board.
- Ensure that your flashing is installed behind the siding and over the top of the ledger board.
- Flashing should run the entire length of the ledger board and be free of any nail or screw holes.
- If you notice water collecting anywhere, add flashing or replace what’s already there.
Check your fasteners
- If you have wood decking, check for popped nails and pound them down or replace them.
- Tighten any loose screws.
- Replace rusted or corroded fasteners, as the corrosion can deteriorate any surrounding wood.
Remember the railing
- Deck railing is as much as safety issue as a style statement. In fact, more injuries result from rail failure than complete deck collapse, reports InterNACHI.
- Push on your railing to ensure it doesn’t “give” in any way.
- Ensure your rail complies with local building codes. That means a rail height of 36”, although 42” is required in some states and for commercial applications.
- Measure the spacing between balusters. To prevent small children and pets from squeezing through, the distance between each baluster cannot exceed 4” for line sections and 4-3/8” for stairs. What’s more, the “triangle” created between the stair tread, riser, and guardrail cannot be large enough to allow a 6” sphere to pass through.
Light it up, safely
- All electrical outlets, appliances and features must be code-compliant, childproof (if you have children or young visitors), and in good condition.
- If lighting on your deck is absent or inadequate, there are many great deck lighting options available. Options include riser lights for stairs; post and rail lighting; and accent lights.
- If electrical cords are present on the deck, ensure they do not present a tripping hazard.
The bottom line: Safety first. Take the time to inspect your deck and make needed repairs, or contact a qualified inspector or contractor for help. No matter how well-built your deck, an annual check-up is always in order.
Of course, if you’re fed up with rotting wood, nail pops, and splinters, and are considering a replacement deck, take a look at today’s composite decking.
The range of colors and textures is incredible, and the hidden fastener option allows for a smooth, nail-free surface that’s easy on the toes as well as the eyes. (Plus you’ll never have to worry about another nail pop or splinter again!) Best of all, Fiberon® composite decking and railing is available in styles and price points to suit any home or budget.