Backyard decks can collapse causing injury or death -

Backyard decks can collapse causing injury or death

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Two million decks are built and replaced every year in the United States, but only about 40 percent of all existing decks are considered completely safe according to home inspection experts.

Deck collapses can cause major injuries and, sometimes, death.

Debra Allen remembers how frightened she was after witnessing a deck collapse.

"It sounded like thunder, I was like ‘Oh my God!' I was so scared," Allen recalls."The only thing you could hear was people crying and that was very scary."

Most deck collapses are the result of the structures being inappropriately attached to the side of a house.

In many cases, decks are attached to a house with nails that have smooth sides, which can easily come out.

Eric Kent is the co-owner of Archadeck of Charlotte, a company that specializes in building decks and porches, in Charlotte, NC.

Kent says a "thru" bolt is the safest connection. This is a large, galvanized bolt that literally runs through the exterior wall of a house and into the deck supports.  

Kent showed America Now a deck that was inappropriately attached to a home.

"This has done just the opposite and it's just a lag, a very thin attachment. That will come loose over time," he says.

Basically, the deck was ‘stapled' into the side of the home. The original builders didn't even attach the load-bearing supports.

"There are no nails holding those joist-hangers in," Ken points out.

In addition to inspecting the nuts and bolts, homeowners should also inspect the wood on their decks annually.

Dampness and mold spores are the first signs of rot.

"I, literally, could push my finger through that if I wanted to," Kent says referring to a section of rotting wood.

Homeowners should also look for cracks and splits around nails, and be sure to do a simple touch test.

"If I can feel a little springiness in this board, or it feels a little soft to the touch, that's a clear indication," he warns.

The deck he showed us will have to be replaced.

Kent says the biggest mistake homeowners make is asking a handyman or neighbor for help, or they do the work themselves.

Instead, he recommends you call a deck builder who is both licensed and insured to do the work.

Before your new deck is constructed, be sure to have a building inspector in your area review the plans and issue a building permit to ensure everything is up to code.  

A well-built, well-maintained deck should last about 30 years.

Be sure to keep it clean and remove any signs of mold.

You should also apply wood stain to your deck every year or two to protect it from the weather.

A sturdy railing is also essential because accidents involving railings send people to emergency rooms every year. These accidents actually occur more often than total deck collapses.

While many railings are built for beauty with creative shapes, materials and sizes, make sure your railings are built to local building codes.

Additional Information:

The following information is from in an article entitled, "Rossen Reports: Many backyard decks collapse, experts warn" (Source:

  • Attaching a deck to a house with nails is the leading cause of deck collapses. Nails are smooth and pull out easily. Screws and bolts are more secure.
  • A sturdy railing is also essential. Every summer people are hospitalized from falling over.
  • Check your deck once a year. Go underneath and examine the bolts and screws.
  • Call a home inspector if you notice any problems.

The following information is from the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors' website in an article entitled, "Deck Inspections, Illustrated (How to Inspect a Deck)" (Source:

  • More than two million decks are built and replaced each year in North America.
  • InterNACHI (International Association of Certified Home Inspectors) estimates that of the 45 million existing decks, only 40% are completely safe.
  • A deck must be designed to support the weight of people, snow loads, and objects.
  • Rail failure occurs much more frequently than total deck collapses; however, because rail failures are less dramatic than total collapses and normally don't result in death, injuries from rail failures are rarely reported.
  • Almost every deck collapse occurred while the decks were occupied or under a heavy snow load.
  • About 90% of deck collapses occurred as a result of the separation of the house and the deck ledger board, allowing the deck to swing away from the house. It is very rare for deck floor joists to break mid-span.
  • Many more injuries are the result of rail failure, rather than complete deck collapse.

The following information is from the North American Deck and Railing Association's (NADRA) website in an article entitled, "Deck Inspections: a Matter of Life and Death" (Source:

  • An estimated 2.5 million new or replacement decks were built last year.
  • The International Code Council (ICC) suggests looking for the following when inspecting decks, balconies, or porches: split or rotting wood; loose or missing nails, screws, or anchors where the structure is attached to the building; missing, damaged, or loose support beams and planking; and, wobbly handrails or guardrails.
  • The International Residential Code (IRC) requires residential decks and porches to withstand a minimum of 40 pounds per square foot plus the weight of the porch.
  • The main sources of injuries are failures of the connection between the deck ledger and house band joist and railing related accidents.
  • Unlike bolts, nails can pull out.
  • For every inch of penetration, lag bolts have as much as nine times the pullout resistance of a nail.
  • A thru bolt gives even better resistance with its metal-to-metal connection. The thru bolt is inserted in a drilled hole and fitted with a nut on the other side. A washer on both sides spreads the pulling force over a larger portion of the beam.
  • Early signs of loosening between the screws and the wood include a widening gap between the house and the deck.
  • Railings built for creativity (shapes, materials, sizes) can be dangerous. It must still adhere to local building codes. Codes specify a certain maximum opening between balusters, spindles, or pickets so that a 4-inch diameter ball won't pass through the railing.
  • A railing height of 36 inches standard for residential properties and 42 or 48 inches most common for commercial and fencing applications.
  • Building inspectors, like deck builders and homeowners, should know that there are changes to the IRC every three years. State and local amendments are added to those changes. New building materials and deck-related products are appearing on the market in record fashion. Reading industry magazines, consulting with other inspectors on a regular basis, and monitoring state building and code official association Web sites and message boards are all good ways to stay abreast of new products and inspection challenges.

Copyright 2013 America Now. All rights reserved.

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