May Is National Deck Safety Month

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How To Spot A Deck In Trouble Before Disaster Strikes

There’s no better view of summer on a sunny day than a backyard deck. It’s the stuff dreams and Norman Rockwell paintings are made of.

Unfortunately, there are few scarier feelings than standing on a rickety, creaky deck. For as the Reading (Pa.) Eagle’s Karen Chandler notes, “the potential problems lurking in a poorly maintained or non-inspected deck could spell catastrophe for homeowners, families or guests.” And there’s no check engine light that goes off automatically when a deck’s in structural trouble.

With Memorial Day barbecues and summer fast on the horizon, the North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA) has declared May Deck Safety Month. NADRA reminds all deck owners to check their decks for signs of trouble.

Remember, No Deck Lasts Forever

While some homeowners believe decks can last as long as their house with little upkeep, NADRA cautions that decks have life expectancies similar to roofs and windows. Decks weather Mother Nature’s unforgiving, sometimes ruthless elements (sunlight, rain and snow) year-round.

The most troubling statistic of the USA’s deck health is how many decks are in trouble. NADRA reports half of the country’s 50 million decks are past their useful lives, and in need of repair or replacement.

The fallout of the country’s deck health crisis: an average of 33,000 people annually are injured because of the structural failure or collapse of a deck, porch, railing or staircase, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Six thousand suffer dramatic injuries.

Adding to the danger, unlike America’s homes, many decks are Do-It-Yourself construction projects.

“I’d say as many as 10 percent of the decks I’ve seen have serious design or construction flaws that could lead to catastrophe,” Bob Fennema, a structural engineer and member of the American Society of Home Inspectors, told This Old House.

Conduct A Preseason Deck Inspection

Don’t roll out the grill or lay out the deck chairs until you’ve given your deck an in-depth physical, and don’t try to get one more summer out of a failing deck.

“You start by doing visual inspections,” Harry O’Neill, vice president of Empire Building Products in Bern Township, Pa., told the Reading Eagle. “If you see something, you bring in a contractor. If you see the structural parts decaying, you’re going to tear it down and start over.”

Your pre-season deck inspection should also include an annual cleaning that includes checks for loose stairs or railings. These are the crisis points of decks that take the most weather and use abuse. If stairs are set into dirt, settling can also cause them to pull away from the deck frame, opening up another point of deck failure.

Warning Signs

Here are telltale signs of a deck crying out for replacement:

  • Cracks & Board Gaps
  • Rotten Wood & Bug Damage
  • Mold and Mildew Growth
  • Loose Railings
  • Rusted Fasteners and Connectors
  • Fading Color

Need a professional opinion? The American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) recommends having an ASHI-certified home inspector or knowledgeable deck builder evaluate and inspect your residential decks for deterioration caused by water, climate and corrosion of fasteners.

Remember, nothing, not even the most beautiful deck, lasts forever. Experts advise decks built entirely from pressure-treated lumber have lifespans of 15 to 25 years, depending on maintenance. Decks featuring composite or alternative materials may last up to 50 years.

“If your deck is more than 30 years old, it’s a reason to be concerned,” ASHI executive director Frank Lesh told This Old House.

And if your deck sways, rocks or creaks when you step on the stairs or appears to have shifted even slightly away from your house, it’s time to retire it.

“There should be no movement,” Lesh said. “It should be in the same position as when it was built.”

Take No Chances

Don’t chance your family and guests’ safety this summer with an aging, rickety deck that could lead to unimaginable injury. As Deck Magazine’s Andy Angel stresses, don’t treat your favorite summer retreat as if “it’s only a deck.”

Know when it’s time to say goodbye to your deck in the name of your family and friends’ wellbeing.

“The last thing many homeowners want to hear is they have to replace an entire deck,” Professional Modeler’s Jim Cory writes. “But sometimes, for safety reasons, there’s no choice.”

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