Experts believe deck failures, such as this one in Virginia Beach, occur far more often than reported.
Credit: Courtesy Lamkin & Lamkin Communications Experts believe deck failures, such as this one in Virginia Beach, occur far more often than reported.

A growing number of deck failures prompt the North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA) to action.

Last October, a third-floor deck in Virginia Beach, Va., collapsed with 40 wedding guests on it. The deck fell onto a second floor deck below, fortunately empty at the time. Still, the accident sent 28 people to the hospital with back and neck injuries.

The Virginia Beach accident was dramatic enough to make local news. Between August of 2004 and December of 2005, that incident as well as other deck failures reported by the media resulted in 225 injuries and one fatality. But what concerns some contractors, building inspectors, engineers, and the NADRA is the number of such failures that go unreported by the media, which is believed to be far greater.

Annual Inspection In an effort to reduce such failures, NADRA recently called on homeowners to have their decks inspected annually. NADRA executive vice president Michael Beaudry suggests that local township building inspectors be the ones to perform that inspection.

But many agree that when it comes to decks, code requirements are notoriously lacking in specifics. The International Residential Code book, for example, specifies that decks be built to with-stand 40 pounds per square foot occupancy live load on the deck surface and that the top rail of the guardrail and handrails safely support 200 pounds in any direction. But the problem, says engineer and retired professor Frank Woeste, is that residential code doesn't explain how to build a deck that satisfies those requirements.

New Information to Help To clarify the issue, the Forest Products Society, in cooperation with the International Code Council, has published a 78-page manual detailing causes for deck failure and how to inspect for them. (The manual can be ordered — $39 for non-members; $35 for members — through the NADRA Web site, Woeste, one of its authors, says that though the immediate cause is usually ledger connection failures, the underlying problem has to do with inadequate design, installation, and inspection. The Forest Products Society publication gives background information on the inspection process by a qualified deck inspection professional. Beaudry says the association aims to get its manual into the hands of 40,000 township inspectors and is working to develop a program that certifies individuals to inspect decks.