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Code & Safety For Deck Railing

Why is Deck Railing Code so Important?

Code requirements can be wordy and difficult to sift through. If you’re a homeowner, you might wonder which parts of code actually applies to you, and whether you actually have to pay close attention. Deck railing code is in place for a reason, however. It exists to keep people safe. Though it might be a bit tedious to sift through, in the end, doing your research and preparation will be well worth your time. After all, you’ve invested a lot in your deck railing system. You want to make sure that that system protects the people you care about for years to come. Other Deck Railing Articles:                  
Rod Railing

Code For Guardrail

Guard railing is the protective railing that keeps people from falling off open-sided walkways like stairs, ramps, or balconies. Guard railings come in a variety of forms, such as wood or iron vertical stair balusters, horizontal cable railing, or glass panel systems. Where to Put Guard Railing: According to the 2018 IRC, guard railing is required on any open-sided walkway that is elevated more than 30” from the floor or grade below. It’s required at all points within 36” horizontally to the edge of the open side.
Cable Super Bronze Side Mount
Guard Height Requirements: The absolute minimum height requirement for residential guard railing is 36” in some states, although states (like California) have a minimum of a 42” handrail height. Viewrail offers 36”, 39”, and 42” handrail heights to meet every state’s requirement. On a flat surface, measure vertically above the adjacent walking surface. On a staircase, imagine a string pulled tight and resting on the stairs, creating a smooth slope. Measure vertically from the imagined sloped line that connects the nosings to the top of the rail. For stairs, 36” is standard in every state (except for a few special cases)
The 4” Sphere Rule: There can’t be any openings wide enough for a 4” sphere to pass through anywhere from the base of the walking surface to the minimum guard height. This particularly applies to cable railing, rod railing, and baluster railing systems that have open spaces between each individual rail. However, glass panel systems also often have an open space between the top of the glass panel and the handrail, or between the bottom of the glass panel and the walking surface, so the 4” sphere rule can apply to those systems as well. The only notable exception to this is often allowed at the back of step for a gap up to 6”. When any horizontal railing is on a diagonal across the rise and run of step, it will almost always exceed 4” gap, and thus an allowance was made.

Deck Railing Code FAQ

If I have questions about whether the stairs/railing I want is up to code, who should I ask?

You can do a lot of research on the ICC website. You can even get a two week free trial of one of the code books on the site. After that, you will likely have a better idea of what questions to ask your contractor or state code representative. Most cities have a Code Compliance Office, or at least a Town Hall official that can direct you to the right person.

What happens if code changes after my build?

You don’t need to be too concerned about code requirements once your house is built. However, if you’re reconstructing or altering your home, make sure to check in on the most recent code for reconstructions and alterations and to see if a permit is required for those alterationss.

Are there exceptions to the code discussed in this article?

Yes! This document serves as a guide to the standard rules. While some exceptions were covered here, many were not, so be sure to check out the code more closely when you’re ready to build. Spiral staircases and composite stairs are especially famous for having a number of exceptions.

What about reconstructions and alterations?

Reconstructions and alterations have their own sections of code laid out in the 2018 IRC. The code discussed in this article applies to new builds, though some of the code does cross over and it is encouraged to follow the latest IRC update in order to keep house and resell value.

What residential structures are subject to IRC?

The ICC defines residential code as being the minimum regulations for one- and two-family dwellings and townhouses. Homes that defy these standards, like three-story homes and tiny houses, are subject to their own regulations. Each subcategory of the IRC (like the stairway, handrail, and guard railing code) has its own set of exceptions. Spiral staircases, for example, do not adhere to the basic IRC code for stairways. In addition, the international residential code refers primarily to new builds, with addendums written for alterations and reconstruction.

Do I need to follow the 2018 IRC?

Maybe. We know that’s a frustrating answer, but it’s really the best answer we can give. Every state (and even some municipalities) can decide for themselves if they want to adopt the IRC and sometimes state or local codes vary from IRC. This obviously complicates things for you as the homeowner — but if you are in the dark about your state’s requirements, check this page of resources developed by the ICC. It will tell you which version of the international code your state has adopted.

Why does the IRC exist?

In short, it’s about safety. Many people think that code is something that keeps a house from toppling over, and that’s true. But it serves additional purposes that aren’t as obvious. For example, imagine that your house is on fire. Firefighters and other first responders will be entering and exiting your home quickly, and the IRC is what helps to keep them safe while they’re running up or down your stairway. The IRC also contains energy conservation strategies, to protect and minimize damage to the environment. Finally, the code allows you, the homeowner, to enjoy your dwelling with healthy amounts of light and ventilation. It allows you to rest easy knowing that your family is safe from fire and other hazards, and keeps your home structurally sound.

What about the ladder effect?

Restrictions against horizontal railing that produces a “ladder effect” haven’t appeared in IRC since 2001, but many consumers are still concerned and confused about horizontal railing safety. Fortunately, in 2007, a report from the National Ornamental & Miscellaneous Metals Association (NOMMA)/ brought some clarity to the matter. The sixty-plus page study revealed that young children who want to climb will use objects in their environment to do so no matter how the guard is constructed, making the culprit of falls around guard railings a little muddier. Ladder effect terminology has stayed out of code language for nearly two decades now, but you’re sure to encounter it in articles as you shop for railing systems for stairs and walkways. As always, it’s important to check your local code requirements to make sure your preferred railing design is up to code in your area.