Why Every Deck Needs an Annual Inspection

Learn why every deck needs an annual inspection.

No matter what your summer plans include, chances are many of those festivities will take place on your deck. May is Deck Safety Month®, so before you plan any seasonal fun, take some time to ensure your outdoor space is safe and structurally sound.

Age, exposure, and the shortcomings of wood can lead to problems

According to the North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA), there are more than 50 million decks in the United States, half of which may be well past their prime. After all, building codes, construction methods, and decking materials have changed considerably in the last two decades. And since decks are outdoor structures, they are always at the mercy of weather and extreme temperature fluctuations which, over time, can lead to structural breakdowns. Wood decks, in particular, are susceptible to cracking, splintering, warping, and insect infestation.

Today, more homeowners are choosing capped composite decking such as Fiberon Symmetry Decking, shown here in Warm Sienna.

That’s part of the reason why today, more and more homeowners are choosing capped composite decking over wood. However, even though a capped composite deck eliminates concerns about splintering boards, nail pops, and insect infestation, it doesn’t eliminate the need for annual deck inspection. Virtually every deck, composite or otherwise, sits upon a wood substructure and 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. As a NADRA Deck Safety Ambassador, Fiberon is pleased to provide some guidelines and suggestions on what to look for when it comes to ensuring the safety of your deck and everyone on it.

Even the most beautifully built decks need an annual inspection. Shown here: Fiberon Symmetry Decking in Cinnabar with Symmetry Railing in Tranquil White.

Deck Construction Basics

Proper ledger board installation is essential

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.

The ledger board bears about one-half of the deck’s weight. Proper installation is essential. (Image credit: decks.com)

We can’t overstate the importance of ensuring that appropriate fasteners are used to install the ledger board. Nails, for example, should never be used to attach the ledger boards. The weight of people and objects on a deck, coupled with movement, creates vertical and horizontal forces. As the weight shifts during normal activity – for example, a deck party packed with people or 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 how 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

Wood rot is another key concern and, as we mentioned, a principal reason for deck failures. Wood rot is usually the result of the wood’s having been exposed to water due to improperly installed or missing flashing. When the moisture content in wood exceeds 20%, wood rot (which is actually a fungus) becomes a threat. The damage, however, isn’t always visible at first – yet another reason to do an annual deck inspection!

Summertime fun starts with an annual deck inspection. Shown here: Fiberon Horizon Decking in Ipe and Tudor Brown.
How to find a qualified deck inspector

Hiring a qualified professional is a smart move to ensure an inspection is done properly. NADRA provides a listing of qualified deck inspection 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).

Another great resource from NADRA is the Check Your Deck® Consumer Checklist. This informative 10-point guide covers everything from locating wood rot to trimming tree limbs. We encourage every deck owner to spend some time reviewing the contents. In the meantime, here is a quick summary of key information.

5 things you can do to keep your deck safe
1. Inspect the wood
  • Inspect several areas of your deck to ensure the wood is still sound, including:
    • 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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 the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (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”, as per the International Residential Code (IRC). However, 42” rail heights may be required in some states, as well as for commercial applications, as per the International Building Code (IBC).
  • 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 by the stair tread, riser, and guardrail cannot be large enough to allow a 6” sphere to pass through.
5. 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; among them, 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 beautiful or well-built your deck may be, an annual check-up is always in order.

Safe, solid, and party-ready: is your deck set for summer? Shown here: Fiberon Symmetry Decking in Burnt Umber and Warm Sienna.

Of course, if you’re still dealing with a wood deck and want to eliminate the challenges of rotting wood, nail pops, and splinters, take a look at Fiberon composite decking. You’ll find colors to complement every home and price points to fit almost any budget, as well as a slew of free, easy-to-use online tools to help you plan your perfect outdoor space. Start now!



Editor’s Note: This post was originally published 5/23/2016 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


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