Modern construction standards require a guard railing wherever there is a drop of 30” from a walking surface to an adjacent surface. This standard pertains to exterior and interior situations. The guard railing helps prevent someone from falling off the walking surface and possibly being injured. The most common places that guard railings belong is inside the home along a staircase or landing and at the perimeter of an exterior deck or porch. Guard railings, I find, are often overlooked but very important safety devices.
In PA, we didn’t have a statewide uniform construction code until 2004, so structures (homes, decks, porches, etc.) built prior to that year often have short guard railings and/or have internal or lower openings that are too wide. Some decks and porches are totally missing guard railings altogether. Of course, in most cases, when we’re discussing a structure constructed prior to 2004, the structure in question would be grandfathered and would not be required to be brought up to modern standards. Improper guard railings, no matter how old the structure, can still present an increased injury hazard to adults or children. Home inspectors are not code compliance inspectors, however we use these recognized standards when documenting potential safety issues for our clients.
The current guard railing requirement (based upon the 2009 International Residential Code which is what PA currently follows as a minimum) calls for guard railings to be at least 36” high and have no opening within or below the guard railing exceeding 4” in size. The 4” requirement exists to prevent a small child from sticking his head into a guard railing opening and then getting pushed by a playmate, possibly causing a neck injury. Guard railings should exist wherever there is at least a 30” drop to an adjacent surface. In cases where we’re talking about a deck or porch, the 30” drop actually extends out 36” from the deck or porch perimeter. For example, a deck is built on sloping ground. There is only a 24” drop to grade immediately around the deck’s perimeter, however out 36” from the deck’s edge, the sloping ground is now 42” below the deck’s walking surface. A guard railing should exist in this case. Also, railings should a post at no more than 6' lateral internals in order to help cause the railing to be rigid.
A common situation that home inspectors in our area often run across: short guard railings, especially on porches built many decades ago. Often, these guard railings are only 28” or 30” high. The home predates the guard railing requirement, but it’s tough to remind an adult to not sit on the short guard railing before he flips over backwards and breaks his neck on the concrete sidewalk below. I bring up short guard railings to my clients during home inspections; even though the home likely predates the guard railing standards, updating the guard railing for safety reasons to the proper height should be considered. A person falling backwards over a short guard railing doesn’t care what the code was when the guard railing was built, but he will likely wish that the guard railing was taller once his back hits the ground on the other side.
Since a home buyer hires us to perform an inspection of their new home which is essentially designed to help ensure safety once they move in, the home inspector should report on issues or potential issues that he finds with the railings inside and outside the home. Falls inside the home are one of the most common causes of injury, so a home inspector paying close attending to railings and staircases may help save a life.
The above guard railing is short (28”) and has openings within and below exceeding 4”.
A 2nd common issue that home inspectors run across in this area are guard railings with only horizontal rails (see photo below).
These guard railings are easily climbable by small children since they are essentially a ladder. A small child can easily climb it and fall over the other side.
A 3rd common issue pertains to guard railings that don’t meet these standards but the deck or porch is very close to grade. This is a gray area that sometimes pits home inspector vs. home inspector. A deck only 9” above grade doesn’t require a guard railing, but if one is installed, it is still wise to meet the height and opening requirements since someone may rely on the guard railing to keep them from falling off the deck or porch. The easiest fix, in the case of a deck or porch just slightly above grade, may be to simply remove the guard railing. In lieu of this, modifying the guard railing to meet the modern height and opening requirements would be the wiser choice.
The above guard railing is short, yet it is on a small porch that is only about 20” above grade. Although the porch is close to grade, someone (such as a tall adult) could still fall over this short railing.
A proper guard railing (correct height and interior spacing) on a newly built deck.
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You may also be interested in reading a related article called "Deck Inspections": https://elizabethtown.wini.com/resources/tech-articles/deck-inspections/
Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer, an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI), and an electrical engineer. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or email@example.com.
WIN Home Inspection has provided a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area since 2002. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.