How High Can a Deck Be Without a Railing? (Answered)

So you’re building a deck and now you’re worried about the type of railing you need. Do you even need a railing if you have plenty of lighting available on your deck? Not only is a deck railing a safe addition to your deck stairs, but it can make the entire project look more complete.

As a general regulation, any deck that is 30 inches or higher off of the ground is required to have a secure deck railing. If the deck is less than 30 inches in height, a railing isn’t required but may still be beneficial. These rules come from the International Residential Code (IRC). Failing to follow this code regulation may affect your ability to sell your house later on and you may also be subject to fines.

In this article, we’ll cover when and why your deck needs a railing, how it may affect your homeowner’s insurance, the different types of deck railing, and everything else you need to know about heights and measurements for railing.

Does Your Deck Need Railing?

As long as your decking is less than 30 inches off of the ground, you don’t need to build a railing along the edge. However, you may still want to consider building a railing for lower decks to further prevent possible injuries. This is especially true if you have pets or children in the home as they’re more accident-prone than human adults.

Depending on your decking manufacturer, they may also have varying requirements for deck height before a railing is necessary. It’s always best to walk along the safer route to avoid potential legal issues later on.

Do You Need a Hand Rail on Your Deck Stairs?

Hand Rail on Your Deck Stairs

In most cases, a “graspable” handrail is required for your deck stairs if there are more than four stairs built. According to the IRC, there are four main regulations to keep in mind in terms of handrails: 

  • Stairways with four or more steps or decks that are 30 inches or more off of the ground require a handrail.
  • Circular cross-section handrails need an outside diameter of between 1-2 inches and non-circular handrails should have a perimeter dimension of 4-6.25 inches with a cross-section dimension of 2.25 inches.
  • The grab rail must start and stop at the top and bottom steps.
  • The clear space between the handrail and wall should be no less than 1.5 inches.
  • The handrail height must be installed at 34-8 inches apart from the upper surface to the tread surface.

Do You Need a Rail on Both Sides of Deck Stairs?

Your deck stairs must have at least one handrail installed if there are four or more steps built or the deck is more than 30 inches off of the ground. Although many people choose to install handrails on both sides of their deck stairs, this isn’t usually a requirement unless otherwise stated by the deck manufacturer.

How Many Exterior Deck Steps Require a Hand Rail?

Deck step handrail requirements kick in when your deck is 30 inches or higher off of the ground or you have more than four steps built for your deck. Generally, the regulation code goes by whichever comes first. So, if you have a deck that is 35 inches high, but only three steps, a rail is still needed. The same sentiment is in place with a deck that’s only 24 inches high but has four deck steps built.

Will No Railing Effect Housing Insurance?

It is possible that not having a deck railing could affect your homeowner’s insurance. As a general rule of thumb, you must inform your insurance company any time you add additional dwelling space onto your property. After informing them of this addition, they may tell you that a railing is necessary if one isn’t already built.

If you fail to inform your insurance company about a deck you built, or an injury happens from a deck without proper safety railing, your claim will likely be denied and your premium will also probably increase.

Minimum Deck Railing Height

Although there are certain deck railings that are purely for aesthetic purposes, it’s best to avoid those and go with more practical options that can ensure safety. The minimum height requirement for your deck railing will vary depending on the state you live in and what their IRC requires. For example, states like California generally have a height requirement of at least 42 inches, while other states will mention a lower measurement.

With that said, the IRC states that guardrails must be at least 36 inches in height when measured from the deck’s surface to the highest point of the rail. It’s always smart to check with the IRC code in your state to make sure you aren’t breaking any regulations while building your deck railing.

How is Deck Railing Measured?

Your deck railing should measure out to at least 34 inches high. To find this measurement, you should begin at the nose of the stair tread and end at the very highest point of the guardrail. Deck stair railing should also be spaced between 34-38 inches high. Along with that, you should make sure to measure your deck railing barristers no more than four inches apart as added safety for children and pets.

Important Deck Railing Codes to Keep in Mind

Along with the standard “30 inches high” rule for guardrails needed, there are some other deck railing codes that are important to keep in mind. All deck stair guardrails must be at least 34-38 inches high and deck railing poles must be spaced between 1-4 inches apart.

With that said, there is a little bit of wiggle room in the triangle area of your guardrail near the stairs. In this space, you’re allowed a gap of up to six inches instead of the maximum of four. Your deck guardrails must be able to withstand at least 200lbs of pressure at the top of the rails to be within code.

When it comes to the sweep space located between the deck’s surface and the bottom rail, there should be a gap of no more than four inches. 

In terms of handrails, the rail must begin on the surface of the top and bottom stairs. The hand grips of the rail must also allow for 1.5 inches of space between the handrail and the guardrail. For handrails with a circular cross-section, the outside diameter should measure between 1.25-2 inches.

All engineered railing systems must also pass IRC and IBC building codes. The tests done for these codes are the following:

  • The Infill Load Test: The guardrail poles must be able to withstand at least 125lbs of force in a one square foot surface area.
  • The Uniform Load Test (only for IBC certification): The top rail must be able to withstand 125lbs of force when applied horizontally and vertically.
  • The Concentrated Load Test: The top rail must be able to hold 500lbs at the mid-span, the side of a post, and the top of a post.

What Happens if You Don’t Follow Code?

When you complete a project without adhering to IRC and IBC codes, you risk being subjected to fines. Along with that, you’ll likely need to rip out the project and start all over again in order to be able to sell your house later on.

Another consequence of not following IRC or IBC code when building your deck and deck railing is the possibility of facing legal action. If someone falls off of your deck on your property or otherwise injures themselves as a result of the build job of the deck, they can sue you. If it’s found that you didn’t follow code while building the deck, you’ll likely lose in court.

As a result of that, your homeowner’s insurance can potentially increase and the probability of a claim being accepted in regards to your deck will be minimal.

Deck Railing Material Types

When deciding which materials to use for your deck railing, you should bear in mind what your deck is made out of and how you want to deck to look when you’re finished. There are three main types of materials a deck can be made out of: 

  • Wood: This is the most common choice as homeowners usually choose it to match the wood used to build the decking. Wood allows for a completely cohesive look in your deck, but this option can get pricey depending on current lumber costs.
  • Metal: Deck railing metal is typically steel, aluminum, or iron. There are several different colors and finishes you can choose from, including powder-coated aluminum, which is virtually corrosion-resistant.
  • Composite: If you want a budget-friendly and resilient option, composite is a good choice to go with. This material is scratch, insect, and weather-resistant, and can last a long time when properly taken care of.

Final Thoughts

When building your deck, it’s important to make sure you have proper safety measures like deck railings put into place. While railing isn’t required unless you reach a certain height, it’s still beneficial for people who entertain a lot or have children or pets in the home.

Remember to follow all IRC or IBC codes when building your deck railing and you’re sure to end up with an aesthetically pleasing and safety-conscious end result.

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