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Keeping Your Decks in Check

Decks are a great “value add” for residents, but property managers face plenty of risks — including having a deck collapse — if their deck isn’t regularly inspected and maintained.

It’s happening more frequently than many property managers and homeowners realize. “What’s happening across this country is an epidemic at this point,” says Michael Beaudry, executive vice president of the North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA). “In most cases if a deck fails, it’s a matter of neglect.”

The Ledger Connection

Common deck failures include a stair collapsing or a railing giving way. Of all the parts of a deck, “the most notoriously overlooked has been the ledger connection,” says Glenn Mathewson, a former deck builder, technical advisor to NADRA and International Code Council-certified Master Code Professional. The ledger connection is the board that connects the deck to a home or property, which can rot away, causing the deck to completely collapse. But, Mathewson adds, “poor construction and a lack of standards for construction is a large contributor to the problem.”

Not maintaining and regularly inspecting the deck, especially the ledger, puts your deck at risk for a collapse — and puts your occupants at risk for injury. “The lack of maintenance and the lack of knowledge of poor condition of the materials would be a due-diligence risk,” Mathewson says. “It would be like allowing the paint to peel off a house, but with much more drastic results.”

Is Your Deck Wood or Composite?

That’s why it’s important to know what material was used to build your deck. Newer decks may be made of composite materials, usually a mixture of wood components and plastic, which range in type, density and strength, but are not as strong as wood, Mathewson says. “Imagine the strength of a plastic shopping bag compared to the strength of Tupperware,” Mathewson says. “They’re going to have different strength properties, as well as different properties of expansion and contraction.”

Composite decking is available in three different series and grades, says Joel Boyer, owner of Unique Deck Builders and Unique Builders, with the most current known as capstock decking, which combines composites of a plastic and wood fiber core wrapped in an outside vinyl layer (PVC), which keeps water out. But be careful because composite decking may not span as far across joists as the wood decking you wanted to replace, Mathewson says. “It’s not a one-for-one trade,” he says.

Know the Code

Codes may be a pain to follow, but if you’re building or remodeling a deck, there’s a reason behind using them: safety. Make sure that if you’re interested in building a deck on your property or adding additional decks, you research the building code for your local jurisdiction. It may be your municipality or your state that oversees this. The American Forest & Paper Association has a guide on building decks based on recent building codes and www.deckfailure.com has a variety of white papers and tips on building and maintaining decks.

Codes not only apply to residential property, such as single family or town homes, but also commercial establishments, such as apartment complexes and condos. However, there are key differences for commercial decks:

  1. The railing height is typically higher, often at 42 inches.
  2. Commercial deck stairs are usually standard, while residential deck stairs may be steeper.
  3. The live load weight requirement is more, usually at 100 pounds per square foot.

Regular Inspections

Property managers should proactively have a building professional or home inspector check your deck. “We’re talking about people’s lives, and it does make a difference,” Beaudry says.

When inspecting a deck on your property, it’s important to review all the components. Mathewson and Joel Boyer, owner of Unique Deck Builders and Unique Builders, suggest this checklist to inspect your deck:

  1. Evaluate the condition of rails, guards and stairs 
  2. Review screws and board connections to make sure they’re not rusted or broken.
  3. Look for debris in cracks, water stains, corrosion or rotting
  4. Is the flashing (metal barrier material that prevents moisture from entering the house) keeping water out?
  5. Does the deck sway?
  6. Is the deck sinking or heaving?
  7. Do the stairs feel sound and solid?
  8. If one deck is having problems on a multi-unit property with multiple decks, make sure to inspect all the decks

NADRA also offers a deck evaluation checklist that covers the ledger connection, posts and footing, post-to-beam connections, joists and joist connections, stairs, deck boards and handrails. By inspecting your deck regularly and ensuring that it’s up to standards, you can keep residents and guests safe. “The bottom line for property managers,” Beaudry says, “is that they need to be proactive rather than reactive.” 

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