When you really need deck railings

Posted by Pedro D. Sanchez on Apr 9th 2019

Why Homeowners Go Without Railings

  • Expense: Some people skip the railing just to save money. But here’s the deal. Going without a railing could eventually cost you money, too. The first time someone missteps and breaks an ankle is going to cost you. Or, if you avoid that, consider the cost to get rid of the critters that decide to move into the dark, enclosed space under your low-to-the-ground deck. Eventually, your choice to build low is going to cost you. It will probably cost more than it would to install a railing so you can build higher.
  • Installation issues: The main reason that my friend avoided the railing was because the deck was oddly shaped and he didn’t want to mess with installing a railing along the contours. But if he’d done a bit of research, he would have found complete, easy install railing kits specifically designed to work with oddly-shaped decks.
  • Increased code liability: If you install a railing on a deck that isn’t required to have one, the railing is still required to meet code. But this is another easy fix. Most trustworthy companies will only supply you with railings that meet code requirements.

Now those are the main reasons deck builders decide not to build a railing. But in some cases, you might build the deck under the 30 allowed inches, then find out you need to add one anyway. This happens a fair amount, for a number of possible reasons.

Why You Might Need to Add a Railing

One of the rules good builders go by is ‘measure twice, cut once’. It sounds easy, but there are a lot of different factors that could impact your floor-to-ground measurement. That number could change when the building inspector gets their tape measure out. Sometimes, a DIYer will learn they must add a railing after the fact. It’s usually going to be for one of the following reasons.

  • Land settling: If you’re building over dirt, that dirt could sink. Rain or snow could pool up under the deck, washing away the dirt and essentially lowering the ground. That alone can seemingly magically make your deck end up higher than 30 inches. If your deck is close to the limit, you’ll need to calculate in the cost of adding dirt because the ground may settle over time. That’s an ongoing cost, while adding a railing is a one-time expense that means your deck stays up to code no matter what the ground below it is up to. Dirt moves around, but your railing height will stay the same.
  • Bad measuring: A common mistake for some is to measure from the bottom of the floor, when the measurement should include the thickness of the deck floor. If the wood is thick, this can throw off your measurement by a few inches.
  • Slope: If you’ve built on a slope, in that you slightly tilted the deck to allow for water run-off, your actual above grade measurement may be a little bit higher than on other parts of the deck.
  • Safety: A thirty-inch fall for an adult isn’t great, but it probably won’t end in a broken bone. The same can’t always be said for small kids or pets. If you have either of those in your home, I’d highly recommend adding a railing.

If your deck is close to the 30-inch mark, or you just want to build a railing for safety, it’s not too late to add one if you have the right materials. The easiest way to install beautiful railings that meet code requirements is to purchase pre-assembled railing panels, rather than buying and putting together individual components.

What to Do When You Need to Install a Railing on Your Deck

The International Building Code says that your railings have to be 36 inches or higher, but that isn’t the only consideration. There are specific regulations on everything from the distance between your balustrades to the screws used to anchor the railing. That’s why I recommend buying railing panels.