On a large percentage of our inspections we come across defects with regards to handrails, stair rails and guardrails. There are many rules that are in place to ensure safety, most of these rules are in place to protect children. Many handrail rules are also enforced to protect adults as well.
The most common defect with guardrails in our area is due to the baluster spacing. This spacing has gotten tighter and tighter over the years. The current standard is set to a spacing that will not allow a 4 inch diameter sphere to pass through the space. This is in place so children cannot get their heads wedged in places they don’t belong. Horizontal balustrades are also not recommended because they pose a climbing hazard. Many times we find that the porch or deck height is not high enough to require guardrails at all, in these instances the guardrails may be removed. Even in instances where these railings are not required, if they are present, they must meet the current safety standard.
Handrails have many of the same rules, however, the dimensions vary. When the current building standards changed the minimum tread depth to 10 inches, the maximum baluster spacing was changed to 4 3/8 inches. Also, if there isn’t a solid base at the handrails the triangle that is created by the lower rail must not allow a 6 inch sphere to pass.
There are also many rules in place as to the height and size of the handrail itself. The handrail must be graspable, extend from the nosing of the bottom step to the nosing of the top step, and must also return to the wall as a matter of safety. Handrail heights must measure between 34 and 38 inches as measured from the nosing of the tread. We often find inadequately supported handrails as well, which is a safety hazard. The handrail should have supports not more than 5 feet apart.
The size of the rail itself is also an area we find many defects. Due to the requirement of the railing being graspable for the entire length, the supports must not impede ones hand from grasping the rail. The overall width of the rail should not exceed 2 inches and the spacing from the outer surface (or inner depending on your perspective) of the rail should not be closer than 1 1/2 inches to the wall or support posts. This is part of the requirement that allows your hand to not have to be removed from the rail at any time while ascending or descending the staircase.
While we are out inspecting we find that in about 85% of existing homes we find multiple rules violated when it comes to these standards. Although these standards have changed over time and likely were not in place at the time of construction, updating your staircase, handrails, and guardrails is an important safety upgrade. This not only helps protects children from injury, these rules are also in place to help elderly, and disabled people to easily navigate stairs, decks, and porches.
If you have a home inspection or home maintenance related topic you’d like to read about please send your suggestion to me via email at Aaron@ZuehlkeInspections.com
Aaron M. Zuehlke is the owner and lead inspector at Zuehlke Inspection Service, LLC, a full-service home inspection company serving Southern Wisconsin. Specializing in Home inspection, Radon Testing and Residential Thermal Imaging.