May is National Deck Safety Month and the most common cause of deck collapses is improper attachment to a building.
Most decks are supported on one side by the building, and on the
opposite side by the earth. The photo below shows a deck collapse that
happened in Minnesota. This is exactly how most decks collapse. The
cause of collapse is quite obvious. It wasn't attached properly.
The best way to avoid deck collapse is to know the answer to this question: Is your deck properly attached to the building?
It's not always possible to know for sure, but let's go over a few
different ways of attaching a deck to a building. It all centers on
something called "the ledger." The piece of wood that connects a deck to
a building is called the ledger, or ledger board. So get ready to hear
this word used a lot!
Traditionally, lag screws have been the most common method of
attaching decks to buildings. To properly attach a deck ledger using
1/2″ lag screws, 5/16″ holes need to be pre-drilled through the ledger
and rim joist. After that, a 1/2″ hole should be drilled through the
For specific spacing and installation instructions, you can turn to page 12 of the Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide. There's
no way of knowing if all of these steps were followed just by looking
at a deck, but if lag screws are visible, you can feel a little better
about the deck attachment to the building.
One problem that I occasionally find with lag screws is that they're
not attached to anything substantial behind the ledger. When a home is
constructed with floor trusses and there is no rim joist for the deck to
attach to, it's important to figure out what the screws are going in
to. In the photos below, the lag screws at this townhouse were only
attached to the fiberboard wall sheathing, which is basically worthless.
You wouldn't want to put too many people on that deck.
Lag screws are fairly inexpensive, but they take special steps to install correctly.
Special Ledger Screws
Because of the tedious process involved in drilling several pilot
holes in the wood to use lag screws, there are a few products available
that are designed for the specific purpose of attaching a deck ledger to
a building. One such fastener is the FastenMaster LedgerLok®, which is pictured above. Simpson Strong-Tie makes a similar fastener, called the Strong-Drive® SDS Screw.
These fasteners are designed to be installed without any pilot holes,
and they already come with a washer attached to each head.
While these fasteners may cost a little more, they're fast and easy
to install, and they're code approved to be used in place of 1/2″ lag
Through-bolts can be used to attach a ledger to the house when the
interior of the rim joist is accessible. This is typically done using
carriage bolts, pictured above. When through-bolts are used, you'll
either see the head of the bolt or the end of the bolt at the ledger.
Lag bolts work in a similar manner.
All things being equal, a through bolt makes for the strongest
connection per fastener. Without all things being equal, there are
certainly ways of installing through-bolts improperly. In the examples
below, you can see the end of the bolt where a washer and nut were
fastened. The problem with this installation is that someone didn't
have long enough bolts, so they had to chisel out a bunch of holes in
the ledger to sink the washers and nuts in to.
This is probably the least common method of
deck attachment because it takes more time, and requires more running
in and out of the building.
Nails are not an acceptable way of
attaching a ledger to the building, because they can pull out. I don't
have any statistics to quote, but this is probably the most common cause
of deck collapses. If you look at a deck ledger and all you can see
are nails holding it in place, it should be addressed. This is one of
the most common deck problems that home inspectors find, and the repair
is usually an easy fix.
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