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The Ace of Spades: Are You Gambling With Your Deck?

The game never ends when the whole world depends on the turn of a friendly card.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

But how do you know that what happens on your deck will stay on your deck?

Whether we have a passing fancy for an evening of five-card stud or visits to the casino, gambling with the safety of our deck is akin to playing the odds – the house always wins.

We’re not in the business of scare tactics because chances are that your deck is safe, but we’ve all witnessed news reports of critical injuries, and even deaths, which occur every summer after a deck collapses without warning. You’re certainly welcome to search “deck collapse” or “deck accident” to display the regrettable evidence, but trust us – we’ve documented numerous deck accidents waiting to happen. During one recent property inspection, our inspector’s first step onto a second-story deck caused the structure to oscillate left and right, as if it has been constructed upon a house of cards.

Poker Face – Is Your Deck Bluffing?

Decks don’t sound alarms before they’re about to misbehave. But thankfully, decks also aren’t rocket science. Like your home, a deck is constructed upon a foundation. For a typical 10’ x 10’ deck, the foundation effectively is the deck’s framing, comprised of a ledger board, joists, beams and posts. The ledger board is a beam attached to the house upon which joists are connected and extended perpendicularly to other beams parallel to the ledger board, and which rest upon posts. Even if the visible decking material appears to be in perfect condition, you can’t tell if your deck is bluffing until you carefully review the framing for potential deterioration, which could cause instability. The only effective method of checking the deck’s framing is to review the ledger board, joists, beams and posts.

Is your deck framing level and secure?

Like your home’s foundation, your deck framing should be level and secure. Check the ledger board to ensure that it remains tight against the house, lag or carriage bolts properly connect the ledger board to the home, and that no deterioration is present. Decks joists should be evenly spaced and deck posts should be level and centered and secure in concrete footings. The International Code Council (www.iccsafe.org), dedicated to developing model codes and standards used in the design, build and compliance process to construct safe, sustainable, affordable and resilient structures, suggests examining the following when inspecting decks, balconies, or porches:

  • Loose or missing nails, screws, or anchors where the structure is attached to the building
  • Missing, damaged or loose support beams and planking
  • Split or rotting wood

In addition, the North American Deck and Railing Association (www.nadra.org) encourages homeowners to examine handrails and guardrails.

We hope it’s obvious but if any structural component isn’t level or is displaced, deteriorated or appears unstable, do not use your deck until it can be inspected and repaired by an industry expert.

Cause of Collapse: Playing An Old (and Rotten) Hand

That deck you installed just a few years back?  It isn’t “new” anymore, because a deck is like a person – it degrades over time.

When nails just won’t do the trick.

NADRA notes that “older decks require special scrutiny. Many decks were built before code requirements were in place to protect consumers. Some of these decks may have deck-to-house attachments using only nails. Others have become weakened through the years, and the owners don’t realize how close to collapse they may be.”

Since 1910, the Forest Products Laboratory (www.fpl.fs.fed.us) a national research laboratory of the US Forest Service has provided scientific research on wood, wood products and their commercial uses in partnership with academia, industry, tribal, state, local and other government agencies.

The FPL studied five years of newspaper articles on deck collapses when researching material for a deck-building manual. The FPL’s research indicated that “nearly every collapsed deck had been attached with nails (emphasis added), rather than bolts, and investigators had pinpointed nails as the cause of the collapse.” Other common problems with older decks include inadequate number of posts used to support the deck, lack of proper footings upon which the deck posts rest, spacing between joists, and inadequately secured handrails/guardrails. Therefore, if your deck is 25+ years old, odds-makers would bet that there are no lag or carriage bolts securing the deck structure to the home.

Stop playing Russian roulette – if your deck is older and hasn’t been inspected recently, order a Home Inspection and get your deck checked.

How Many Poker Players Can I Invite to My Party?

Before inviting the 97 neighborhood kids over for a long night of Texas Hold ‘Em and cigars, how do you know how many you can safely scrunch onto your deck? Assuming the deck’s foundation and structure are adequate, does your deck have a weight-breaking threshold?

Hola, soy chihauhua delgada.

Yes, and the math is easy, assuming you can calculate the area of an object (cue the maniacal laughing). Seriously, even you can perform some quick math to determine the approximate weight that your deck can safely support – common building practice stipulates that each square foot of decking surface should support a minimum of 40 lbs. Here are some examples:

  • If your deck is 1’ x 1’, it will support an obese Chihuahua.
  • If your deck is 10’ x 10’, it will handily support about 4,000 lbs., or about 400 obese Chihuahuas.
  • If your deck is 100’ x 100’, it will support about 400,000 lbs. or about 39,900 obese Chihauhaus plus one circus elephant replete with two small clowns.

Easy, right? Don’t forget to account for the weight the deck already supports with your tables, chairs, grill, coolers and humidor.

Keeping Maintenance Cards Up Your Sleeve

Our list below represents common inspection issues:

  • Improperly secured to the home (only nails, no bolts, very scary)
  • Deteriorated posts (cracked, leaning, falling off of footers)
  • Improperly secured posts (using only the deck’s weight to keep posts in place, no bolts or nails securing the post to the frame)
  • Missing joist hangers or missing nails for joist hangers
  • Deteriorated decking boards (cupping, cracked, rotted, decayed)
  • Over-spanned joists (joists extended too far without proper support/beams)
  • Deck structure separating from house
Stacking the Deck – How to Prolong the Life of Your Deck

Assuming your deck is structurally sound, there are numerous methods to prolong its life, as well as ensuring that it is aesthetically pleasing (i.e., lookin’ pretty).

Protecting your investment, one stroke at a time.
  • Powerball…Doh! We Mean Power Wash. Clean deck = good deck. Whether wood or composite, power wash and clean your deck annually; cleaning can not only make your deck look (almost) new, it helps to prevent growth of algae and mold.
  • Stain = Name of the Game. Staining your wood deck helps to minimize weathering of the decking boards. When wood wears and weathers it dries out, which can cause the wood to crack…creating splinters that hurt your dainty feet.
  • Nails = Pops. Exposure to the elements could cause nails and screws to protrude from the surface…creating safety hazards that hurt your dainty feet. Replacing nails and screws as they “pop” will help to secure boards and minimize injuries.
  • Clear the Deck! During winter months in northern climes when you’re not using your deck as frequently, move planters, chairs, tables, and anything else from your deck to avoid discoloration of the decking.
  • Shape the Landscape. Trim nearby bushes and trees, which need to be at least 12” from the deck to prevent mold growth, moss, and rotting
The Turn of a Friendly Card

Decks are perfect for sunning and parties and fun. But only if they’re structurally sound and well-maintained.

Check your deck frequently for structural issues, keep eyes wide open for common issues, and stay up to date with general maintenance.