Stairs and Guardrails

Staircase Guardrail Solid State home Inspections

Stairways are one of the most dangerous locations in our home. All too often, home occupants mis-judge a step or are distracted by something during stair use and without help, gravity will all to often dictate the results. Stairs will always have an inherent risk to them but there are safety precautions which good home inspectors will look for to help you be as safe as possible.

  • Lighting - Using stairs in the dark increases the risk of a mis-step. Homes require a 3-way light switch for stair lighting over 3 steps so occupants can turn lights on or off from the top and bottom of the stairs as needed. Exceptions have been made to unfinished basements where occupants would turn the light on and off as they came and went from the top of the stairs however for safety it is best practice to have a switch at both the top and bottom. Exterior stairs do not require 3 way switches but a good safety feature is to have outdoor lighting on a motion sensor near outdoor stair wells.
  • Rise and Run - Our muscle memory on stairs is very important to how we use stairs. Stairs with unusual or varying stair heights (also called the 'rise' of a step) can cause us to stumble as our feet don't find solid ground where expected. Also stairs that are too shallow (called the 'run' of a step) can prevent us from getting a good for hold on a step. Stairs with short runs often are very steep which is also a part of their safety concern. Good stairs will have about an 8" rise (varying no more than 1/8" on each step) and a 9" run.
  • Handrails- Handrails need to be installed on all interior stairs of 2 steps or more and exterior steps of 3 steps or more. Handrails need to be designed so the can be clasped with a hand and run parallel to the angle of the stairs. It is not uncommon to see a stair 'handle' as the top surface of a low wall along the stairs. This is not a correct configuration as these cannot be grasped for traction in a fall. Handrails need to be installed on all sections of a curving or rotating staircase and should be about 36" above the 'nose' of the stair.
  • Guardrails - Guardrails vary from handrails as they are intended to prevent people, particularly children, from falling at an opening like at or along a staircase. Guardrails should be at least 36" high and have vertical, non-climbable, elements called 'balusters' to prevent falls. These vertical balusters can be no further than 4" apart at any point to prevent children from slipping through. Common incorrect guardrails are horizontal bars. These horizontal (or diagonal going down stairs) handrails do not prevent children from slipping through and can be an additional climbing hazard.
  • Height and Width - A common stair accident in older homes can be caused by low stair clearance. Occupants can hit their head on the way down and become disorientated and fall. Stairs should have at least 6 and a half feet of clearance from the nose of the stairs. Stair width is not commonly a safety issue but it can be when moving objects up and down stairs. 36" stair widths are advisable for safety.
  • Traction - Stairs need to be made from a material that will prevent accidental slips. Hardwoods, tails, and laminate on stairs are particularly troublesome and may cause injuries. Carpet is a better material for stairs although traction strips can be added to other materials. Carpet stair carpet 'runners' need to be well secured to prevent movement when in use. Stairs and stair approaches also need to be free from rises in material or fraying carpet strands which may trip a user.
  • Doors and Landings - Stair landings can be dangerous, particularly if there is a door involved. Where possible, doors should open away from stairwells preventing accidental openings pushing down occupants. If a door needs to open towards stairs, a 3' minimum landing is needed for safety.
  • Rotators - Many stair ways need to make a turn at the top or bottom to line up with the homes design. This is most safely accomplished with a 3' landing area and a 90 degree turn in the stair direction. Some homes have stairs that 'rotate' to accomplish a turn. Rotators are no longer allowed by most building codes as rotating stairs have an inconsistent 'run' to them (wider on the outside and narrower in the middle) which can cause accidents. Stairs should only have one set of rotators and the width of the steps should be no less than 6" and no more than 8" along the centre line of the stairs.
  • Spiral Staircases - Spiral staircases should not be the primary method of accessing an area of the home as in an emergency, they don't provide safe exits for occupant or access for emergency personnel. Spiral staircases follow all the safety requirements above and should have no less than 6" of width at the narrowest and be at least 8" along the centre line of the stairs.

Stair safety is an important part of our lives in our homes. Builders are required to provide safe staircases as per current codes but it is up to home owners to maintain these safety features for all occupants and guests. Having a home inspection from a professional home inspector will help you know if your stairs are safe and solid.

By James Bell - Owner/Operator of Solid State Inspections Inc.