Pulldown ladders in attached garages are not uncommon based upon my inspection travels over the last 15+ years. What most home owners who install these ladders aren't aware of, however, is that they are putting their family at risk.
Homes with attached garages must have a fire-rated assembly (also known as fire-separation and sometimes called a "firewall") between the garage and living space or an attic. The most common wall and ceiling covering used in homes and garages is drywall. Drywall is a fire-rated material. A fire-rated assembly doesn't stop a fire from passing through it, but it delays the fire's passage to allow sufficient time for the home's occupants to vacate. A large percentage of house fires start in the garage which is why a fire-rated barrier between the garage and living space is so important in assistant the home's occupants to survive the fire. A proper fire-rated barrier also helps prevent carbon monoxide (CO) entry into the home from the garage.
The thicker the fire-rated assembly the longer it takes for a fire to burn through. 1/2" thick drywall has an approximate 30 minute burn time, whereas 5/8" thick drywall has an approximate 60 minute burn time. If living space exists above an attached garage, modern standards would require 5/8" thick Type-X gypsum board (a type of drywall that has a longer burn time than standard drywall).
For the fire-rating to be effective, the drywall's seams must be mudded and taped. The drywall does not need to be painted; paint is simply a cosmetic feature. A properly installed garage firewall helps slow a garage fire and carbon monoxide from quickly spreading into the home. When the ceiling of an attached garage is modified by the installation of a pulldown ladder with a wooden cover, the fire separation barrier is effectively compromised. The covers used on the vast majority of these pulldown ladders are thin (often 1/4" thick) plywood which, of course, is combustible. Metal pulldown ladders with metal covers do exist but they are very rarely found and tend to be expensive; a metal ladder and metal cover would provide a fire-resistant assembly if properly installed.
A combustible material is the opposite of a fire-rated material and may help feed a garage fire and help the fire quickly spread into living space or an adjacent attic. Even if the attic isn't finished, once fire can get into an attic above a garage, for example, there is nothing left to stop the fire's continued fast spread into living space.
I've had past clients ask "can't we get just screw drywall to the underside of the pulldown ladder's wooden cover?". The answer is no. Screwing drywall onto a pulldown ladder's cover does not provide an air-tight fire barrier as required by modern building standards. Also, the extra weight of adding drywall to the pulldown ladder's cover may cause the cover to stay open slightly, again compromising the fire separation requirement.
The issue becomes moot if a fire-rated assembly (a firewall) exists between the garage attic and the home's main attic or living space. From my experience, however, this barrier between a garage attic and the home/main attic almost never exists. In the rare instances that I have found this attic barrier, it is more often when there is a concrete block wall between the garage and the home and the block wall runs from the garage floor all the way up to the garage roof. In this case, the block wall (assuming the wall is fully intact and has no holes in it) would provide the necessary fire-rated assembly.
The next question the client often asks is about storing items in the garage attic, which is often why the pulldown ladder is installed. In many cases, the ceiling structure above the garage is not meant for the weight of stored items in this garage attic anyway. Storing empty boxes, for example, may do little harm, but once heavier items are stored, they can stress and/or damage the ceiling framing (rafters or trusses). It may also cause additional openings in the ceiling firewall (such as at drywall seams) due to the flexed ceiling covering.
I've looked at the packaging that pulldown ladders typically come in, and I've yet to find a box that has any verbiage warning home owners about installing these ladders in attached garages. It may be safe to say that the manufacturers of these products don't include fire-barrier warnings on their products since that may cause home owners to not buy the product.
Garages with ceiling pulldown ladders are plentiful, however home owners, home buyers, and Realtors need to be aware of the potential safety issues this ladder installation presents. I find that the average home buyer has absolutely no idea that attached garages present an increased fire hazard to the home and the fire-rated assembly plays a very important role in protecting their family. Most assume that the drywall installation on the garage walls is purely an aesthetic feature, when it actually has a specific purpose to help save lives and property.
As part of a home inspection, the home inspector should inspect the installed fire-separation (walls and ceiling) as well as any access panels (such as to the garage attic). Any observed issues with the fire-separation (such as the installation of a pulldown ladder with a wooden cover) should be reported and repairs be recommended.
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© 2018 Matthew Steger
Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer, an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI), an electrical engineer, and a US Dept. of Energy Home Energy Score Assessor. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.