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Safety first while entertaining on deck!

It looks like summer has finally arrived! Hurray! And, with the risks of Covid-19 lower, outside entertaining will likely be more popular than ever this year. But that got us thinking that it may have been a while since you considered safety measures while entertaining on a deck.

Whatever the occasion, when the weather even hints at being nice, we Harborites like to get outdoors, and that means the time of year for highest use of our decks.

We often take our decks for granted. Perhaps yours has been your outdoor living room for years. A sturdy platform needing little maintenance, right? But is it safe? How can you be sure? Do you ever look underneath? Do you know what you’re looking for?

Unfortunately, the question of whether your deck is still safe – or how many people it can safely hold – is too rarely asked.

In determining how safe your deck really is you should determine when it was built and whether it was inspected by a building official. Deck connection codes have changed over the years precisely because of failure, injury, even deaths.

The most relevant changes and the first point of inspection will be the way the deck is fastened to the house. What you want to see is the hex-heads of bolts staggered along the deck’s rim joist which is attached through the siding into the rim joist or framing of the house.

If you only see nail heads you will want to consult with your contractor or building official for a much-needed complete deck inspection. The installation of lags or bolts doesn’t have to be expensive, but there may be other things that need to be done.

For example, decks built closer to saltwater tend to have more problems and sooner. That salty air makes anything made of metal deteriorate more quickly. These can be metal saddles imbedded in the concrete pier blocks holding the support posts; joist clips holding each joist end and of course, nails. Even treated wood can fail, especially where the deck boards are nailed into each joist. This is where water tends to get trapped leading eventually to rot and failure.

The posts holding up the deck tend to rot at the piers if they are touching concrete and the metal brackets attached to the beam above it are also included in a “first-points-of-failure” inspection and should be looked at and the beams stab-tested annually.

And don’t be lulled into thinking that because your deck is just a few feet off the ground that a catastrophic failure couldn’t happen. In fact, limited ability to inspect and limited air circulation under a deck create an even better chance of wood failure from another condition we see …let’s call it “moist pier block syndrome.”

When pier blocks are constantly shaded they tend to stay moist, even gathering moisture from the ground when everything else is bone dry.

The moist underside of pier blocks become a desirable environment for bugs and worms followed by the voles and other critters that burrow under them looking for food – which are bugs and worms!

The problem is that they leave tunnels that undermine the pier-blocks and eventually the piers settle – sometimes several inches and not all at once, which can stress the rest of the deck support system.

That’s when the next weak links show up, such as the nails connecting the deck to the house pulling out or rusty metal connectors failing.

Can you see why holding a big party on your deck before holding a thorough inspection to see if any of the issues we have mentioned are present is a disaster waiting to happen?

We suggest getting a code-knowledgeable person to check your deck components. If issues are found, consult with your local building official and make any and all corrections under the auspices of a permit. Then get the final building official’s inspection and sign-off that you paid for. It may be your best insurance that the job was done properly.

If you are at all concerned about the age or sturdiness of your deck and don’t have time to inspect before the big party, you might want to rethink what you can do to spread the party into another part of the yard or house, setting up little gathering areas in special parts of the yard or even inside where people can also go. Just putting the food somewhere else will help people congregate away from the deck.

Your safety and that of your family and friends is in your hands. Making an annual deck inspection part of your annual maintenance plan means you can always be ready to party!


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