Deck Safety: Are your decks in top condition for the season ahead?
Photo Credit: National Contractors Inc.

Decks can add value to your home with well-appointed, comfortable outdoor furnishings, decorations, and colorful plants. A deck can be a tranquil haven for you to enjoy lounging on in the warm weather with family and friends, but without proper care during the building process, or correct maintenance over time, your deck, and its railings, may not be as safe as you think and could possibly collapse, causing serious injuries.

With more than 60 million decks in the United States, it is estimated that 30 million decks are past their lifespan of 15 to 20 years old and built before current building codes were implemented, requiring bolts to attach the deck to the house rather than nails. Improper attachment to the house is the most common cause of a deck collapse. Collapses happen suddenly and with no warning.

The North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA) has designated May as National Deck Safety Month to increase public awareness that regular inspections and maintenance of existing decks and proper installation of new decks save lives and prevent injuries. “It’s crucial for homeowners to have their decks inspected to verify the integrity of their deck to ensure user safety as well as help extend the deck’s life-span, improve appearance, and increase livability,” says Michael Beaudry, Executive Vice President of NADRA. In recent years there has been an increase in the number of decks that have collapsed, fallen apart, or failed in some other way. In many of those cases, these failures could have been prevented with routine maintenance. In 2018, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported over 220,000 people were injured throughout the country on their deck or porch in just a four-year period, and approximately 15% of these injuries were the result of a structural failure or collapse.

Even if your deck was built of the highest quality materials, fluctuating temperatures, sunlight, rain, and wind can cause serious deterioration to wood (discoloration, warping and cracks) and metal. If your deck is in a shaded or wet area like one that is surrounded by trees, it can collect mold, mildew, moss, pollen, or algae. Heavy snow can also weaken and damage your deck over the winter, which makes spring the ideal time to inspect your deck and make necessary repairs before you open your deck for the summer season.

Balcony or Deck. What’s the difference?

Balconies are a smaller, elevated platform always affixed on the second story or above of a house or building. They are usually connected to a given room, allowing the residents to step outside for fresh air without leaving their home. These elevated structures jut out from the walls of the main structure and supported by columns or console brackets and enclosed with a balustrade. A house or building can have multiple balconies on each floor and allow the residents an outdoor space, omitting the need for a patio or backyard. Balcony types include stacked, cantilever or hung.

Specifically, a deck is a flat wooden platform which can be slightly raised, or high enough to require steps and is recognizable as a deliberate addition to a house, rather than part of its architecture. It can be covered or uncovered, attached, or left as a standalone structure. Decks are universally elevated from the ground level and enclosed with railing. According to building codes a deck up to 18 inches may require a railing.

Many aspects of deck design and construction, from structural requirements to size limits, are covered by local codes. Your homeowner’s association may also have guidelines on aesthetic choices, such as materials, finishes, and handrail appearance. When or if it’s time to replace your deck, there are several key considerations for choosing your deck building material such as budget, climate, ease of maintenance, and overall aesthetic. Here we review the top five popular choices for decking boards and the advantages and disadvantages for each.

Pressure-treated lumber: Easy to work with. Takes stains and waterproofing easily. Often made from a southern pine infused with a chemical to make it resistant to rot, moisture, and insects, this widely available decking material is generally the least expensive option among wood decking materials, and the most widely requested. Homeowners enjoy pressure-treated wood for its durability and visual similarity to natural wood. However, avoid the cheapest budget varieties, as these are typically more susceptible to cracks, warps, and splits over time, any of which could cost you more in repairs down the road. Disadvantage: Unprotected metal fasteners and connectors will corrode. Boards can warp and crack. Regarding maintenance, homeowners will need to pressure wash annually, and requires frequent resealing, and restaining. The infused chemicals release toxic gas into the air if burned, so it’s important to always reapply a good sealer when you stain every few years to minimize the exposure to chemicals when using the deck.

Composite: Composite decking, from brands such as Trex and TimberTech, is made from a blend of recycled plastic (polyethylene, polypropylene, or PVC) mixed with wood fibers (like wood chips or sawdust). Not only does the durable synthetic material resist warping, but if properly maintained it also holds strong against splinters, cracks, rot, and insect infestations. Composite decking is available in a wide variety of colors, styles, and textures, including those that mimic natural wood. None of which require sealing, sanding, or staining unless you absolutely want to change the color later. Some composite decking products carry warranties of up to 25 years, but these typically apply only if you install the deck according to the manufacturer’s directions; be clear on what those are prior to construction. Disadvantage: Dark-colored composite decking can get extremely hot in direct sunlight; mold and mildew can grow in shady, cool, or damp areas; and the surface can be quite slick when wet. Scuffs and scratches easily. Spills can leave stains.

Plastic: The most popular plastic decking material is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), although there are also versions made from polyethylene. Just like composite decking, plastic is durable and easy to maintain, requiring regular cleaning with just a garden hose or bucket and mop. Plastic will not warp, crack, or split over time, and it’s impervious to moisture, rot, decay, and insects. What’s more, the surface does not need to be sanded, stained, or sealed. Disadvantage: Boards can squeak when walked on. The surface gets extremely hot in direct sunlight and susceptible to mold and mildew in shade. And, while available in a wide variety of colors and styles, darker colors tend to fade over time and lighter colors sometimes develop a chalky coating.

Redwood: Many homeowners opt for natural wood decking, whether it’s cedar, redwood, or tropical hardwoods. These durable materials, which have a traditionally beautiful appearance and rich color, resist rot and insects. But such attractive qualities come at a cost, both financial and physical. If you opt for natural wood decking materials, the price will depend on your desired variety. Some exotic hardwoods cost more per square foot. Disadvantage: Without proper maintenance, it tends to fade or crack, so keep your investment in prime condition by pressure washing and resealing every two years.

Aluminum: Often used near swimming pools and lakes, aluminum decking is a long lasting and low-maintenance material. Most options feature a baked-on, powder-coated, or anodized finish that stands up to harsh weather conditions. Aluminum is extremely resistant to mold, mildew, and staining, and it also won’t rust, rot, crack, or peel over time. Most aluminum decking comes with a non-skid textured surface that prevents slips and falls, and most varieties of aluminum decking manage to stay cool even on the hottest days. Disadvantage: This combination of benefits makes it one of the most expensive options, second only to some varieties of natural wood. The price, as well as its industrial appearance doesn’t appeal to every homeowner.

Choosing Deck Railing

Choosing your deck railing is one of the most significant features of your deck and conveys its personality. Different types of deck rail systems will give your deck an entirely different appearance. To select the best railing for your deck, it’s important to compare material options and understand the different components that make up a railing system.

The posts on a railing are usually 4 x 4” or 6 x 6”. These posts are the support structures that keep your deck railing upright. The bottom rail holds up balusters. Balusters are the traditional poles or rods that run vertically along your railing, and visually define the space while also providing safety. The handrail runs across the top and is the piece you can grip or lean on when looking over the side of the deck or walking downstairs. Post caps sit on top of your post and add decoration and coordination to the space or just give the post a finished look.

Wood Railing: Traditional wood railing gives you the flexibility to create something custom or mix and match premade pieces to achieve a specific look. This type of railing goes best with wooden decks. It’s important to note that wood railing needs regular maintenance such as cleaning, staining, or painting to stay structurally sound and continue to look aesthetically pleasing.

Composite Railing: Capped composite rails require little maintenance; it never needs painting, and won’t rot, crack, peel, or splinter. Composite railing is available in a wide variety of colors, styles, and textures that will allow you to create an array of looks. Most commonly, you’ll find composite railing systems that have a traditional, formal look. Posts are smooth, topped with ornate caps and balusters are often straight or feature a traditional Colonial spindle design. You can mix and match the components to customize the railing to match or enhance the style of your home.

Aluminum: Aluminum railing is a premium railing material and is both strong and lightweight. Available in a range of colors, the most common of which are black, white, and shades of brown. Aluminum railing is typically powder coated, therefore it’s not prone to rusting, rot or vulnerable to fluctuations in temperature. You can also find a variety of infills for aluminum railing, such as stainless-steel cable, mesh, aluminum balusters, or even glass. This permits greater design flexibility, combining classic and modern styles for a more stunning appearance.

National Contractors reminds homeowners that older decks require closer scrutiny and regular inspections. To reiterate, many decks were built before code requirements were established to protect consumers. Some of these older decks may have deck-to-house attachments using only nails instead of the current recommended construction using deck tension hardware that greatly helps in the prevention of ledger failures.

If you notice anything about your deck or rail system that concerns you, have it inspected immediately by a qualified professional. A deck inspection requires special knowledge, expertise, and experience to thoroughly examine your deck, identify any dangerous problem areas and provide insight of what to keep your eye on in the future. The team at National Contractors is available to assist homeowners with deck inspections to ensure it is safe and code compliant. Contact us today at (609) 771-4200 or

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