Simpson Strong-Tie engineer talks deck safety
May is Deck Safety Month and the perfect time to increase safety awareness.
Decks don’t last forever. While modern pro deck builders have transformed a construction niche by vastly improving structural engineering and deck safety, more can be done to educate consumers, DIYers and even general remodelers on the need to inspect and repair/replace failing decks and deck components.
Simpson Strong-Tie branch engineer David Finkenbinder, P.E., has spent large portions of his decade-plus-long career dedicated to deck structural engineering and deck safety.
A graduate student of the nationally renowned Wood-Based Composites Center at Virginia Tech, Finkenbinder sits on the committee overseeing the DCA-6 Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide and also holds degrees in applied physics (B.S. from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania) and agricultural and biological engineering of wood structures (B.S. from Penn State).
Finkenbinder says the month of May, which is also Deck Safety Month, is the perfect time to increase homeowner awareness and inspection of decks. With remodeling expenditures on the rise, deck inspection, repair and replacement is a premium value-add opportunity for remodelers, contractors and building material dealers alike. Finkenbinder can discuss the top trends in deck construction, key safety and structural engineering issues and the research and development that continues to take place to address corrosion of metal fasteners in exterior environments.
What follows is a Q&A with Finkenbinder in which he answers questions concerning the evolution of deck safety, the average deck’s life expectancy and common causes of deck accidents:
What are the common causes of deck accidents?
The most common causes of accidents are connection issues or degradation of the deck structure and connections. Connection problems can be the result of improper construction when the deck was initially built, like using nails to fasten a ledger board to the house. On the degradation side, decks can experience corrosion of metal connectors and fasteners, or decay of the wood deck framing. Often, corrosion is the result of not using the proper connector or fastener material for the type of preservative wood treatment used on the deck framing, or simply an unsuitable fastener to deal with regional weather and environmental conditions. Wood decay can result from improper flashing behind the ledger, or the use of other detailing and finishes that trap moisture.
What is the age of the average deck and how often should a deck be inspected?
It’s commonly estimated that there are approximately 40 million existing decks in the United States, which run from recently-built decks to ones that are at or past their service life. Most experts estimate the average life expectancy for a deck to be 10 to 15 years, a loose number that can vary widely depending on exposure conditions and materials used. The main point is for consumers to realize that their deck has a lifespan. We recommend homeowners take a good look at their deck once a year — just like checking your fire alarms annually on a certain date.
The beginning of spring is a great time for that inspection, when the homeowner is cleaning off their deck from winter and getting outdoor spaces prepared for months of backyard barbecues. We recommend homeowners review The 5 Warning Signs of an Unsafe Deck online and contact a professional to determine if a repair, retrofit or rebuild is necessary when a warning sign is noticed.
What can be done to better protect the integrity of a deck?
A good starting point is to work with a professional deck builder in the beginning, to ensure that your deck is built to or above the building code and that it is built with the proper materials. If your deck was built previously, the annual inspection helps keep you aware of the condition of your deck and address any issues that may be unsafe.
How has the construction and safety elements of decks changed in recent years?
The main thing that has changed recently is that the building code is starting to catch up in terms of having information for decks, where it did not have much before. Deck safety is a priority for building officials, and the code needs to provide information on what the minimum requirements are for a deck. The code now includes important information for joist and beam spans, posts and ledger connections, but it still has a way to go. Important topics such as guards and stairs are sparsely covered.
While the building code itself is developing, a wide cross section of the industry (including the National Association of Home Builders, the North American Deck and Railing Association, university researchers and building product manufacturers) has teamed up with the American Wood Council to produce a comprehensive guide for designing and building a single-level deck. This guide, the DCA6, is a free download on their website, and a version is available for the 2009, 2012 and 2015 editions of the International Residential Code.
Do you expect the importance of deck safety and structural integrity to elevate in the coming years?
I do expect these topics to continue to be an important concern in the coming years. The industry itself has come a long way but is still engaged in an ongoing effort to educate the public so that their deck is not an afterthought. I also mentioned professional deck builders, but a good portion of decks are either built by do-it-yourselfers or contractors that may not specialize in decks. The goal of having more information for safe deck building will be helpful for these types of builders as well.
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