Fortress Blog

Saturday, June 11, 2016

What Is the Maximum Deck Height You Can Have without a Railing?

I went to a friend’s house a while back to admire his new deck. This friend was very excited, especially by how much time he saved by not adding a railing. He’d made a point of building his deck so as to stay under the 30-inch requirement--which is the maximum deck height you can have without a railing. As we relaxed on the new deck with a couple of beers, my friend’s Shih Tzu dog came racing out of the house barking at a squirrel and skidded off the deck into the flower bed below. The dog was perfectly fine, but after we had stopped laughing--with relief--about it, I had to respond, “That wouldn’t have happened with a railing.”    

Maybe you have plenty of lighting around your deck and you and your friends aren’t planning on falling off it anytime soon. But there may be other concerns as well, like pets, children, and even furniture. Gravity doesn’t stop working just because your deck is lower than 30 inches. A well-made railing is always the safer option, even if it’s not a long fall. On top of that, they just look better. I’ve found that railings give an outside structure a more finished look with better curb appeal. While most codes allow you to leave off the railings on decks lower than 30 inches, there are lots of reasons why you should still consider one.

Why Homeowners Go Without Railings

As my friend scooped up his dog, he mused on the fact that even though he’d built the deck to code, it still wasn’t as safe as it could be. That’s a big lesson most new DIYers learn; just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Adding a railing to your deck can not only improve its safety but also your home’s curb appeal. Most often, I hear someone choosing not to add a railing for one of the following reasons:

  • Expense: Some people skip the railing just to save money. But here’s the deal: going without a railing could eventually cost you money, too. The first time someone missteps and breaks an ankle is going to cost you. Or, if you avoid that, consider the cost to get rid of the critters that decide to move into the dark, enclosed space under your low-to-the-ground deck. Eventually, your choice to build low could cost you. It will probably cost more than it would to install a railing so you can build higher.
  • Installation issues: The main reason that my friend avoided the railing was because the deck was oddly shaped, and he didn’t want to mess with installing a railing along its contours. But if he’d done a bit of research, he would have found complete, easy-install railing kits specifically designed to work with oddly shaped decks.
  • Increased code liability: If you install a railing on a deck that isn’t required to have one, the railing is still required to meet code. But this is another easy fix. Most trustworthy companies will only supply you with railings that meet all code requirements.

Those are the main reasons deck builders decide not to build a railing. But in some cases, you might build the deck under the 30 allowed inches, then find out you need to add one anyway. This happens a fair amount, for a number of possible reasons.

Why You Might Need to Add a Railing

One of the rules good builders go by is ‘measure twice, cut once’.  It sounds easy, but there are a lot of different factors that could impact your floor-to-ground measurement. That number could change when the building inspector gets their tape measure out. Sometimes, a DIYer will learn they must add a railing after the fact. It’s usually going to be for one of the following reasons.

  • Land settling: If you’re building over dirt, that dirt could sink. Rain or snow could pool up under the deck, washing away the dirt and essentially lowering the ground. That alone can magically make your deck end up higher than 30 inches. If your deck is close to the limit, you’ll need to calculate in the cost of adding dirt because the ground may settle over time. That’s an ongoing cost, while adding a railing is a one-time expense that means your deck stays up to code no matter what the ground below it is up to. Dirt moves around, but your railing’s height will stay the same.
  • Bad measuring: A common mistake for some is to measure from the bottom of the floor, when the measurement should include the thickness of the deck floor. If the wood is thick, this can throw off your measurement by a few inches.
  • Slope: If you’ve built on a slope, in that you slightly tilted the deck to allow for water run-off, your actual above grade measurement may be a little bit higher than on other parts of the deck.
  • Safety: A 30-inch fall for an adult isn’t great, but it probably won’t end in a broken bone. The same can’t always be said for small kids or pets. If you have either of those in your home, I’d highly recommend adding a railing.

If your deck is close to the 30-inch mark, or you just want to build a railing for safety, it’s not too late to add one if you have the right materials. The easiest way to install beautiful railings that meet code requirements is to purchase pre-assembled railing panels, rather than buying and putting together individual components.

What to Do When You Need to Install a Railing on Your Deck

The International Building Code says that your railings must be 36 inches or higher, but that isn’t the only consideration. There are specific regulations on everything from the distance between your balustrades to the screws used to anchor the railing. That’s why I recommend buying railing panels.

Fortress Building Products offers a lot of high quality, attractive railings in different materials and finishes. Cable railings have a sleek modern look and are usually very complicated to have installed, but Fortress® offers cable railing panels that are simple to purchase and to put in yourself. For a classic look, Fortress’ Fe26 steel railing come in a finish that mimics wrought iron but is much more durable, with multiple corrosion-resistant treatments like galvanization, a zinc precoat, a moisture-resistant e-coat, and a UV-resistant powder coating.

When buying from a company committed to continuous testing and dedicated to creating the most durable and safe railings out there, you can install entire panels that are already compliant with the codes for your region. That’s going to save you a lot of measuring and frustration. These railing panels come with easy-to-install hardware and brackets that are compliant with IBC capacity requirements as well.  A pre-assembled railing panel is a great choice if you need to finish off your deck with a safe and code compliant railing, but not all are created equal. It’s best to find a railing manufacturer that goes above and beyond the code requirements to create a railing that’s as safe and durable and long-lasting as possible. In my experience, that’s what Fortress does. And if you’re working on your deck or on other projects around the home, Fortress Building Products sells other, equally safe, durable, and innovative products like decking, fencing, and ornamental hardware.

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