Building inspectors tend to be thorough when a new construction goes up, and the folks who review a structure’s integrity at sale points later also look into corners and crevices most homeowners never see.
But after you’ve been in your home awhile, who is making sure features like decks still are safe?
When was the last time you examined your deck’s joist hangers, determined whether it is nailed or screwed, and tested for rotted wood?
Owners of faulty decks or balconies can be sued or even prosecuted criminally.
The reason for the concern is the death and injury toll from collapsing and failing decks across the United States each year.
Individually the stories are horrific. In 2015, a balcony off a Berkeley apartment, four stories off the ground, fell. Six people were killed and seven injured, and while the Alameda County district attorney’s office announced there would be no criminal charges, the civil actions are unlikely to go away overnight.
“Water intrusion” had rotted the support beams, and the weight of the occupants – seven were injured in addition to the six who died – caused the collapse.
It cost the lives of visiting Irish students Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, and 22-year-old Rohnert Park resident Ashley Donohoe.
Prosecutors said the contributing causes were the moisture, the materials and wet weather during construction. Numerous people were in positions to make decisions on those issues, prosecutors said.
Just days later, it happened again, this time on a North Carolina island. Reuters reported 20 people were hurt, some critically, when a residential deck on Emerald Isle in Carteret County fell.
A little over a year earlier, a collapse injured 24, and this one was caught on video.
WAVE3 television reporters obtained the security camera footage from a collapse at a Christmas party hosted by Lisa Wilt for her extended family in Indiana. It was at a local clubhouse. The family members were lining up for a portrait when the deck plunged about 15 feet to the concrete below.
“Everybody was sitting down, and Brittany was about to take the picture, and boom,” is how 8-year-old Ainsley Wilt described what happened.
A study from just a few years back by Legacy Services LLC cited a deck collapse in 2003 in Chicago in which a porch gave way and 13 died. Another 57 were injured.
While national totals are hard to come by, the study cited the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which collects patient information from a sampling of hospital emergency rooms.
It estimated that for the years 2003-2007, there were 224,000 injuries nationwide due to problems with decks and porches, stairs or rails. Inside that total are 33,300 injuries related directly to a structural failure or collapse.
‘Wood decay should be taken seriously’
“Legacy believes most injuries are preventable with proper deck inspection each year by a qualified professional. The obvious signs of wood decay and deterioration should be taken seriously and the structure replaced if necessary,” the report said.
“Given the 10-15 year lifespan, the fact that wood decks and porches deteriorate over time, and the large number of structural failures and collapses that consistently occur each year, a reasoned argument can be made that unsafe decks and porches are the cause of thousands of injuries across the U.S.,” the report said.
“Immediate inspection” followed by as-needed “repair or retrofit” is the solution.
The North American Deck and Railing Association has a special page for consumers to find inspectors, divided by state.
It also keeps builders, inspectors and consumers alike up to date on new standards, from wood treatments to inspections.
Tory Weber of Sigmadek.com points out that liability for decks is viewed differently than for other products.
“The funny thing is General Motors almost went bankrupt over a few ignition incidents. Product recalls and product safety guidelines protect the consumer as they should. You may even have a forced product recall if there is even a chance someone will get hurt. But when it comes to outdoor decks and railings we just accept that people will get hurt and die when the deck gets too rotten to support its occupants,” he said.
Weber noted that when “you sit in your house you don’t have to worry about the sofa falling through the floor because when it comes to your house the building code protects you.”
” The key structural components like roof trusses and wall studs are covered with protective items like shingles, siding, flashings etc. In fact by code you cannot have any structural component exposed to the weather, for obvious reasons, [or] your house will eventually collapse. But when it comes to the back yard deck the wood is exposed and left to deteriorate until the product fails. There are over 20 million decks over 15 years old in the USA, it’s a nightmare waiting to happen.”
His company offers an alternative that features an aluminum substructure, die cast stairs and powder coated railings with porcelain deck boards – all designed to withstand the ravages of time and weather.
With a large amount of his work in Canada, he points out on his website that 60 percent of Canadian homeowners have a wooden deck but one quarter of them have never fully inspected their deck.
“Worse, among homes with older decks built 11 to 15 years ago, about one third have never been inspected for deck safety, wood decay and structural stability – and among decks built 16 to 20-plus years ago, one in five or 20 percent have never been inspected,” the site explained.
“Deck owners are ignoring deck safety. This is a time of year when you hear about potentially devastating and sometimes fatal deck collapses that could easily be avoided,” Mike Holmes, host of the television series “Holmes on Homes,” said in the report.
Weber also pointed out that even annual inspections aren’t always enough.
“It’s like your yearly cancer check. … You need to solve the problem. The nature of wood when it’s unprotected from day one, that’s the strongest that it will ever be. It works backwards from there,” he told WND.
Replacing it with materials that don’t degrade is the optimum, he explained.
“It’s an easy fix. Change the building materials to a substance that doesn’t deteriorate.”
An industry site, MosbyBuildingArts, presents seven signs of a dangerous deck, which include loose connections, such as a wobbly railing.
“If you feel the deck give way or creak loudly when you step on it, step off immediately and do not use it, as this is a sign of failing structure.”
Other signs are missing parts, such as stairs or railings, corroded metal joints, screws and flashing, and wood rot and warping.
The presence of nail heads also is a problem. Most regulations now insist decks be screwed together, and posts off-center on the footings could suggest a shifting. Support posts also need to be held by a metal base, not just on concrete or in the dirt.
The use of decks is growing. Money reports a wood deck addition is one of the best financial investments homeowners can make in their residence.
“Homeowners who add a wooden deck to their properties recoup on average nearly 81 percent of the project’s cost when they sell the home,” the report said.
“The wooden deck’s appeal is linked to today’s more thrift-conscious consumers, who are looking to save money by spending more time at home.”
A site monitoring trends notes that the outdoors is becoming a “room” for many homeowners today – partly as home costs increase and innovation moves forward.
Seating, storage, even rooms
“The biggest trend in decks right now is the increase in square footage. It used to be that homeowners were satisfied with a 20 x 10-foot deck for a grill and some patio furniture; now it’s not unusual to have deck design that rivals a home’s indoor square footage and includes multiple levels for different functions, pergolas and walls that define ‘rooms’ and provide privacy, built-ins that offer additional seating, and storage and planters that beautify the space.”
Mike Beaudry, executive vice president of the North American Deck and Railing Association, said people now are installing lighting and fire pits, and “they’re using their decks 30 percent more than they ever did.”
“In temperate and tropical climates, it’s not unusual for people to use their decks year round. These days, even in colder areas of the United States such as the East Coast, Midwest and Mountain regions, homeowners can begin using their decks earlier in the year – often as early as February and March – and continue through October or November, thanks to the warmth provided by outdoor fireplaces, which are safer and easier to use than freestanding fire pits,” the report said.
Then there are the “full functional kitchens.”
Beaudry reported recently building a $42,000 deck, about half of which went into the kitchen’s grill, cabinets, countertop refrigerator and sink.