The enquirer reported this week on the collapse of a deck in Mt Lookout. The 10x12 foot deck failed and fell 10 feet, sending two people to the hospital and injured 9. Every year people die from deck collapses. According to city records there was no permit for its construction and it is not clear as of this writing if the deck was built by the current owner or a prior owner. http://news.cincinnati.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090518/NEWS01/305180008&s=d&page=2#pluckcomments
Now you are probably asking yourself "Is my deck safe?".
Decks are one of the most popular "home improvements" and a common "do it yourself' project. But unless you know what you are doing, building a deck (especially an elevated one) is best left to a professional. Perhaps the only exception would be a ground level deck. One that actually sits on the ground and is fully supported.
So how do i know if my deck ( or porch for that mater) is safe you ask. Well the first thing you want to do is see if a permit was pulled for your deck. You can do this by doing what is called a permit search on your city's website. In Cincinnati you simply type in the address at the following website: .http://cagis.hamilton-co.org/opal/ezTrakSearch.aspx
This will show all the permits for your address. It is important to remember not everything you do to a home needs a permit. Normal repairs like painting and minor trim and siding do not need a permit. The city website can guide you as to what repairs need permits. Codes vary depending on city so check before you build or repair. Some cities require permits for water heater replacement, others don't. Roof replacement varies depending on the city as well. The permit system in Cincinnati is somewhat antiquated compared to other cities and yes it is a pain to get permits but you are talking about the safety of your home. Don't forget if you are doing a major restoration or renovation the city has a tax abatement program you may want to take advantage of.
So what if my deck doesn't have a permit?: Well you may want to contact a home inspector to take a look at it. You may also want to check your inspection report if you have bought a house in the last few years. If you had a home inspection done when you bought your house chances are there is a report on the deck. You can also ask the city inspector but you may be opening up a can of worms so better to hire your own inspector.
What should I look for if I don't hire an inspector? :
The most common 'failure' of a deck occurs at what is called the ledger. the ledger is the board that connects to the house and attaches the deck to the house. The most common causes for deck failure is a ledger that is not properly secured and pull away from the primary structure, resulting in collapse. The two most common ways to correctly attach the ledger to a structure are lag screws or machine-bolts through the ledger and into the rim joist of the supporting structure.
You should see bolts or large lag screws running into the side of your home. If all you see are nails, you have a problem. This is easy to fix but should be done immediately. You also want to look at things like how are the posts connected to my deck. At the point where a beam meets a post, it must be properly connected to the post in order to resist gravity, lateral and uplift loads. This pertains to solid sawn beams or those comprised of multiple members, whether they rest on top or are fastened to the side of the post.
Decks should be screwed not nailed and those screws should be "deck screws' which are rust resistant. You should also look for strapping and bracketing and joist hangers. A deck that is elevated should ALWAYS have joist hangers, If it doesn't these can be retrofitted. Also Look at your posts are they large enough a 4x4 post may not be large enough to support a large deck you may need a 6x6. You can replace these posts yourself but it is better to use a contractor for this type of repair as you have to know how to support the deck during replacement.
Railings: The railing connection is another critical connection pertaining to safety that is often overlooked. In order to provide the required load resistance at the hand rail, the post not only must be fastened to the rim joist, but also tied back into the joist framing. Machine bolts through the post and rim joist alone do not typically meet the performance requirements of the code. Instead, a mechanical connector installed into the joist with bolts through the post is required. Also if you have small children you should have a lockable gate at the top of the stairs.
Decks require routine inspection and maintenance. cracked flooring boards should be replaced and decks should be cleaned and sealed periodically to prevent deterioration. Olderdecks are often built with Arsenic based treating and should be replaced. If you are planning a new deck use an online deck design software as it can generate not only drawings abut a material list, many home improvement stores offer free deck design services.Remember decks so not last forever but with proper maintenance should give you many years of enjoyment.