Our baby is one year old and we are worried about his safety on our back deck, specifically with regard to the handrail and spindle spacing. What size opening is safe for our baby?

The standard for spindle spacing is a maximum of 4”. If there are spaces in the railing that a 4” ball will pass through it is technically not up to code. If the spacing is greater than 4” a small child could get their head through the railing and become stuck when trying to back out. Let’s face it this is a very rare situation and most often the problem will be with the space under the railing which is often 6-10” off the deck. Another common problem is railings that can be a climbing toy. A fall from the deck can have very serious consequences. Remember that the code has a built in safety margin. If you measure every opening and find some are closer to 5” I would not tear the whole railing apart to make changes. Take a piece of paper and cut a 4” circle out of the center. You will be amazed how small this is. Even most newborns have heads larger than 4” The real dangers are from stairs and falling over the railing. 

We have a deck that is quite high. It also has a bench seat. Someone told me the seat is not allowed by code, can you explain?

The use of a bench seat usually allows children to climb under or over the seat and fall off the deck. Bench seats need to have a 36” high seat back that prevents someone from falling over the back. If this seat is over 60” from the ground the seat back needs to be 42” high. Remember that decks are dangerous places and building them properly is critical to your families safety. I recommend you obtain a permit for all the requirements of your area as many jurisdictions have specific rules they enforce. 

We are building a new deck this summer. What are the rules for the railings?

There are some standard rules such as no openings greater than 4” but there are other less obvious rules you need to be aware of. Ultimately the rules are there for your safety and the safety of anyone who may use your deck. No railing should be designed in a manner that will allow it to be climbed. Another rule is that bench seats need to have a 36” high seat back that prevents someone from falling over the back. If this seat is over 60” from the ground the seat back needs to be 42” high. I recommend getting a permit from the city so you can view all the code regulations. Make sure that the railing is properly attached to the deck surface and the house if possible. A loose railing is just as dangerous as one that has over 4” openings. 

I have a lot of ice on my concrete walk way in the spring. Is there a type of ice melt you recommend?

The best approach to removing ice on the walk is to never let it get there in the first place. If you have a downspout that drains onto the walk you should redirect the water overhead so it drains on the grass on the far side of the walk. Put a post in the ground and place the downspout on it. Draining water on the walkway is a fall looking for a place to happen. As to ice melts I do not know of any particular brands that will not eat away the concrete over time. Salt based ice melting products are very hard on the walks and the lawn for that matter. It is best to control the water in the first place. If you must use salt do so sparingly. 


Deck Safety

Deck safety is something an inspector needs to pay close attention to. It is important to remember that a home inspection is not a code inspection. That means the inspector is not trying to go through the home and point out every code infraction. The deck is one area where the line between the home and code inspection may intersect. As a home inspector I try to look at the deck in terms of safety for those using it. I don’t know if there will be seniors or infants on the deck so I personally point out issues that may lead to a fall or trip on the deck.

When looking at the deck I pay close attention to the deck surface for rot or other openings that could trip someone. I also look at the railing to see if there are any openings larger than 4”. I chose 4” because that is what is the current standard or code as the maximum opening between spindles. If I notice that there are openings of five or six inches I simply state that the deck could be made safer if it was up to the current standard of 4”. Most of the time the clients are not at all concerned but I feel it is my duty to forewarn them just in case they may feel it is important enough to make the changes.

There are other common issues with decks that I look for. The biggest safety issue in my mind is the use of bench seating on the deck. These benches usually have ample room for children to crawl under and over the edge of the deck. Worse yet the top of the bench back is often very high off the ground.  A small child of four or five can lean over or climb over the back and fall several feet to the ground. The rule for bench seats is that if the deck surface is under six feet off the ground the back of the bench seat must extend 36” above the seat itself in a manner that would not allow a child to climb over it. If the deck is over six feet the back of the bench must be 42” over the seat.

The underside of the deck should be examined to check for poor construction methods and attachment to the home itself. I do not concern myself with the code in particular as I am primarily concerned about how strong the deck is and if it looks unsafe. I always say there are several ways to build a deck, many of them wrong. But of those that are wrong, the majority are perfectly safe and strong.  Remember code enforcement has not been around forever and many of the old decks are fine even if they don’t necessarily meet the standards set forth in today’s code.

Some other areas of deck safety are loose or missing railings. If the railing is rotting and about to fall off it is important to note that in the inspection. Similarly if the railing is missing it is definitely a fall hazard. Building steps is one of those tough jobs that requires a bit of math. Many homeowners can’t seem to master the concept and therefore end up with a set of steps that are either too steep, have irregular tread width or have different riser heights. The brain will often develop a pattern when treading on steps and you place your feet where your brain expects the next step to be. The problem is, it is not where it should be and down you go. It’s amazing that only one inch change in riser height or tread depth can cause a nasty fall and even death.

Finally what the deck is mounted on matters. If the deck is freestanding or attached on only one side to the home, it can usually be placed on patio blocks and 4×4’s. Today we see a lot of the concrete deck blocks in use which help add stability. If the deck has walls and a roof it is likely best to have the deck mounted on sona tubes buried well below the frost level. This ensures that the walls of the porch or deck move at the same rate as the home. It is important as well to look at the span of the stringers to see if the deck support posts are adequate and enough supports are being used in comparison to the deck size. If the deck is built with the lumber touching the ground it is usually not a good sign. If the lumber is not pressure treated outdoor wood it is also not good as rot will set in very early in the life of the deck. So my advice when evaluating a deck is to look at all these things closely and always ask yourself if the deck is safe and look for problems such as those mentioned above as well as several others I could mention.

Finally its Barbeque Season.

If you are like me, a barbequed steak is a true summer treat. It is a time to gather in the great outdoors with friends and family. There is just something about cooking outdoors that is kind of neat and the taste of food cooked over open flame is the best. Of course there are a few safety concerns when you deal with open flame.

First of all I have inspected many homes that have melted siding. If the barbeque is pushed too close to the house the vinyl will overheat and melt. I would estimate that one in twenty homes that I inspect have melted siding. I wonder how many homes actually have burnt down as a result of barbeques. Overall I think barbeques are quite safe if you keep them away from combustible materials that may catch fire.

If you are using a propane bottle be sure it is certified and that it is not leaking. A 20 lb propane bottle has enough power in it to move an entire house off its foundation if it explodes. Also pay attention to the amount of propane the filling station attendants put in your bottle. If the bottle is overfilled and it heats up in the hot sun it could explode. Once again remember that propane gas is very dangerous and must be treated with the utmost caution.

Finally if you are fortunate enough to have a natural gas line plumbed to the deck where you can connect it directly to the barbeque you should be aware of a few safety rules here as well. First of all there should be a shut off located outside in easy reach of the barbeque. If something goes wrong you don’t want to be running into the house to find a shut off valve.  Secondly be sure to keep the valve closed and capped when it is not in use. I have come across several leaking quick connects because the valve was left open. I hope you find the tips helpful and that you enjoy your barbeque as much as I do.

DECK TIPS: Common Deck Seating Problem

Common bench seating structures (like brackets found at your local building supply stores) are not designed to be on decks higher then 2′ off the ground according to local building standards. The bench seats are actually considered “a climbing apparatus”. Children could climb on them and topple off the deck. The reason they are allowed on lower decks is that there is no railing requirement for decks below 24″.

In order to have these bench seats on decks over 24″ high you will need a back rest at least 42″ above the seat. This back rest needs to be securely fastened to the decks vertical uprights and not have any opening greater then 4″. As most of the bench seats are placed on higher decks it is important for the homeowner to know that this type of deck would not be granted a deck permit in Lloydminster and would not pass current code requirements.

Thanks so much to Kirk Kimberly, Owner of Simple Design Decks for this great safety tip. Visit Kirks website at Stay tooned to see if we can get some more deck tips from kirk.