May is deck safety month. Here is a list of items to check each year before using your deck, from the NADRA and InterNACHI. Safe decking.
Split or decaying wood: Check several different areas of the deck to be sure the wood is still sound. This includes the ledger board (where the deck attaches to the house and a common source of deck failure), support posts and joists under the deck (if you can reach them), deck boards, railings and stairs. Pay special attention to any areas that tend to remain damp, are regularly exposed to water, or are in contact with fasteners. Use a tool like an ice pick or a screwdriver to penetrate the wood surface. If you can easily penetrate ¼ – ½ inch, break off a sliver of wood without splinters, or the wood is soft and spongy, decay may be present. This is also a good time to look for small holes in the wood, which may indicate insects.
Flashing: Flashing is a metal or plastic guard that directs water out and away from sensitive areas. It’s often installed where the deck and house come together, keeping moisture and debris from collecting between the house and the deck’s ledger board. Be certain the flashing is sound and firmly in place. Consider adding or replacing flashing if you notice areas that are obviously allowing water to collect.
Loose or corroded fasteners: Fasteners include nails, screws or anchors in the ledger board. Tighten any loose fasteners, and pound in any nails that have popped up. If a fastener appears rusted or corroded, consider replacing it. A corroded fastener can cause deterioration in surrounding wood. 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. 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.
Improper Joist hangers.Joist hangers are those metal brackets that attach the deck joists to the house and beams. The manufacturers of joist hangers are very specific about how joist hangers should be installed; they specify exactly which nails should be installed, and exactly how much weight the joist hangers will support when installed properly. Here are a few defects that I regularly find with joist hangers:
- Missing nails. Nails are supposed to be installed in every hole.
- Improper joist hanger nails. I find improper joist hanger nails on almost every deck. If you can see a little “10” on the head of the nail, it’s probably the wrong nail. Click the link above for more details on this defect.
- Screws used instead of nails. Screws don’t have nearly the shear strength of nails, and they’re not an acceptable substitute.
- Altered joist hangers. Joist hangers shouldn’t be bent or cut.
Railings and banisters: These should be secure. Push on them to be sure there is no give. Also, check to be sure they are high enough (most codes require a 36” high railing and usually encourage 42” high railings) with rails no more than 4” inches apart (measured from the inside of the rails) to keep small children and pets from squeezing through. This is especially important the higher your deck is off the ground.
Stairs: Check any railings or handrails to be sure they are firmly held in place; check also the risers and stringers to be certain they are securely attached and not decayed. If the area behind the stair treads is open, this opening should be no more than 4” high. Also, always keep stair pathways clear of planters, décor, toys and other items that can present a tripping hazard.
Cleaning and maintenance: Clean away any leaves and debris, since these can be slippery and promote mildew. If mildew is present or the deck coating has worn away, make time to clean and apply a new waterproofing coating. It can help prevent the split, decayed wood and loosened fasteners mentioned earlier.
Grills, fire pits, chimneys, heaters and candles: These features can create a warm and cozy deck atmosphere, but make sure any source of fire or heat is safely placed away from flammable surfaces or that the deck surface is protected by a non-flammable pad. Always use caution and follow manufacturers’ directions.
Lighting and electrical: Be sure all lighting is working; clean any light covers to allow maximum light to shine through, and trim any plants or tree limbs that may be blocking light. If you don’t have adequate lighting, there are a lot of great new deck lighting products you could consider to illuminate your steps and pathways. Be sure all electrical outlets, appliances and features are up to code, in good condition, and childproof if children are present. Watch that any electrical cords do not present a tripping hazard.
Outdoor Furniture and Storage: Test all outdoor furniture to be sure it is sturdy. Avoid placing seating right at the edge of the deck. If you have a swing or hammock installed, test the chains and ropes to be sure they are secure. Consider installing childproof latches on any storage boxes and benches. Be sure to keep all deck related chemical products stored safely away from children, including BBQ lighter fluids, matches, cleaners, etc.
Surrounding trees: If you have trees overhanging your deck, make certain there is no danger of decaying limbs breaking free and falling from trees surrounding the deck.
See “Is your deck built like this” on my Home tips page at www.homeinspectpros.com