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Dangerous Decks: Safety Precautions for Composite and Wooden Decks

It’s summertime and a lot of time is being spent in backyards, and on decks. Don’t let a fun gathering turn into a nightmare.

Composite decks are the wave of the future. With few exceptions, wood decks are giving way to plastic and wood-like boards that are often made from recycled materials. The advantages of composite decks are sustainability and the lack of maintenance. These decks do not need to be sanded, stained, or sealed on an annual or bi-annual schedule.

However, composite deck boards are not as structurally sound as wooden deck boards. Often the spacing of the underlying support joists, which are generally pressure treated framing lumber, must be closer in order to carry the span of the composite boards. Because composite boards are a manufactured product, they are sometimes prone to failure, as Louisiana-Pacific discovered.

In May 2009, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in cooperation with Louisiana-Pacific, recalled about 48 million linear feet of its composite decking boards. It was determined that the deck boards deteriorated prematurely and broke unexpectedly. Injuries have been reported including broken wrists, ankles, and lacerations.

The recalled boards are sold under the names LP WeatherBest®, Veranda® (Home Depot), and ABTCo. They are all manufactured in the U.S. Louisiana-Pacific will provide a free inspection upon consumer request, and if the boards show defects or premature deterioration, they will be replaced free of charge. Interested persons should go to Louisiana-Pacific’s website www.deckingnotice.com.

Another problem that has made decks dangerous and likely to collapse is the method of attachment to the house. The board that runs parallel to the side of the house, and is attached to the house, is called the ledger. The ledger is the first component of the deck frame to be applied. For proper deck safety, the ledger must be fastened to the frame of the house, not the siding. The fasteners should be lag bolts that penetrate the framing members by at least 1. inches, on 16-inch centers. Under no circumstances should the ledger be nailed to either the siding or framing members. The ledger should also be flashed on top so that water does not get behind it. If water gets behind the ledger, regardless of the type of material used, it is likely to rot and fail structurally.

Another area of deck safety is the construction of the railings (if the deck is more than 2 feet off the ground). Deck railing posts should be lag bolted or carriage bolted to the deck frame. Bolting the posts through the outer ledger is not sufficient or safe. Nails should not be used. They are not adequate fasteners.

During the first year, maintenance is required on both the deck boards, and the deck posts and rails. Wood shrinks and the bolts on the posts will be loose. Tighten the bolts once a year to keep the rails safe and sturdy. While current best practice is to install the deck boards with stainless steel screws, some installers still use galvanized nails. The nails tend to back out from wood shrinkage and weather activity, and can become a tripping hazard. Rather than re-nailing the top boards, which can become an annual chore, consider replacing all the nails with stainless steel screws.

NOTE: There is an excellent publication on wood deck construction entitled “Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide” published by the American Forest and Paper Association, www.afandpa.org. The booklet has clear and easy to follow illustrations. It should be used by professional installers as well as do-it-yourselfers as part of the deck-planning process.

Following these tips for routine, seasonal inspection of your deck and its support system will save you money and extend the life of the components…and provide years of enjoyment.

Adapted with permission from The Home Book: A Complete Guide to Homeowner and Homebuilder Responsibilities by David E. MacLellan, George E. Wolfson, AIA and Douglas Hansen © 2014, www.HouseFixIt.com.

NOTE: There is a FREE Home Maintenance Checklist available at www.HouseFixIt.com that will help homeowners determine which tasks to perform throughout the year.

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